Category: Art

Art: The Remarkable Life of Romaine Brooks

Romain Brooks - Self PortraitRomaine Brooks: Self-Portrait, 1923. via Thought Patterns

Like many, I was first struck by Romaine Brooks through her remarkable 1923 self-portrait, which hangs in the National Gallery (though I’ve only seen it in reproductions). She depicts herself in somewhat androgynous dress, a dark suit and top hat, staring directly at the viewer but with eyes partly shaded. She presents an air of mystery, and of confidence, and of a woman who likely led a singularly fascinating life. And indeed she did. For a project in grad school I was assigned a comparative book review on any American artist or movement, and I immediately chose Romaine Brooks. Reading the three main texts I could find on her- Between Me and Life by Meryle Secrest, Amazons in the Drawing Room by Whitney Chadwick, and Wild Girls by Diana Souhami- I assembled as complete a biography as I could, while of course greedily perusing her wonderful but all-too-small oeuvre.

Remembered primarily for her compelling portraits of fashionable intellectuals living in Paris in the early twentieth century, Romaine Brooks was a fascinating character and an idiosyncratic artist. Though she was little known to new audiences by the time of her death in 1970, since then her work and life have been gradually re-discovered and re-assessed by contemporary scholars- especially in light of feminist and queer theory.

romaine brooks2Romaine Brooks: Dame en Deuil, 1910. via It’s About Time

Romaine BrooksRomaine Brooks: Chasseresse, 1920. via Smithsonian American Art Museum

She was born Beatrice Romaine Goddard in 1874 to American heiress Ella Waterman Goddard and Major Harry Goddard, the last of three children. Her parents separated shortly afterward and for much of her childhood she was ferried about Europe by her restless mother. Ella Goddard was herself an eccentric personality: exacting impossible demands on servants, writing demonic poetry, attempting to communicate with spirits, and (by Brooks’s account) emotionally abusing her youngest daughter. Goddard’s only son, St. Mar, was physically and emotionally unstable, experiencing terrifying hallucinations, violent outbursts, and debilitating illnesses. According to Brooks, her mother lavished attention on St. Mar and scorned Romaine (little seems to be documented of her other daughter, Maya), and at one point she even gave the young Romaine up to a poor washerwoman in New York City until she was reclaimed by her grandfather. Brooks claimed to have no happy memories of her childhood, which was a combination of travels with her unpredictable family and stays in strict religious boarding schools, where her sexual attraction to women first manifested itself. She was even forced to stay at an Italian convent for a short time as a teenager.

Emotionally disconnected from her family and fiercely independent, Brooks sought to sever ties with her mother and forge a life of her own when she reached young adulthood. For a time she studied singing in Paris, but soon decided to develop her artistic talent, which had long manifested itself in sketches and caricatures. She achieved a kind of semi-freedom by rejecting Ella Goddard’s influence and plans to make her a society wife, but still relied on her mother’s small monthly stipend for her living. In 1896 she studied art in Rome (where, as the only female student, she was sexually harassed by her classmates) and later took classes at the Académie Colarossi in Paris. She scraped by on her allowance and some painting sales, summering in Capri because of its cheaper cost and supportive community of artists, writers, and homosexuals. Her brother died in 1901 and her mother less than a year after, and suddenly Brooks was an enormously wealthy property owner, inheriting multiple houses and apartments along with a portion of her family’s estate.

Romaine Brooks - Ida RubinsteinRomaine Brooks: La Trajet, 1900. via Melissa Huang

Romaine Brooks - Ida Rubinstein2Romaine Brooks: Ida Rubinstein, 1917. via Smithsonian American Art Museum

Financially independent for the first time in her life, Brooks set about creating prime conditions for fully realizing her artistic talent. In an effort to avoid more sexual harassment and attain an air of social normalcy she married her friend John Brooks, a gay scholar she knew from Capri. To her surprise, despite their chaste relationship he expected her to play the part of a domesticated society wife, and she left him after suffering his controlling impulses for a year. After spending time alone at St. Ives in Britain in 1904, she developed the palette of grays and understated tones that dominate most of her subsequent paintings. Her first solo exhibition took place at the Galeries Durand-Ruel in 1910. For the next several decades, Brooks became a mainstay in a certain Parisian scene of wealthy homosexuals and prominent intellectuals.

Not reliant on selling her work to make a living, she chose whom she wanted to paint and rarely let her sitters take their portraits home, so attached was Brooks to her art. Her portraits of friends and associates reflect the vibrant social circles in which she moved, from famed Russian ballet dancer Ida Rubenstein and concert pianist Renata Borgatti, to French writer and filmmaker Jean Cocteau and Italian poet and war hero Gabriele D’Annunzio. After various affairs and romances with other women (and, briefly, D’Annunzio), Brooks met American writer and socialite Natalie Barney in 1915 when she was forty-one years old. They formed an intense and often dramatic bond, remaining each other’s most significant companion until Brooks died. They built a special house that had separate living quarters but adjoining communal space, so Brooks could maintain her independence (she preferred spending time alone) but they could still share a life together.

Romaine Brooks - Peter a Young GirlRomaine Brooks: Peter (A Young English Girl), 1924. via Melissa Huang

Romaine Brooks - Renata-Borgatti-Au-Piano-1920Romaine Brooks: Renata Borgatti, Au Piano, 1920. via SVLSTG Magazine

Romaine Brooks - Una TroubridgeRomaine Brooks: Una, Lady Troubridge, 1924. via Weimar

Moving between France, Italy, and sometimes the United States, Brooks took advantage of her wealth and status, painting at will, experimenting with abstract line drawing, and writing an intimate memoir, No Pleasant Memories, that has remained unpublished. Barney supported her art and writing, using her influence to place some of Brooks’s paintings into prominent museums and galleries. During World War II they lived together in Italy and withstood air raids and shortages. Strangely, they both shared some fascistic views, presumably the result of their privileged upbringing and friendship with Italian nationalist D’Annunzio. As Brooks grew older she became more and more misanthropic, cutting herself off from much of the outside world and even shutting Barney out in the very last years of her life. When she was about 65 she became convinced she was going blind, and her hypochondria increased to the point of paranoia. She painted very little in her final decades, and as many in her once-prominent social circle passed away her artistic relevance seemed to dwindle. She died in Nice in 1970, at the age of 96.

Romaine Brooks was, without question, a fascinating person. She was a painter of great skill and individuality, and her portraits reveal a personal belief in independence and self-realization that she maintained throughout her life. She was also a skilled writer and even a some-time interior decorator (always sticking to black and white decor, of course). She defied convention in many ways, living alone as a young woman in Paris and Capri, studying to be a professional artist in a male-dominated field, living outwardly as a lesbian in a less-than-tolerant society, and, above all, always staying true to her own will. Her personality could be brittle, dismissive, and neurotic, but she shared a great love with Natalie Barney, along with various romantic and platonic relationships with other writers, artists, and intellectuals.

Romaine Brooks Romaine Brooks. via The Red List

Romaine Brooks and Natalie BarneyRomaine Brooks and Natalie Barney, 1936. via Deviates, Inc

Ultimately it is her work itself that leaves the most significant legacy- her paintings are cool and distant, at times slightly humorous and at others sexually charged. She depicts her sitters as lone thinkers, perhaps gazing inward or looking to the past, swathed in delicate subtleties of gray. I find her color palette addictive, and have semi-consciously taken to wearing and drawing in shades of gray more often since immersing myself in her work. At the time her style was unexpected, so contrary to the bright colors of popular movements like Fauvism and Expressionism or the experimental shapes of Cubism and Surrealism, and her androgynous nudes and cross-dressing women were not common subjects. Several of her works reveal a subversion of the gaze, for she paints women’s bodies with both the understanding of them and the desire for them- this is especially clear in her nudes of Ida Rubinstein, her muse and lover in the 1910s. Though their color schemes are subdued, these paintings are generally a celebration of Brooks’s social environment, and an important glimpse into the artistic lesbian community of Paris in the early twentieth century. A lot of her paintings are now in the Smithsonian’s collection, though they don’t tend to keep many on view. I hope to see at least one in real life someday.

Sources:

Whitney Chadwick. Amazons in the Drawing Room: The Art of Romaine Brooks. University of California Press, 2000.

Meryle Secrest. Between Me and Life: A Biography of Romaine Brooks. Doubleday, 1974.

Diana Souhami. Wild Girls: Paris, Sappho, and Art. The Lives and Loves of Natalie Barney and Romaine Brooks. St. Martin’s Griffin, 2004.

Exhibitions: Nathalie Djurberg and Hans Berg at ICA Boston

djurberg-glass6Nathalie Djurberg: A World of Glass, 2011. Installation view. All photos by the author.

When I heard that one of the newer exhibits at the Institute of Contemporary Art would feature stop-motion animation, I was pretty damned excited. Basically all I ever want in any visual entertainment is stop-motion animation, for real. But that description is only scratching the surface of Nathalie Djurberg’s work, produced in conjunction with her partner, Hans Berg, a composer. Djurberg combines elements of installation, sculpture, video, and sound to create her immersive room-size works, the newest of which is titled A World of Glass. For this piece, viewers enter an enclosed dark room lined with several rows of long tables, upon which rest hosts of small translucent sculpture- resembling glass but actually rendered in polyurethane. On all four walls are projected four different films, short claymation stories featuring violent and sexual interactions between humans and animals. Over the presentation Hans Berg’s eerie, ethereal soundscape plays, establishing a quiet, strange mood throughout.

Born in Sweden and now based in Berlin, Djurberg is known for her bizarre, surreal imagery and unexpected pairings of sex and violence. Scholar Nancy Princenthal sees her compositions as examinations of human and animal relationships “both from the point of view of humanity’s inherent bestiality–understood, conventionally, to mean our lust, hunger, viciousness–and from the perspective of our physical domination” (The Reckoning, 90). Her figures are crude and colorful, taking on a kind of naive look in their imperfect, thumbprinted surfaces and exaggerated facial features. In previous installations, Djurberg has created mid-size sculptures in the same style as her animated characters, as in The Parade (exhibited at the Walker in 2011). For A World of Glass, she casts household objects and kitchenwares into unreal glass-like sculptures. Viewers walk among the long tables on which they stand unguarded, treading carefully for fear of smashing them into pieces. The irony is, of course, that they are not actually glass but polyurethane, thick and sturdy despite their appearance of fragility. They are detailed and a little strange, some misshapen and even lumpen, others perfect in their recreation, all slightly aglow in the darkened space.

djurberg-glass1Nathalie Djurberg: A World of Glass, 2011. Installation view.

djurberg-glass2Nathalie Djurberg: A World of Glass, 2011. Installation view.

I like these devious little sculptures, but I’m really there for the animation, which is itself captivating, and decidedly off-putting. In one film, a naked woman is melting like butter, both helped and hindered by the advances of a large bull who attempts to lick her back into shape. In another, a naked man wrestles with crocodiles and hippos that snap their jaws in anticipation of a meal, but when he dons a red fox-like mask he seems to gain the upper hand and their battle starts to resemble an orgy. In the third, a black woman (whose features resemble a caricature, but I’m not sure if that was intentional or if it’s just the result of Djurberg’s cartoonish style) sits in a room made of ice, surrounded by various animals. She continually catches herself in a large bear trap, and the animals can only help her escape by chewing off her appendages. In the final film, a furry bison attempts to remain still in a room full of glass objects (echoing the sculptures in the gallery), but eventually knocks over several shelves and they all shatter.

djurberg-glass5Nathalie Djurberg: I am a Wild Animal, 2011.

djurberg-glass3Nathalie Djurberg: My Body is a House of Glass, 2011.

The animation is somewhat stuttery and artificial, intentionally revealing strings and armatures, never fully committing to the films’ own fantasies despite their attention to detail. I find Djurberg’s imagery frightening but captivating, confusing but thought-provoking. She has noted that a formative experience for her was when a fellow student showed a hardcore porn film to her biology class. She was twelve. The apparent juxtaposition of childlike innocence with pornographic content is central to her videos on view in A World of Glass. The characters shift between victims and aggressors multiple times, and no one appears to maintain control of their situation. The women seem to find equal parts delight and discomfort in their own sexual liberation. There is pleasure and pain, creation and destruction, humor and horror, color and darkness, and a lot of weirdness. I find the work as a whole wonderfully original, but also unsettling. Which may well be the artist’s intention. Curator Anna Stothart concludes:

“Trespassing the border between good and evil, this remarkable and unsettling work updates the traditional folktale and suggests that the hierarchies and distinctions that uphold societal organization are simply a response to the voracious, and amoral, demands of our so-called animal nature. While the lessons of A World of Glass are patently unclear, the installation invites us into an alternate world in which can confront aspects of our own desires and demons.”

Sources:

Flowers & Mushrooms. Ed. Toni Stooss. Hirmer Publishers, 2014.

Eleanor Heartney, Helaine Posner, Nancy Princenthal, and Sue Scott. The Reckoning: Women Artists of the New Millennium. Prestel, 2013.

Anna Stothart. Nathalie Djurberg and Hans Berg: A World of Glass. Exhibition Booklet. Institute of Contemporary Art, Boston, 2014.

Exhibitions: Brenda Atwood Pinardi at UFORGE Gallery

atwoodpinardi-zonesandbarriers2Brenda Atwood Pinardi: Man with Fishlight, 1983. All photos by the author.

When I first stepped into the house in Hyde Park where Brenda Atwood Pinardi had lived the majority of her life, I was overwhelmed. Every glance revealed new impressions, of her as an artist, of her life with her husband (fellow artist and teacher Enrico Pinardi), of her interests and passions, of her tendencies as a collector, of the relationships she formed with students and colleagues. The house holds evidence of a rich and creative life, with knick-knacks and gifts and artworks and books accumulated over the course of several decades. There are shelves of vintage dolls, floor-to-ceiling framed drawings and prints, small sculptural works dotting every flat surface, and marvelously pink bathroom decor. It is exactly the type of house- complete with a separate backyard studio space- that I could imagine the artist residing in, having seen her work.

Through the month of May, UFORGE Gallery in Jamaica Plain is hosting a retrospective for Pinardi, a show dedicated to sharing her work with familiar and uninitiated audiences alike. Its primary focus is on her tremendous versatility. Schooled at Mass Art and later RISD in the 1960s, she worked in a range of media and covered many subjects, incorporating different influences and experimenting with new materials over time. Her early work, Zones and Barriers, is a dark, surreal series depicting round, lumpy figures with obscured eyes and pale, sallow skin. They stand alone or in small groups on gloomy shores, surrounded by eerie lights and radiant fish-creatures. They seem isolated, both from their surroundings and from the viewer, but their standoffishness intrigues all the more, and the high contrast of white-yellow and blackened sea-green exposes as much as it hides. At UFORGE, one large canvas from this series greets visitors at the entrance, while four more form an encompassing U-shape at the back of the gallery, acting both as experiential bookends as well as a dynamic introduction to Pinardi’s represented oeuvre.

atwoodpinardi-CardGameontheBeachBrenda Atwood Pinardi: Card Game on the Beach, 1983.

atwoodpinardi-zonesandbarriers1Brenda Atwood Pinardi: One Eyed Woman on the Beach, 1983.

atwoodpinardi-NightRiderBrenda Atwood Pinardi: Night Rider, unknown date.

atwoodpinardi-fallingBrenda Atwood Pinardi: The Voyage Home #3, unknown date.

The rest of the exhibit is laid out in small groupings, creating a number of individual aesthetic moments that balance across the whole space. A pair of canvases near the entrance shows figures suspended in the air, falling or flying, or possibly both, surrounded by mermaids, cats, and houses in a strange fairy tale pastiche. Nearby, a large square canvas titled Night Rider shows a long-haired woman clutching a horse, surrounded by swirling dots and abstract forms, all tinted a bold red hue. Evoking Seurat’s The Circus in its dynamism and Chagall’s horse paintings in its use of outline and simplified shapes, the work is still wholly Pinardi’s own in its audacity and sense of freedom. The piece is flanked by two monoprints from 1992, both featuring bold lines and rounded forms, referencing mythological beasts like the Minotaur. On the opposite wall, a trio of prints depicts strange figures of flesh and skull, rendered in grayscale stippling. This morose threesome is as surreal as the Zones and Barriers series but reads as more personal and introspective. These figures are grotesque and sad, seemingly facing an identity crisis in their composite bodies, existing awkwardly in outside forest spaces. The works were made in response to the Three Mile Island accident, their strange forms suggesting radiation poisoning and mutation.

Pinardi’s free-thinking use of color may be her most defining trait, with frequent use of sea imagery a close second. Taking in the works on view as a whole, visitors see a host of hues- midnight blues, sunny yellows, audacious reds, soft grays, sickly greens, aquamarines, bright magentas. She seems unfettered by traditional notions of color balance and realism, spreading around cutesy pinks and morbid blacks in ways that shouldn’t work in theory but somehow come together perfectly. Her assemblages- dating from the 2000s- offer playful bursts of color and form, teeming with seashells, baby dolls and mermaid figurines, vintage photographs, fake flowers, skulls, tree bark, and glitter. Encased primarily in shells and small wooden boxes, they provide numerous delights to anyone giving a close look, combining the meticulous introspection of Joseph Cornell with a little bit of Lisa Frank’s fluffy aesthetic. She constructed these assemblages regularly towards the end of her life, treating them as a kind of sketchbook practice.

atwoodpinardi-assemblage2Brenda Atwood Pinardi: Untitled Assemblage, 2000s

atwoodpinardi-assemblageBrenda Atwood Pinardi: Untitled Assemblage, 2000s

Ultimately, it is Pinardi’s eclecticism and boundless imagination that makes the biggest statement here. She was an artist who found inspiration everywhere: in her travels to New Mexico, Egypt, Bermuda, and elsewhere, in her large collection of ephemera (built up with the help of her husband), in her childhood memories of Cape Cod and the ocean, and in her personal experiences both joyous and tragic. The variety of styles and media on view at UFORGE represents Pinardi’s long and prolific life, her creative shifts and personal interests, and the lasting impact she had on her friends, students, and colleagues.

Poster Design: The Film Posters of Marian Stachurski

Moving away from Cuban posters, let’s take a look at another country that fostered some amazing, creative poster schools under a Communist government. As an art form, posters have been popular in Poland since their development in France in the 1880s and 90s, whether advertising gallery exhibitions and theater performances or promoting travel to foreigners. After the region gained political independence in 1918, industrialization and the new trade market led to a barrage of advertising and product-specific posters, incorporating new styles (mainly Cubism) and techniques. After World War II, Poland came under Soviet rule, and an official “Polish Poster School” was founded to spread propaganda through poster art. (In the USSR, graphic designers were actually considered better than fine artists, because they produced useful objects, as opposed to bourgeois painting and sculpture that served no function.)

Film production distribution was controlled by the state, and artists were hired to create posters for domestic use. By the mid-50s, some extreme Stalinist policies were lifted, and poster artists were given more freedom than other creatives. As in Cuba, there was no commercial intent, no push for posters to bring in audiences, so the content of the works didn’t really matter. These posters are rich with experimental techniques, surreal imagery, art historical references, and incredible imagination. I want to talk about them all the time, but I think the most reasonable approach is to do posts on individual artists. First I’ll take a look at Marian Stachurski, whom I’ll admit I thought was a woman for a while and was a little disappointed to find out was actually a man. It’s ok, his work is still pretty neat, and there are some women poster designers I will definitely be talking about in the future.

stachurski-anniegetyourgunMarian Stachurski: Annie Get Your Gun, 1958. via 50 Watts

Born in 1931, Stachurski studied at the Warsaw Academy of Fine Arts under Henryk Tomaszewski, an influential illustrator who taught many of the most successful poster designers in Poland. Stachurski created film posters from the late-1950s through the mid-70s, for both domestic and international films. As with many designers, he employed a range of styles and approaches, but his work is generally characterized by its simplified forms, playful color schemes, and mix of film stills with painted elements. He was influenced by Polish folk art, as seen in the almost naive approach to figure drawing; their bold outlines and blocky shapes recall the aesthetic of paper cut-out crafts popular in the surrounding region. His subjects tended to reference the films directly, but with the addition of fanciful or abstract elements. I love the folksy-cute characters in his Annie Get Your Gun and Seven Samurai posters, as well as the darker undertones of The Time Machine and Spirits of the Dead. My favorite is probably his poster for Truffaut’s Bed and Board; with its soft watercolor effect and butterfly imagery I’m reminded of Henry Darger’s illustrations.

Below is a sampling of Stachurski’s sizable oeuvre. Many more to be enjoyed at the sources! And for more general information about poster history in Poland check out this Smashing Magazine article.

tumblr_maarwi5uCJ1qhgo71o1_1280Marian Stachurski: Bullitt, 1971. via Polish Film Poster Picture Archive

w+cieniu+dobrego+drzewaMarian Stachurski: A Patch of Blue, 1968. via Polish Film Poster Picture Archive

 Vraziji otokMarian Stachurski: Podniebny Lot, 1960. via DESA Unicum

trzy+kroki+w+szalenstwoMarian Stachurski: Spirits of the Dead, 1971. via Polish Film Poster Picture Archive

siedmiu+samurajowMarian Stachurski: Seven Samurai, 1960. via Polish Film Poster Picture Archive

promMarian Stachurski: The Ferry, 1970. via Polish Film Poster Picture Archive

ewa+chce+spacMarian Stachurski: Ewa chce spac, 1958. via Art of Poster Gallery

Bed and Board - StachurskiMarian Stachurski: Bed and Board, 1972. via Polish Film Poster Picture Archive

In the Heat of the Night - StachurskiMarian Stachurski: In the Heat of the Night, 1976. via PolishPoster.com

Adventures of Arsene Lupin - Marian StachurskiMarian Stachurski: The Adventures of Arsene Lupin, 1958. via PolishPoster.com

Tomorrow is Forever - StachurskiMarian Stachurski: Tomorrow is Forever, 1958. via PolishPoster.com

Time Machine - StachurskiMarian Stachurski: The Time Machine, 1965. via PolishPoster.com

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Exhibitions: “Paweł Althamer: The Neighbors” at The New Museum

althamer-studyfromnature-1991Paweł Althamer: Study From Nature, 1991 (detail). All photos by the author unless otherwise noted.

I visited the New Museum in New York for the first time a few weeks ago, and had a really good experience overall. (Though that spaceship thing was kind of a let down.) It’s kind of a strange building, an assortment of rooms piled on top of each other in a jumbled tower, with each floor serving as a single exhibition space. The main exhibit on view was devoted to Polish sculptor Paweł Althamer, spanning four floors and revealing the artist’s aesthetic innovation as well as his tendency to collaborate with people outside the art world establishment. I started at the top and worked my way down, and at first found his different practices unconnected and a little confusing, but gradually these seemingly disparate elements came together in exciting ways.

The first piece, Draftsmen’s Congress, is a full-gallery installation, a notable exercise in interactivity and art-as-play. Originally presented at the Berlin Biennial in 2012, the work began as a blank white room, which over the course of the exhibition became inundated with additions in paint and crayon, splattered along every surface, including the floor. Althamer also ran sculptural workshops to make new works for the space, which over time were also painted by visitors. I was immediately taken with the concept of this piece- at first sight I was just excited to be in such a colorful, playful room, and when I realized I could add my own mark, I was overjoyed. While my companion drew adorable birdies, I wrote a few key phrases. As a whole the work is fun and liberating, allowing visitors to freely express themselves, to collaborate, and to bask in the beauty of a space completely transformed by art. The room itself is a memorial to the people who visited during the exhibition’s run, marked by people of all ages and backgrounds, recording their names or dates or thoughts or drawings. It was also a very positive space, with lots of inspirational messages written throughout. My words weren’t quite so uplifting, but still pretty important to share, I think.

althamer-draftsmanscongressPaweł Althamer: Draftsmen’s Congress, 2014.

althamer-draftsmanscongress2Paweł Althamer: Draftsmen’s Congress, 2014. My addition.

althamer-draftsmanscongress3Paweł Althamer: Draftsmen’s Congress, 2014. My addition.

The next floor collected together a number of Althamer’s sculpture, proving a rather jarring shift from the previous installation. They are primarily figurative, life-size, made of biological material such as hemp, hair, hay, animal intestines, and wood. Some are clothed, some are nude, some are metal, some are abstracted. They are all to some extent unnerving, rendering the viewer uncomfortable through their use of animal and human matter, their confrontational gazes, and, often, the disenfranchised people they represent. Some of them are the result of collaborative projects, though (Maika Pollack notes) that is not always made clear in their presentation at the museum. The dominant piece is Matea, a cast-aluminum scene that came from a 2006 action performed in tandem with Althamer’s wife, Matejka. The couple set up a traditional sculptor’s studio in Greece, with each modeling for the other. Althamer cast this piece as a way to immortalize their collaboration, and the work is as much hers as it is his. A striking work in the corner called Black Market involved African immigrants whom Althamer had met in Warsaw and invited to carve small sculptures out of ebony wood. They themselves were not skilled as artisans, and through their participation Althamer hoped to break down barriers between artist and non-artist, while also referencing racial barriers in the art world and the historical notion of Primitivism. But, their names are not included in the museum wall text- they are simply presented as generalized African immigrants. Not really making any strides for black artists here. Further stressing the collaborative (but uncredited) aspects of his practice, music played by street musicians positioned in the lobby was pumped into the gallery, though I never knew the name of the person playing. By the time I reached the lobby, I forgot to check.

althamer-matea2006-08Paweł Althamer: Matea, 2006/2008.

althamer-spinasuitcase-1996Paweł Althamer: Self Portrait in a Suitcase, 1996.

althamer-blackmarket-2007Paweł Althamer: Black Market, 2007.

althamer-selfportrait-1993Paweł Althamer: Self Portrait, 1993.

Easily my favorite work was Mezalia, a stop-motion short film and its accompanying set, produced in collaboration with artist Paulina Antoniewicz and filmmaker Jacek Taszakowski. Stop-motion animation is one of my favorite art forms and it’s always fascinating to see the behind-the-scenes elements. The set is a miniature beach, with scattered trees and buildings, and a dock stretching over a mirrored surface. Two boys sit listlessly near the water with their new toy sailboat. Across from this set, a smaller structure is made up as a derelict, unfurnished apartment with a little Althamer stand-in peering sadly out the window at the boys. The film itself was sort of hidden on the other side of the gallery in the middle of a stairway, but I was happy to find it. Its style reminded of The Adventures of Mark Twain, both visually and thematically, and the use of Althamer’s lonely figure staring into the past as a framing device laces the entire film with underlying melancholy.

althamer-mezaliaset-2010Paweł Althamer: Mezalia, 2010 (detail).

althamer-mezaliaset2-2010Paweł Althamer: Mezalia, 2010 (detail).

The final floor featured my other favorite work, The Venetians. Made for the 2013 Venice Bienniale, it is a full-gallery installation of grey sculpture with faces cast from people Althamer met on the streets of Venice. This random sampling is meant to portray the diversity of Venice while highlighting those on the fringes, a common trope in his work since his earlier projects neighbors in his hometown of Brodno, an impoverished suburb of Warsaw. The works combine realistic facial features with abstracted bodies, as slick plastic is draped and stretched over steel armatures to form limbs and torsos. Life-size, they are placed throughout the gallery in different poses, so that viewers can walk among them- as on a city street, presumably. The effect is beautiful and uncanny and kind of funny all at once. In four corners of the space an earlier project is worked into The Venetians, a video series from 2003 called So-Called Waves and other Phenomena of the Mind which includes footage of the artist taking different drugs and undergoing hypnosis. I’ll admit I didn’t really pay much attention to these pieces, mostly because I was so captivated by the sculpture. And one of them shows Althamer watching his daughter’s birth and that kind of thing grosses me out so I walked away.

althamer-venetians-2013Paweł Althamer: The Venetians, 2013 (detail).

PAWEL-slide-OP2A-superJumboPaweł Althamer: The Venetians, 2013. Installation view. via The New York Times

PAWEL-slide-4746-superJumboPaweł Althamer: The Venetians, 2013 (detail). via The New York Times

althamer-socalledwaves-2003Paweł Althamer: So-Called Waves and Other Phenomena of the Mind, 2003-04. Installation view.

This was my first exposure to Althamer, and it was a lot to process. I enjoyed the exhibit overall, taken with his bizarre sculptural style and interactive components of works like The Draftsmen’s Congress. Since my visit I’ve thought and read more about his projects, his collaborations, and how he is received and exhibited. Generally it seems he uses his art world cachet to promote his collaborative projects, and works diligently to bring his own art knowledge to communities who might not have access to art classes. The curators do not always mention or focus on the collaborators in Althamer’s work, sparking questions of authorship, but I would see that as more of a problem with the New Museum’s presentation than Althamer’s actual artistic practice.