Sunday, April 30, 2006

Geometric serendipity

Behold this glimpse of sublimity, courtesy of the Metropolitan Museum. Only steps away from this geometric serendipity is Ellsworth Kelly's slanted canvas and Joel Shapiro's brick red ballerina. Life is great.

Thursday, April 27, 2006

Naughty Nathalie

Aristocrats enter a checkerboard-floored ballroom and prepare to dance. G-men in black suits and shades, a la "Men in Black" or "The Matrix" rush in, guns blazing and a mutual massacre ensues in this scene worthy of Tarantino.

A bourgeoisie girl enjoys afternoon tea, only to be interrupted by a visiting jungle boy out tree-climbing. He teases her, she taunts him, and they begin to fight over the girl's plate of lemon cake. She debriefs him and pokes his penis with a stick, until the housemaid clears things up.

A tiger licks a bather's bottom till she is wooed to bed.

A Black duke cavorts with three mistresses in bed, then eats a banana.

Nathalie Djurberg's "Lowlife Scum and Freaks" videos, sardonic comedies in clay, pit men against women in sexually charged, vulgar, and violent scenes. She depicts people at their most animal - humping, panting and fighting - despite their civilized surroundings. In fact, many characters mix with animals, like the woman and her rimming tiger, or the boy who torments his cat till it bleeds. Trouble arises when she equates that black duke with an ape, however; some of us may squirm when the dirty jokes go so far.

The videos are guided by art historical references: the gun battle could have been a Watteau, the interracial orgy any of the Olympiae from the 18th century, the lemon cake struggle a Gainsborough. But the raw humor and transgressive acts counteract this, and each force makes the other even funnier. We sense some Mike Kelly and Paul McCarthy here; one character even looks like their "Heidi."

Hans Berg composes the "score" to each video. It's like Danny Elfman meets Atari; the music is delicate and emotive, yet whimsical and absurd. Djurberg lights her scenes in naturalistic ways, and edits in a dynamic way, keeping in mind the cinematic aspects of her product.

Djurberg's women have big, frizzy hair and pouty, swollen lips. Her men have huge noses (a device common among European cartoonists and illustrators)and troubled expressions. All have the wide eyes and clumsy movement we see in "South Park," but not "The Simpsons." In this clay world, tears, snot, and blood are the same substance as skin and hair - and the word balloons that take a few seconds to unfold. This use of material - rather than just illusion - places Djurberg in the overlooked medium of stop-motion animation, which is sculpture as much as it is video.

Wednesday, April 26, 2006

It's like Magid

Gina Magid paints on satin, using pencils, paint, and glitter. The drawings depict gesturally dashed animal drawings and abstract streaks. An owl flies into disembodied, cupped hands, a tiger lurks in a shimmering lake, and a cheetah or something eats a deer. The drawings are as static as traced drawings, and the layered interaction between images is unattended and meaningless - no suggestive associations, as in Salle; no virtuosic braggadacio, as in Walton Ford; and no apparent conceptual spin, as in Ann Craven.

Most of the drawings look like bad fashion illustration. Magid's glitter and satin - "girly, gaudy, glamorous," she says - confirm this fashion-inspired superficiality, which often produces base bijoux that remind viewers of embarrassing one-night stands. (Our morning-after pill was Amy Sillman's ambitious, vigorous paintings at Sikkema.)

The one exception is "BMX/Ghost Rider" with a more daring adventure in black & white. She may have consulted Franz Kline.

Gina Magid's paintings would have looked great in the downtown Vice clothing store (is that closed for good?) or maybe a Bedford Avenue coffee shop. It's outdated hipster art - deer and "nature" imagery vanished from hipster handbags and T-shirts a year ago. This just doesn't supplement the fashion-conscious scenes of Elizabeth Huey, the dystopic glamour of someone like Rita Ackermann or the melancholic glamour of Jack Pierson.

Monday, April 24, 2006

Holiday Crews 2006

Xavier Cha's "Holiday Cruise 2006" encompasses a series of readings, performances, and events at Taxter & Spengemann. The artist dons a complex, sculptural costume and anchors each event, sometimes as a passive object, elsewhere as a performer - but always a spectacle. Currently, she masquerades as a giant cornucopia, filled with fruit, vegetables, and her feet.

In "Feast for the Decadent," Lisa Kirk served pork, absinthe, and fruit to dinner guests/artists Robert Melee, Julie Atlas Muz, Elizabeth Neel, and others. She assigned each gastronomic guest two cards. On one card, the recipient wrote his or her possible last words. Phrases included "You are a handsome pig," "What IS Robert's problem?" and "Eat my pussy." After exchanging the cards, these phrases became the mandatory script for the night. The other card contained a number, 1 - 12, and when the sugarcubes-as-dice rolled your number, you determined whether the group drank, ate, danced, or all three.

This rule-based performance held its structure for about 30 minutes but soon dissolved into a mere foodfight. A failure? Hardly. The invitation called for "Dionysian" behavior, and Lisa Kirk's events often rely on the unpredictable relations between observers and participants. Her "Greatest Show on Earth" (2002) assembled an eager crowd at Participant, Inc. The climax of the event depended on some curious attendee flipping a light switch, which actually detonated a cake decorated like the Whitney Museum. The event became its own afterparty; guests enjoyed a slice of sweet cake. This undirected, but hoped-for spontanaeity is a key element in a Lisa Kirk project.

Xavier Cha continues her project as a mass of cornrow braids (The Addams Family's "Cousin Itt" meets rastafaria) and a polyhedron deity (a psychedelically geometric druid).

Sunday, April 23, 2006


Absinthe is justifiably illegal. The TD crew was turned upside-down by two glasses of the green mean.

Play-by-play of the fallout:

7p: Finished drinking. Apparently, TD dined at Giovanni's pizza, but can't remember.

7:15p: Couple at next table snapped at TD for being annoying. TD apologized, possibly cried.

8p: TD staggered to Envoy for the Amanda Lear party, an hour late for 7-pm meeting with a friend. Inside, we bellowed, slurred, and chortled our way through conversations, eventually staggering back out.

8:30-9:30p: Unaccounted for. Possibilities include a) running laps around 23rd St, b) sleeping in a nearby elevator, c) dipping feet in Hudson River, d) loitering on 14th St in search of transsexual hookers.

9:30p: Arrived 90 minutes early for nearby housewarming party, pounded on door, encouraged to return later.

10p: Reunited with friends at Passerby, got kicked out.

10:08p: Lost.

10:30p: Reunited at Gansevoort Hotel bar. Kicked out.

10:45p: Attempted Townhouse bar. Kicked out.

11p: Attempted rearrival with friends at nearby housewarming party. Kicked out.

11:30p: Successful attempt to occupy bar at Bette restaurant. Risked months of awkwardness by making out with friends.

12:15a: Ran home in the rain, fell asleep.

11a: Woke up, puked, went back to bed.

Tuesday, April 18, 2006

Amy Sillman

With a flat brush or maybe an oil stick, Amy Sillman scrawls lines up, down, and across the canvas, then paints in blocks of color, then draws more. Figures often emerge from this process, and one finds appendages and heads emerging from the dense clouds of brushstrokes.

The ghost of Guston appears in many of the paintings. In "Untitled", the brushy blocks of color recall Guston's abstractions from the mid-60s. And then in "The Plumbing" and "A Bird in the Hand," Sillman connects to Guston's later fixation on outstretched arms clutching objects.

An abstract figure in motion in "The Elephant in the Room" reminds us of Duchamp's "Nude Descending a Staircase," or even a futurist abstraction. A blue triangle recurs at one side of the picture, and three pairs of legs repeat at the bottom. Finally, in "Them," Sillman stirs up something different, more like Ensor, as a gang of apparent men and women, at least one of them a giant, treks across a foggy landscape, leaving behind them a forest, or maybe a village. Their purple bodies and grotesque profiles are rendered in a lilting tangle of lines. With a solemn palette, Sillman also finds whimsy in the liberty taken with the figuration. And she enlivens the composition with a bold yellow brushstroke, reaching from the bottom almost to the top of the canvas, as if Barnett Newman visited her studio.

A contemporary worth noting here is Joanne Greenbaum, who also pursues abstract clusters of blocks and irregular forms. Greenbaum is geometric and diagrammatic, while Sillman procedes by vigorous drawing and scrubbing to achieve her paintings. And of course, there's Cecily Brown who similarly treads abstraction and figuration. We can also consider Charlene von Heyl, another abstract painter, simply to compare her relatively programmed process and cleanliness - more German - to Sillman's spontaneous, direct, and invigorating painting. It's like "good old American" abstraction. But does that mean "old-fashioned?" Possibly - although Sillman's cartooning and humor refreshes an aged paradigm. Or maybe oil-on-canvas painting is already so rooted in tradition that this becomes a moot point.

Monday, April 17, 2006

Girls Gone Mild

Retreating to their bedrooms, Jocelyn Hobbie's young women preoccupy themselves by playing music, carving wood sculpture, or smoking cigarettes (despite the Surgeon General's warning).

The cinematic staging, moody light, and damsel-in-distress drama remind us of Cindy Sherman's Untitled Film Stills and Hopper's interiors. Most of the women are frozen, wide-eyed, and vulnerable - deer in headlights. Veins protrude from their pale foreheads and arms, tears dribble down their cheeks, and one suffers bloodshot eyes. The distressed body reflects inner turmoil. Like zombies, they stare into space, and light carves pointed angles around them.

In "Feeder," a buxom woman smiles at infantile arms transcending the picture plane and canvas edge. We see a hint of the crib, but also wonder if these disconnected arms extend from the viewer, like those video games that include onscreen the hands of the gunman or martial arts fighter.

Another exception is "The Racks": before a stack of stretched canvases, a woman (who looks like Becky "Bellwether" Smith, oddly) crouches on all fours in pink, lacy lingerie. She appears cross-eyed and sticks out her wet tongue. The man, alone in this oeuvre, scowls upwards, clutching a dollar bill - either depositing or withdrawing it. He adjusts his jacket to either conceal or expose his penis, which twists like that of a pig. We assume a carnal exchange, but which is the client?

The canvas surfaces are smooth, but not polished, and her process probably involves much measurement and correction. She paints in thin layers and constructs the body by geometric forms. We observe some similarity with Ridley Howard, but can trace Hobbie's subjects back to Paula Rego and Balthus. Of course, Balthus' reclining nymphs are more passive than Hobbie's upright, rigid women. In any case, her attention to detail is her strength, proven by her rendering of delicate materials, anatomical minutiae, and specific character traits.

Saturday, April 15, 2006

Nan: Still a fan?

Nan Goldin's "The Ballad of Sexual Dependency" brought images of downtown outcasts to many viewers for the first time: junkies, transvestites, drunks, and wastrels. It also pioneered the snapshot aesthetic - candid, spontaneous, grainy - that has trickled on through Wolfang Tillmans, Larry Clark, and Ryan McGinley. Goldin's work has continued to be heavy-hearted and sympathetic and snapping friends and acquaintances, she snaps herself in the process. In her more obvious self-portraits, Goldin depict herself as battered, intoxicated, or depressed.

In "Sister, Saints, and Sibyls," Goldin investigates the tragic suicide of her sister, Barbara, a teenager whose rebellion reaped institutionalization. Over a backdrop of Saint Barbara, a martyr, Goldin recounts the brief life of her elder sister. Barbara's eventual self-destruction haunts Goldin - physically and emotionally. We see patterns of self-destruction surface in Goldin, from her history of substance abuse to her self-inflicted wounds. "I intend to explore the relationship between the story of my sister, myself, and Saint Barbara," says Goldin.

It is hard to be critical of an honest, tender, and cathartic project such as this, especially considering the technical ambition - this is Goldin's first exhibited project involving moving images. Criticism here feels cynical.

But one might suspect Goldin, who seems to revel in her image of a suffering, self-destructive woman. The camera focuses on Nan looking hungover and morose. Her occasional smiles look manic and her voice in the video is flat and lifeless. Isn't she too old for this self-pity and melodrama? And is it vain to equate onself with a martyr? For which causes or communities is she dying? Or is this the mythical melancholy that chronically afflicts many great artists? Or are we too naive still, to understand how a grieving, recovering addict feels at age 50?

In any case, "Sisters" ignited tears and forlorn sighs from the audience in Matthew Marks' graded viewing space. The framed landscapes and portraits in the main space provided a decompression chamber, helping to diffuse the shock of leaving the dark viewing room for the sunny street outside.

Wednesday, April 05, 2006

Salo is aggressive and hostile

We rented "Salo" by Pier Paolo Pasolini. This movie caused discomfort, nausea, insomnia, guilt, and depression. Based on Marquis de Sade's "120 Days of Sodom," it tells of old fascists who kidnap 19 children to a distant palace, where they debauch the children in lawless and inhumane ways. This includes beating, whipping, forcefeeding, raping, and killing them.

We tried to read it as dark humor, but that only went so far. And everyone says, "Pasolini indicts the viewer, the passive, entertained voyeur, aligning him or her with the villains, especially in the torturous climax." But that's nonsense, because the fascist villains don't just watch: they initiate and participate in the horror, and even couple with each other. The viewer responds with sympathy, helplessness, or the aforementioned nausea.

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