Tag: 1970s

Exhibitions: Agitprop! at the Brooklyn Museum

agitprop-postersVarious posters and ephemera on view in Agitprop!. All photos by the author unless otherwise noted.

“Agitprop” is a word I never learned in my art history classes, despite the fact that there has pretty much always been political art. I guess the term sounds too Communist for the classroom. Historically, political motivations were generally seen in portraiture, monuments, and materials, with artwork intrinsically linked to wealth, power, and faith. In the twentieth and twenty-first centuries, artists have increasingly found ways to create politically charged artwork that speaks for the oppressed rather than the privileged, often moving into the public sphere with poster campaigns, performances, protests, and press. Now more than ever it seems harder for new artists to operate in a world separate from their surroundings, with ever-present media over-saturation and the volatile state of current affairs, and increased awareness of how race, gender, class, and sexuality affect personal experience (and therefore, artistic production).

On view at the Brooklyn Museum through August 7, 2016, Agitprop! is a thought-provoking group exhibition that collects together over 100 years of work made “as a call to action to create political and social change.” There are posters and newspaper clippings, films and documentary photography, performance records and public sculpture, with work from long-established artists like Jenny Holzer and Yoko Ono, as well as newer collectives like Occupy Museums and Not an Alternative. Participating artists were invited to recommend others for the show, making even the curatorial process a study in collaboration and egalitarianism. The resulting exhibit is organized loosely by theme, connecting decades and different activist approaches, addressing both domestic and international issues.

intlworkingwomensday-postersPosters by Valentina Kulagina, 1931. Right-hand image via The Charnel House.

eisenstein-miseryStill from Misery and Fortune of Woman, 1929. Directed by Sergei Eisenstein and Eduard Tisse.

The first room I went through greeted me with a series of Soviet propaganda promoting women’s health and labor, with vintage posters for International Working Women’s Day, and an educational film by Sergei Eisenstein advocating for safe abortions across the world (the USSR had legalized abortion in 1920). The posters were created by Valentina Kulagina, a leading Constructivist designer in the 20s and 30s. Her work combines monochrome photo-collage with brightly colored illustration in the bold social realist style, pairing real women of the USSR with the ideal, sturdy working woman seen in official advertising. The sharp diagonals, stark text, and heavy use of red are perfect examples of the Constructivist aesthetic popular in the early years of the USSR, which endeavored to establish its own unique art style that visually symbolized utilitarianism, unity, and strength. Meant to be inspirational, Kulagina’s imagery also highlights the struggle women still faced entering the workforce after the revolution, while still expected to retain domestic duties. The artist’s creative output was later restricted under increased Stalinist scrutiny and her progressive revolutionary ideology was rejected.

Communist messages were further represented by a section on Tina Modotti’s photography, taken in Mexico during the 1930s. Born in Italy, Modotti immigrated to San Francisco as a teenager and, after a brief career as a film and stage actress, she moved to Mexico City with photographer Edward Weston. There she became part of the revolutionary avant-garde alongside artists like Diego Rivera and Frida Kahlo, joining the Mexican Communist Party in 1927. She was known for her documentary photographs of murals, peasant farmers, and laborers, and her work was often used in Communist literature and propaganda. Agitprop! features a selection of her photographs paired with magazines and newspapers that featured them, including The New Masses. Her style is characterized by its empathy, stark contrast, and attention to details.

tinamodottiWoman With Flag and Mexican sombrero with hammer and sickle by Tina Modotti, seen in issues of A-I-Z and The New Masses, respectively.

suffragette-banner Standing Together… by the National Women’s Party, 1913-1920.

dykeactionmachineLesbian Americans: Don’t Sell Out, 1998, and Do You Love the Dyke in Your Life?, 1993, by Dyke Action Machine.

granfury-guerrillagirlsWomen Don’t Get AIDS, They Just Die From it by Gran Fury, 1991; When Racism and Sexism Are No Longer Fashionable, What Will Your Art Collection Be Worth?, 1989, and Dear Art Collector, 2015, by the Guerrilla Girls.

Soundararajan-DalitWomenFight-2014#DalitWomenFight by Thenmozhi Soundararajan, 2014.

Feminist messages are represented in various ways throughout the show, with historic and contemporary activism side by side. Vintage suffragette banners hang high above a mural by Dyke Action Machine that wryly inserts lesbian themes into 90s advertising imagery. A poster by Gran Fury (displayed in various NYC bus shelters in 1991) calls for more inclusive treatment and discussion of AIDS by the Center for Disease Control. Several pieces by the Guerrilla Girls highlight trenchant sexism in the art world, employing sarcasm, statistics, and advertising to target collectors, art scholars, and museum leaders. Formed in the 1980s, their message continues to be relevant today as museums and galleries remain heavily white and male in their collections and major exhibits. Thenmozhi Soundararajan’s LED text-based sculpture references her project, #DalitWomenFight, which fights caste-based sexual violence in India and promotes the stories of Dalit women across the world.

In the center of it all is Judy Chicago’s The Dinner Party, a sculptural installation that is permanently on view as part of the Brooklyn Museum’s collection within the Elizabeth Sackler Center for Feminist Art. This room-size work represents the artist’s idea of a dinner table set for important women throughout history, including some mythological figures. Each place setting features an embroidered banner with the woman’s name and symbols connected to her culture or experience, and a porcelain plate with painted or sculpted yonic imagery. The floor is painted with names of many more women, some connected to the major figures with plates. Within the realm of feminist art history, this is a landmark, a quintessential work of second wave feminism with its focus on the body, on vaginal motifs, on goddess culture, and on women’s history. Today many recognize this brand of feminism as being too exclusive, generally prioritizing cis white women, equating vaginas with womanhood and Western-centric historical figures. I definitely agree with this criticism, but I do still view the movement as significant and influential, and I feel art being made by women like Chicago was radical for its time, and I was moved by her sweeping vision when I stood within The Dinner Party. So there that is. The lack of women of color (I think there are, like, three?) is a big distraction while viewing it, though.

chicago-dinnerparty1The Dinner Party by Judy Chicago, 1974-79.

chicago-dinnerparty2The Dinner Party (detail – Virginia Woolf) by Judy Chicago, 1974-79

chicago-dinnerparty3 The Dinner Party (detail – Sojourner Truth) by Judy Chicago, 1974-79.

chicago-dinnerparty4 The Dinner Party (detail – Hildegarde von Bingen) by Judy Chicago, 1974-79.

chicago-dinnerparty5 The Dinner Party (detail – Amazon) by Judy Chicago, 1974-79.

chicago-dinnerparty6The Dinner Party (detail – Sacajawea) by Judy Chicago, 1974-79.

Moving back into Agitprop!, there are works linking decades of police oppression and government inaction regarding black deaths in this country. One display compiles film (Oscar Micheaux’s Within Our Gates), photography, illustration, and painting to starkly remind viewers of our history of ignorance, prejudice, and, especially, lynching. Wall text relates how the NAACP “made a cultural campaign for hearts and minds” a central part of their strategy to “end the terrorism of these unprosecuted mob-driven murders,” resulting in plays, films, songs, and artwork that sought to combat stereotyping and misinformation about African Americans in the early twentieth century. On a nearby wall hang photographs from Dread Scott’s 2014 performance, On the Impossibility of Freedom in a Country Founded on Slavery and Genocide, which links recent incidents of police brutality (indicated by the “Hands Up, Don’t Shoot” gesture) with 1963 demonstrations in Birmingham, AL, when anti-segregation demonstrators were met with high-pressure fire hoses. In an earlier gallery, a piece by Otabenga Jones & Associates reminds viewers of the Free Breakfast Program launched by the Black Panthers, sabotaged by J Edgar Hoover. (Recently, this inspired their own “People’s Plate” educational nutrition program in Houston, TX.)

A variety of other social and political issues are addressed in further works, again both historical and contemporary. Posters from the WPA advertise theatrical productions about housing and labor concerns during the Great Depression, while a “Mili-Tent” from the Not an Alternative collective is displayed as a sculpture, having been used as a symbol in protests against foreclosure, eviction, and displacement in New York City. Cartoon illustrations by Coco Fusco relate to her infamous performance piece from the early 90s, in which she and collaborator Guillermo Gomez-Peña presented themselves as fake “Undiscovered Amerindians,” with stereotypically “primitive” clothing and language, kept in a cage and put on display in the tradition of World’s Fair displays. Viewers were told that they were indigenous to an island untouched by Western culture, and for a fee they would perform dances and take photos with the crowd. Adejoke Tugbiyele’s sprawling gay pride flag addresses homophobic persecution in Nigeria, made of women’s headscarves (gele) traditionally worn at funerals. In another gallery, a huge mural collects together drawings by Egyptian graffiti artist Ganzeer, responding to violence in his own country as well as in the US. Across the room a powerful piece by The Yes Men and various collaborators imagines a peaceful, utopian future after Obama’s first election through a fake newspaper with headlines like “IRAQ WAR ENDS” and “ALL PUBLIC UNIVERSITIES TO BE FREE.”

lynched-peoplesplateFlag, announcing lynching, flown from the window of the NAACP headquarters on 69 Fifth Ave, New York City, 1936. Via Brooklyn Museum; and The People’s Plate on the Move by Otabenga Jones & Associates, 2015.

WPA-postersFederal Theatre Project posters, late 1930s. Right-hand poster via Wikimedia Commons.

notanalternative-mili-tent-2011Mili-Tent by Not an Alternative, 2011.

cocofusco-theamerindians-2012The Undiscovered Amerindians: “Oh Please!” Begged the Gentleman at the Whitney Biennial by Coco Fusco, 2012.

AdejokeTugbiyele-GelePrideFlag-2014Gele Pride Flag by Adejoke Tugbiyele, 2014.

ganzeer-urgentvisions-2015Urgent Visions by Ganzeer, 2015.

yesmen-nytimesThe New York Times Special Edition by The Yes Men with Steve Lambert, et al, 2008.

Agitprop! is jam-packed with work, and at times can be overwhelming as a viewer, but only because the emotional content is so high. Almost everywhere I turned I was met with evidence of people who cared, deeply, about the world around them, and who earnestly try to effect change through their art and activist practices. In many ways the exhibit moved me, and there were moments when I had to turn away because the subjects were too upsetting. But that’s good, that’s the point, we should be upset by what we see here, especially the realization that so many of the historical issues are still relevant today. Often when confronted with such knowledge and imagery of suffering, I shut down and try to take my mind off it, because it’s too much, and I feel helpless. But seeing a show like this makes me realize I can be hopeful that things can get better, and that people from all around the world are using what skills they have (in this case, their artistic and collaborative abilities) to gradually make things better, bit by bit.

Exhibitions: “Alibis: Sigmar Polke 1963-2010” at MoMA NYC

Sigmar PolkeSigmar Polke: Untitled, 1975. via Gallerist

Ever since I read my first X-Men comic and fell in love with the fuzzy German mutant Nightcrawler, I’ve been interested in German language and culture. Some people find it surprising that such a silly, kitschy thing spurred a passion that became academic, as I made twentieth-century German art and culture one of my specialties in school, and even studied there for a semester in undergrad. Today I’m feeling that the comic book connection would have been appreciated by the artist at hand, irreverent Pop and experimental kitsch genius Sigmar Polke, whose first full retrospective is currently on view at the Museum of Modern Art in New York. Raised in East Germany before escaping to the West as a teenager, Polke worked at a stained glass factory before embarking on a career as a fine artist in the early 60s. He studied at the Kunstakademie Dusseldorf under influential conceptualist Joseph Beuys, but did not follow in his teacher’s mystical/political/high-concept footsteps.

Along with painter Gerhard Richter and others, he helped establish the genre of “Capitalist Realism”, an offshoot of the ubiquitous Pop Art style so common in the United States in the 1960s. Their art was made in response to the so-called “Economic Miracle” that had affected Germany in the 1950s, a sudden time of plenty after years of scarcity, leading to gluttonous consumerism and a seeming rush to forget the horrors of World War II. The rising generation of German artists often used their work to criticize the “Americanization” of their country and the frivolous lifestyle it promoted, while also seeking to come to terms with the guilt and shame of their parents’ generation and its actions under Nazi leadership. Like many Pop artists, Polke engaged with food and brand imagery, as well as department stores and Hollywood-style glamor, referencing this extreme shift in West German experience (felt especially keenly as someone who had lived in East Germany). However, the trajectory of his artistic practice became much more dynamic and varied than these early Pop works might suggest, as he spent the next several decades pushing style, media, and subject beyond their expected limits.

 

Sigmar Polke SchokoladenbildSigmar Polke: Chocolate Painting, 1964. via Aesthetic Perspectives

Sigmar Polke SupermarketsSigmar Polke: Supermarkets, 1976. via Hot Parade

At MoMA, hundreds of Polke’s works are collected together in a comprehensive retrospective, highlighting the artist’s versatility and various experiments. Visitors are first met with his works in the atrium, which shows off an eclectic grouping of painting, sculpture, film, and mixed media. From there, it launches into a chronological organization so that his development can be traced through the years. I get why the show is arranged this way, but it did feel kind of uninspired. There is no linear progression for Polke, he was all over the place, which allows his work to be shown in any number of ways (indeed, before he died in 2010, he had suggested a non-chronological layout for this show while it was still in the planning stages). Perhaps an exhibit that instead highlighted certain subjects he returned to, or processes, or media, or even color schemes. Not a major criticism of the show, just something I thought about as I walked through the galleries.

His variety can be overwhelming, and instead of finding a way around that curator Kathy Halbreich seems to have embraced it. This show is packed, throwing together all aspects of his output, from his home videos and sketchbooks to his wall-size canvases and photo series. And it’s great. Admittedly, because he worked in so many different styles and materials, not every work is a masterpiece, but they’re all interesting, and they all have a story behind them. Each gallery’s wall text briefly introduces a certain stage in Polke’s life- including his world travels in the 70s, his stint in New York, his many collaborations (often with the lovers he took besides his wife), his responses to current events and political happenings. However, most of the expository text is found within a booklet that visitors carry around, which details each work (there are no wall labels) and often gives extra information and anecdotes. With Polke, context means a lot. His works are often beautiful and weird and fascinating all on their own, but knowing their connection to German history and Western art history can make a big difference, as can knowing their place in his biography.

Sigmar Polke Lee Harvey OswaldSigmar Polke: Raster Drawing (Portrait of Lee Harvey Oswald), 1963. via Gallerist

Sigmar Polke FreundinnenSigmar Polke: Girlfriends, 1965/66. via Frieder Burda Museum

His series of “Raster” paintings, for example, might at first glance seem like riffs on Roy Lichtenstein’s comic book recreations, but they were actually made in response to contemporary media coverage of events in the Middle East. Polke felt that people in the West were somewhat phony for dramatically expressing their horror at the news, while only ever experiencing it through printed photographs. For these works, he meticulously painted and screenprinted the black and colored dots used in newspaper printing, forcing us to view their subjects (lifted from mass media sources) through a distorted, distanced lens. We cannot experience these subjects first hand. Few of Polke’s works make overt political statements, but many of them engage indirectly with specific issues or concerns, whether in their subversion of art historical references (take, for example, his graph-objects meant to establish a psychic connection with William Blake or his wry dig at Abstract Expressionism titled “Modern Art”) or their dispassionate iconography (such as his repeated use of swastikas in cartoonish compositions and his series of watchtower paintings on fabric).

Polke is a ridiculously difficult artist to summarize, and that’s part of what makes him and his work so fantastic. I have always loved him for his use of printed fabrics as canvas, his gestural abstraction, his abundant irreverence, his printmaking experiments; MoMA expands even further into all manner of his practices, introducing me to his films (which J. Hoberman detailed in May’s issue of Artforum) and his forays into weird materials like uranium and his psychedelic side-trips (in a loud, over-stimulated gallery that I quite liked) and his pornographic caricatures and so much more. Many commentators have noted that this feels like a group show because of the great variety of works, and I think that feel really works in its favor. Realizing that all of this came from the mind of one man encourages viewers to consider that man- how did all of these eclectic and diverse ideas and styles come together in the singular artist of Sigmar Polke? It’s a question that cannot be easily answered, but Alibis is a good start. Luckily, his wonderful work can speak for itself.

sigmar polke modern artSigmar Polke: Modern Art, 1968. via Gallerist

Sigmar PolkeSigmar Polke: Dr. Berlin, 1969-74. via Ross Smirnoff Art

Sigmar Polke Untitled (Quetta, Pakistan), 1974-1978Sigmar Polke: Untitled (Quetta, Pakistan), 1974-1978. via AF Asia

Sigmar PolkeSigmar Polke: Mu nieitnam netorruprup, 1975. via Ross Smirnoff Art

Sigmar PolkeSigmar Polke: Untitled (Dr. Bonn), 1978. via Vogue

Polke Velocitas FirmitudoSigmar Polke: Untitled (Color Experiments), 1982-86 (bottom row). Velocitas-Firmitudo, 1986 (top right). via Hyperallergic

sigmar polke watchtowerSigmar Polke: Watchtower, 1984. via Vogue

Sigmar Polke Mrs. Autumn and Her Two Daughters, 1991Sigmar Polke: Mrs. Autumn and Her Two Daughters, 1991. via AF Asia

sigmar polkeSigmar Polke: Salamander Stone, 1997. via Vogue

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: “Permission to be Global/Prácticas Globales” at MFA Boston

In my final semester of grad school I took what turned out to be my favorite course, a class focusing on Latin American art made during the Cold War period. I find Cold War history fascinating, and am always interested in how culture played a major role and how artists responded to events of the time. Imagine my sheer glee when the MFA opened its newest contemporary art exhibition, a show highlighting the collection of Ella Fontanals-Cisneros, who founded CIFO, an organization dedicated to supporting Latin American contemporary artists. Permission to be Global/Prácticas Globales features a number of major contemporary artists from various countries in Latin America, showing off installation, sculpture, painting, photography, video, and conceptual art from the 1970s through the 2010s. The exhibit is divided into four sections: Power Parodied, Borders Redefined, Occupied Geometries, and Absence Accumulated. Through the art of the past few decades, different political upheavals and cultural changes of the region are documented, while international currents in the art world are explored.

permissiontobeglobal-galleryview-netoInstallation view, including Ernesto Neto’s The Empty Time, 2004. All photos by the author.

Stepping into the Henry and Lois Foster Gallery, I was immediately met by a hanging Ernesto Neto, the very artist I was obsessing over a few weeks ago. I pretty much spent the rest of my visit with a smile on my face, because I was so excited to see all these artists whom I’d studied, but had never encountered in an exhibition space. The “Occupied Geometries” section was probably my favorite, featuring artists like Lygia Clark, Ana Mendieta, and Rafael Lozano-Hemmer, along with Neto. The text links different conceptions of a square, from a physical space to be occupied (recalling various recent protests happening in city squares) to a purely aesthetic form. The works are linked thematically if not visually, with Neto’s soft sculpture dominating the middle of the space and various media displayed along the walls.

magdalenafernandez-1pm00araararauna2006Magdalena Fernández: 1pm00 ‘Ara Ararauna’, 2006.

anamendieta-butterfly1975Ana Mendieta: Butterfly, 1975.

rafaellozano-hemmer-shadowboxthirdperson2006Rafael Lozano-Hemmer: Shadow Box: Third Person, 2006.

I loved the video pieces especially. Magdalena Fernández’s 1pm00 ‘Ara Ararauna’ is this great kinetic digital painting, presenting a seemingly still image of a minimalist composition whose lines jump at the sound of an unseen macaw who squawks periodically on the audio track, and thus synthesizing a traditional, recognizable painting form with an element of the artist’s home of Venezuela. Mendieta’s Butterfly is a subtle reflection on her early childhood in Cuba, before she was “rescued” by the United States and sent to be raised in Iowa. This video self-portrait echoes a photograph of the artist dressed as a butterfly when she was 5. The extreme distortion and vibrant color changes comment on her own displacement and shifts between cultures. Lozano-Hemmer’s interactive video piece places the viewer within the screen, but their figures become silhouettes made up of random words, reminiscent of a blog tag cluster. We can accept it as randomized or attempt to puzzle out how these words might connect to our own bodies and personalities, and of course it raises questions about surveillance in the modern world.

cildomeireles-3rdunladderseries2002Cildo Meireles: 3rd Un-Ladder series, 2002.

annamariamaiolino-untitled1997Anna Maria Maiolino: Untitled, 1997.

danielmedina-orangefence2012Daniel Medina: Orange Fence, 2012.

permissiontobeglobal-galleryviewInstallation view, including works by José Carlos Martinat (window) and Mathias Goeritz (left).

Adjacent galleries show off more conceptual works, with Cildo Meireles’s unclimbable ladder to nowhere and Anna Maria Maiolino’s flat cement sculptures with empty holes to suggest absence. Venezuelan artist Daniel Medina’s Orange Fence merges elements of painting and sculpture, with a composition tinged with Op Art effect. Its three-dimensional metal bars reference home security fences built in crime-ridden urban areas. A compelling video by Miguel Ángel Ríos features an array of large grey spinning tops, which when played in a game are pushed against each other in battle, but here are shown in reverse so that they rise back up and separate. As Globe critic Sebastian Smee notes, this half of the show is stronger on the whole. There’s a great combination of twisted takes on Minimalism, cheeky sociopolitical references, and abstract experimentation, all blended together well within three galleries.

martaminujin-carlodgardeloffireofcotton1981-2009Marta Minujín: Carlos Gardel of Fire, of Cotton, 1981.

eugeniodittborn-neotransandairmailpaintingno41-1985Eugenio Dittborn: Neo Transand Airmail Painting, No. 41, 1985.

The second half of the exhibit is more focused on political and social commentary, with some great pieces but also some less impressive ones. I was so happy to see Marta Minujín represented, since she’s another new favorite whose work I haven’t seen in real life. Her group performance Carlos Gardel of Fire, of Cotton in 1981 featured a huge cotton effigy of iconic Argentinean singer Carlos Gardel, who died in a plane crash in 1935. The action (which included participants dancing the tango) was captured in photographs, showing the figure being set aflame at night. I was also excited to see mail art represented- a genre I haven’t really found in major museum exhibitions- with one of Chilean artist Eugenio Dittborn’s mailed paintings. These works were done on paper, folded up, and sent through the mail as a way to avoid censorship and share news and responses to the horrific violence perpetrated under dictators like Augusto Pinochet.

oscarmunoz-sedimentations2011Oscar Muñoz: Sedimentaciones, 2011.

For me, the most moving work in this area was Oscar Muñoz’s innovative video installation, a selection from the work Sedimentations. Situated within a small, darkened room, a video is projected downward onto the surface of a long table. The footage shows a grouping of portrait photographs lying next to two large sinks. Hands appear to pick up the photos and wash away the images in the sink, and at other points blank photo paper is developed. This is a pointed and chilling reference to the “Disappeared“- political targets secretly taken by military/government leaders in many South American countries, most notably Argentina as well as the artist’s home country of Colombia.

gallery view2Installation view, including José Damesceno’s During the Vertical Walk, 2005.

renefrancisco-eduardoponjuan-productivism1992René Francisco and Eduardo Ponjuan: Productivism, 1992.

Other works were too obvious or uninspired for me to find them effective. René Francisco and Eduardo Ponjuan’s collaborative Productivism depicts a male worker painted in the style of Socialist Realism, but holding a large, three-dimensional paintbrush instead of a typical tool. It’s not that I’m against the message of uniting worker and artist, and fighting political corruption with culture, it’s just too on the nose. And I’ve seen Socialist Realism subverted in more interesting ways, as in the work of Wang Guangyi. Regina José Galindo’s hour-long video, Who Can Erase the Traces?, shows her slowly walking to the national palace in Guatemala City, periodically stopping to dip her feet in a basin of human blood. The work was made in protest of former dictator Efraín Ríos Montt’s bid for president in 2003, and while the content is powerful, it feels almost dated in its imagery, recalling a visual language seen more in political works of the 60s and 70s than something made today.

marisol-sunbathersMarisol: The Sun Bathers (detail), 1967.

lilianaporter-untitledshadows2014Liliana Porter: Untitled (Shadows), 1969/2014.

Permission to be Global/Prácticas Globales is one of the best shows I’ve seen at the MFA, largely because most of these artists are not regularly represented at large museums. It was honestly so exciting for me to see these works, plus I was introduced to some new artists in the process. This is the kind of exhibit that has stuck with me since seeing it a few weeks ago, an effect physically realized by the extra works on view outside the gallery space. On the way in, I stopped by Marisol’s The Sun Bathers, a humorous representation of figures sunning themselves with large foil reflectors. As I exited I noticed the new mural along the theater wall, a version of Liliana Porter’s Untitled (Shadows) commissioned just for this exhibition. The artist painted shadow-like silhouettes of people from the MFA community, realistic enough that at first glance I didn’t realize what I was seeing. As I walked beside the wall my own, real shadow was added to the mix, creating a level of interactivity for me to ponder while I made my way to the shop to visit a friend. All in all truly excellent museum outing.

Art: Re-Framing Western Masters with Beatriz González

Beatriz Gonzalez in studioBeatriz González in her studio. via El Blog de Diego García-Moreno

Known for her colorful renderings of classical masterpieces encased in furniture, as well as derisive Pop paintings culled from media images of Colombia’s current events, Beatriz González began her artistic career in the early 1960s with a series called Las Encajeras (“The Lacemakers”), which re-imagined Vermeer’s The Lacemaker (a painting that was also referenced heavily by Dalí) into abstracted paintings. She studied at the Studio Art School of the Universidad de los Andes in Bogotá, where Western art history was a focus despite the dearth of European masterpieces in Colombian museums. Her time there was affected by newly arrived professors with more progressive outlooks, like local abstract painter Carlos Rojas and influential Argentinian art critic Marta Traba. As a student González became interested in the Old Masters and sought to respond to their classicism in her work.

González grew up during a calamitous era of unofficial civil war known as “The Violence,” ultimately becoming an avid news junkie committed to both critiquing and celebrating her national culture. Colombia’s government gave little support to the arts, and the limited opportunities for international exhibitions led to a “certain auto-referential and regionalist quality of cultural production” (Carolina Ponce de León, Beatriz González) within the country, of which González was keenly aware. Often described as kitschy and iconoclastic, her work is aimed at the lower classes, especially those living in rural Colombia, and she proudly calls herself a “provincial artist” specializing in “an underdeveloped painting for underdeveloped countries” (Holland Cotter, “Art Review: A Wry Defiance Behind Garish Colors and Tabloid Dramas”).

encajera-almanaque-pielroja1964Beatriz González: Encajera Almanaque Pielroja, 1964. via Beatriz Gonzalez

encajera-in-situ1973Beatriz González: Encajera in Situ, 1973. via Beatriz Gonzalez

Her oeuvre can be seen as “a continuous process of reconciling opposites: the particular with the universal, high with popular art, and European classics with a provincial style” (Rubén D. Durán, Notable Twentieth-century Latin American Women). She seeks to re-interpret European academic painting to make it palatable and familiar to a Colombian audience. In Holland Cotter’s words, her works are “a witty blend of public service work and historical illustration,” offering an unorthodox route for famous paintings held in European and American collections to be seen and exhibited in Colombia. The results are generally enlightening, self-referential, and often funny. She places one of Degas’s bathers in a wash bin, paints a classical Madonna and Child in a wooden vanity, sticks Picasso on wall tiles, puts Vermeer in a basket, applies Renoir to a candy bowl, and sets The Last Supper on an actual table.

5.+Peinador+Gratia+Plena+BRBeatriz González: Peinador Gratia Plena, 1971. via Mujer: Anatomía Comparada

The Last Table 1970 by Beatriz Gonzalez born 1938Beatriz González: The Last Table, 1970. via Tate

Screen Shot 2014-04-08 at 11.33.54 PMBeatriz González: Salomé, 1974. via Beatriz Gonzalez

In merging her artistic practice with furniture, Gonzalez effectively brings “high” art down to a more accessible level, and she can share Western masterpieces with her peers in rural Colombia. Her painting style is bold, simplified, and often garish, with off-kilter color choices and flat forms, mimicking an untrained hand for a purposefully kitsch effect. She essentializes known masterpieces, paring them down to their basic shapes while adding her own cheeky adjustments in color and expression. Furniture and home decor become a canvas, and craft is equated with fine art. She also manipulates how her viewers look at art, forcing them to stoop down, peer into, or glance up, depending on the object she’s painted. The materials are often cheap, so she employs illusionistic faux-finishing techniques to create wood grain and metallic embellishments. Her work isn’t conventionally beautiful, but she’s creating her own conventions- her own set of standards within her so-called “provincial” art style.

Of her furniture works, Gonzalez says, ““The [pieces of] furniture that I make are paintings that comply with the rules of traditional art; what I mean is that I do them with color pigments and brushes, and I represent something that, though already there in a photograph or a reproduction, is, after all, a meta-representation- a representation of a representation. I surround these paintings with large frames that contain suggestions about the paintings themselves. They are big frames, like colonial altarpieces… If I make traditional paintings it is because at that moment I am thinking that everything is possible in this state of exciting irregularity.” (quoted in Inverted Utopias). The works she chooses are viewed as universally significant to the West, but she translates them into something specific to her Colombian audience, condemning the over-hyped fetishization of artists in the process. It’s a pretty neat trick.

gonzalez-naci-en-florencia1974Beatriz González: Naci en Florencia cuando fue pintado mi retrato (esta frase pronunciada en voz dulce y baja), 1974. via Beatriz Gonzalez

Beatriz Gonzalez - GuernicaBeatriz González: Mural para fabrica socialista, 1981. Installed at Museo de Arte Moderno in Medellín, Colombia, 2012. via Panoramio

Screen Shot 2014-04-08 at 11.32.06 PMBeatriz González: Mesa-Braque, 1975. via Beatriz Gonzalez

Sources:

Holland Cotter. “Art Review: A Wry Defiance Behind Garish Colors and Tabloid Dramas.New York Times, September 4, 1998.

Rubén D. Durán. Notable Twentieth-century Latin American Women: A Biographical Dictionary. Eds. Cynthia Tompkins and David William Forster. Greenwood Press, 2001.

Carolina Ponce de León. Beatriz González: What An Honor to Be With You at This Historic Moment. El Museo del Barrio, 1998.

Victor Manuel Rodriguez-Sarmiento. “Cold War Legacies Otherwise: Latin American Art and Art History in Colonial Times.” PhD diss., University of Rochester, 2009.

Marta Traba. “Furniture as Frame” in Inverted Utopias: Avant-Garde Art in Latin America, eds. Mari Carmen Ramirez and Hector Olea. Yale University Press, 2004.