Tag: 1990s

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: “Arlene Shechet: All at Once” at ICA Boston

shechet-IsandIsNot-2011Arlene Shechet: Is and Is Not, 2011 (detail). All photos by the author unless otherwise noted.

Within the realm of artistic genres, the area of sculpture has perhaps become the most elastic in definition. Installation is sculpture. Performance is sculpture. Assemblage is sculpture. For many the word still evokes the traditional figurative carvings of Michelangelo or the rounded bronze castings of Henry Moore, but ultimately the term is endlessly pliable. For New York-based artist Arlene Shechet, sculpture is about action as well as form, about painterly experimentation as well as material. Her abstract, textural work is on view now at the Institute of Contemporary Art in a comprehensive retrospective that has introduced me to her art for the first time.

Spread across three galleries, the exhibit’s aesthetic reflects Shechet’s own inclination for playful display tactics. Her more recent abstract sculptures are typically mounted on pedestals of her own making, rendered in wood or brick or plexiglass, and the show’s organizers extended this idea to the entire layout. The first room features a large multi-leveled shelf unit (made by the artist) at its center, with her early forays into Buddhist figures and pottery clustered throughout. The walls are lined with loose architectural drawings of stupas, inspired by her visit to Buddhist monuments in Indonesia. Western artists are drawn to Buddhism and Buddhist imagery for various reasons, sometimes appropriative or ethnocentric; Shechet’s primary interest is in the way Buddhist sculpture was used as a language, as well a way to communicate the concept of transience. The loss of a close friend prompted her to pay more attention to life’s preciousness, and the process of working with plaster allowed her to “maintain a consistent state of awareness in the studio” (Arlene Shechet, 13). The works here are quite varied, combining blue and white pottery, contemplative seated Buddhas, and goopy abstracted messes. Their arrangement forces the viewer to always be moving around the room, taking in first the whole and then, gradually, individual pieces.

shechet-buddharoomArlene Shechet: All At Once installation view at ICA/Boston.

shechet-buddhasArlene Shechet: East Buddha, 1999 (left) and Collective Head, 1996 (right).

shechet-Building-2003-2Arlene Shechet: Building, 2003.

shechet-Building-2003Arlene Shechet: Building, 2003.

shechet-InTheBalance2004Arlene Shechet: selections from In the Balance series, 2004-05.

The second gallery moves into the 21st century, with a deceptively simple sculptural installation titled “Building,” from 2002. A commissioned work for the Henry Art Gallery in Seattle, it was put together with students at the University of Washington, who threw different pottery shapes and made molds based on Shechet’s drawings. She stained the molds with black glazes, so that the resulting casts came out with dark exteriors that became progressively lighter as the molds were re-used. The final piece features a large grouping of these pottery forms, cut and stacked and placed at eye-level, resembling a miniature city that literalizes curator Jenelle Porter’s description of Shechet’s work as “equally sculpture and architecture” (Arlene Shechet, 11). The ashen coloring subtly hints to the artist’s experiences as a New Yorker after the 9/11 attacks, evoking imagery of fallen buildings, burnt-out ruins, and urban debris. Alongside Building is a small series of glass sculptures titled In the Balance. As the only offering in glass on view, they stick out as an elegant side-note, with shapes that recall the smaller pottery pieces in Building and a theme related to breath that carries over into future works. To me the appealing aspects of all the works in this section is how they reference traditional craft shapes, but remain completely non-functional.

shechet-ANightOut2011-MyBalzacArlene Shechet: A Night Out, 2011 (left) and My Balzac, 2010 (right).

shechet-LollandAirTime-2006Arlene Shechet: Loll, 2006-07 (left) and Air Time, 2007 (right).

shechet-NowPlaying2015-Tattletale2012Arlene Shechet: Now Playing, 2015 (left) and Tattletale, 2012 (right).

shechet-NoNoise2013-Stories2013Arlene Shechet: No Noise, 2013 (left) and Stories, 2013 (right).

shechet-NotToMention2013-NoMatterWhat2013Arlene Shechet: Not to Mention, 2013 (left – via CFile) and No Matter What, 2013 (right).

shechet-Absolutely2012-Away2012Arlene Shechet: Absolutely, 2014 (left) and Away, 2014 (right).

shechet-ParallelPlay-2012Arlene Shechet: selections from Parallel Play series, 2012-2014.

The meat of the exhibition is in the third gallery, a long stretch of freestanding sculpture that highlights Shechet’s interest in texture, form, and color. Several pieces are inspired by lungs and breath, relating to her father’s death from lung cancer, their lumpy grey shapes inflating and deflating, their random circular orifices painted blood orange. Others are comical, with droopy appendages and colorful splotches. Still others are architectural, or even monumental, with jutting windows and dark loops, leaning every which way like a surreal Tower of Pisa. Most are primarily made of ceramic, and all are placed atop stands of varying material and size, some matching and some contrasting their passengers, some including kiln bricks as a reference to the act of firing clay. The work is remarkable in its totally freeform look, so far from the seemingly meticulously-planned aspect of most carved and molded sculpture. In her process, Shechet drips and stacks, presses and pulls, attacks and retreats, leaving traces of her movements like the strokes of an action painting. Though abstract in both form and title, the sculptures evoke different emotional responses in each viewer, intimate in their tactility, strange and funny and unavoidable in their presence.

In a partially-enclosed wing off the main gallery are several large-scale wall paintings that tie in closely with the freestanding pieces nearby. Their blotchy application of color and thick, three-dimensional shapes reflect the forms found in her sculpture. In fact, the compositions are created by applying molds of different sections of the sculptures to create textured paper, spreading out and flattening her favorite visual motifs so they can be viewed in a new element. The process is detailed in this short Art 21 video, which also offers a glimpse of the pieces on view at the ICA.

shechet-raspberrytwistArlene Shechet: Raspberry Twist, 2012.

ASBreakingtheMold01Arlene Shechet: Dancing Girl with Two Right Feet, 2012. via Arlene Shechet

shechet-artwork-040-split-blockArlene Shechet: Split Block, 2013. via Art 21

The final space, a small enclosed room with black walls, is the most indicative of Shechet’s interest in display, functionally presenting the artist as curator. Here, works from her residency at the celebrated Meissen porcelain studio in Germany are arranged like so many knick-knacks on shelves of varying height and size. She mixes her own uncanny experiments in with actual historical ceramics, highlighting the kind of aesthetic that was treasured in the 18th century–most notably orientalist tropes and delicate courtly figurines. Shechet’s contributions are generally hybrid creations that melt or cut or combine these familiar elements into something new and strange. Disembodied legs pop out of rosebuds, abstract shapes crop up on porcelain plates, vases soften and tip over erratically. It’s an odd, funny little room that invites close looking (though, sadly, no photos) and adds an unexpected historicity to the exhibition as a whole, relating Shechet’s contemporary use of ceramic to its decorative and East Asian origins.

shechet-AndSoAndSoAndSoArlene Shechet: So and So and So and So and So and On and On, 2010.

In conversation with fellow artist Janine Antoni, Shechet says, “One of the reasons I’ve liked working with marginalized materials is that they have a kind of slackness. They give me more opportunity to say things in an unexpected way, or to point out the full range of life rather than a narrower range” (Arlene Shechet, 150). Though her approach to “pointing out the full range of life” is nonspecific, I do feel these works represent a whole person, a whole volume of emotions. They reveal the flaws, the humor, the tragedy, the playfulness, the bizarre, and beauty everyone experiences, though they may ultimately best represent the artist herself.

Sources:

“Arlene Shechet.” Art21. http://www.art21.org/artists/arlene-shechet

Jenelle Porter, et al. Arlene Shechet. Institute of Contemporary Art/Boston and Prestel, 2015.

Exhibitions: Adriana Varejão at ICA Boston

varejao-PolvoPortraitsI-ChinaSeries-2014-detAdriana Varejão: Polvo Portraits I (China Series) (detail), 2014. All photos by the author.

With large-scale paintings that seemingly ooze innards and self-portraits brushed with racial signifiers, Brazilian artist Adriana Varejão does not hold anything back. Her works offer a pointed commentary on contemporary race relations by referencing colorism, colonialism, co-mingled cultures, and cannibalism. The latter is the unifying theme of the artist’s first US solo exhibition, curated by Anna Stothart, though she and Varejão prefer the term “anthropophagy”- coined by Brazilian modernist poet Oswald de Andrade to describe the assimilation (“devouring”) of European culture by native Brazilians as a means of surviving during the colonial period. In this way, “the cannibal, which had long represented the paradigm of the indigenous savage” is reclaimed, and “the taboo of eating human flesh [is transformed] into a symbol of cultural absorption” (Stothart, 39).

varejao-EntranceFigureI-1997Adriana Varejão: Entrance Figure I, 1997.

varejao-EntranceFigureI-1997-detAdriana Varejão: Entrance Figure I (detail), 1997.

varejao-Carpet-StyleTileworkOnCanvases-1999Adriana Varejão: Carpet-Style Tilework on Canvases, 1999.

Varejão represents this concept both literally and figuratively in a range of media, including large-scale paintings, mixed-media installations, and sculptural tiles. Entrance Figure I, situated in the first room of the exhibition, probably reveals her themes most literally. A classical nude woman stands in the center, gesturing in welcome (referencing popular courtly decorations in Portugal and Brazil). Covered in floral tattoos and holding a spear, she represents an idealized indigenous warrior. Her right hand reveals a shocking scene behind her, a grisly depiction of cannibalism as nude men and women tear into human body parts, cooking them on a large fire. These images themselves are pulled from the illustrations of Flemish printmaker Theodorus de Bry, who illustrated the people of the Americas with incredibly broad strokes, never having traveled there himself. As Stothart notes, in the minds of colonizing Europeans, such images “became validation for forced catechism and cultural oppression” (Stothart, 41). In works like this, Varejão relies on stereotypes of indigenous peoples, long maintained by Western minds (often unconsciously), as well as viewers’ familiarity with omnipresent Greco-Roman motifs. We see a classically beautiful nude, but are thrown off by her allover body tattoos. We see a classically beautiful balustrade setting, but are then repulsed by the intense scene of cannibalism and “savages”. The blue-and-white painted style of this piece and many others is a further reference to colonial ceramic tiles, subverting a domestic tradition into something far more sinister.

My favorite element of Varejão’s work is her penchant for Cronenbergian body horror. Several of her pieces are literally spilling over with fabricated blood and guts, others pucker like human skin. The artist breaks through the facade of harmonious cultivation, of benevolent colonizers, of imposed “civilization.” These nicely painted tiles are falling apart to reveal the human detritus inside, a not-so-subtle reminder of Brazil’s (and all of Latin America’s, really) violent past due to European takeover. In her work, Varejão asserts that there is no hiding that past, even today, for it remains an integral part of Brazil’s cultural identity. Wall with incisions à la Fontana is a canvas that has been slashed as if with a sword or knife, cutting into the painting to expose blood and tissue, an update of the cut canvases of Argentinian modernist Lucio Fontana. Map of Lopo Homem II turns a 16th-century Portuguese map into sutured flesh, with gaping wound torn through the center: a visceral representation of map-making’s benefactor, world conquest, and a nod to the adage, “history is written by the victors” (and of course in most instances in Western history, that means white people). As Federico Rosa points out, in human affairs, “beauty and destruction often have to coexist” (Rosa, “Adriana Varejão: A History of Flesh”).

 

varejao-MapOfLopoHomemII-1992 Adriana Varejão: Map of Lopo Homem II, 1992.

varejao-Folds2-2003 Adriana Varejão: Folds 2, 2003.

varejao-exploratorylaparotomyii Adriana Varejão: Exploratory Laparotomy II, 1996.

varejao-exploratorylaparotomyii2 Adriana Varejão: Exploratory Laparotomy II (detail), 1996.

varejao-WallWithIncisionsALaFontanaHorizontal-2009-11Adriana Varejão: Wall With Incisions a la Fontana-horizontal, 2009.

One gallery is devoted to a third and integral aspect of Varejão’s practice: her exploration of race and colorism. For her recent “Polvo” series, she experiments with skin tone and racial perceptions in both paintings and mixed-media installations. Polvo Oil Colors from 2013 features a collection of paint tubes with labels like “coffee with milk,” “half breed,” and “mostly white,” all descriptors taken from a 1976 census in which Brazilians were able to identify their own race. Having created the paint colors, Varejão then uses these unique racial signifiers in a number of subversive portraits. For Polvo Portraits (Seascape Series), she commissioned a traditional Brazilian artist to paint multiple copies of her portrait, which she then altered using different skin tones so that her face suddenly moved within numerous racial categories. Such works point out the limiting and narrow-minded views of race within contemporary society, views that have carried over from the complex racial hierarchies established by Europeans when conquering South America. The artist challenges her viewers to consider how skin color affects their view of a person, specifically of a woman, silently pushing all of our unconscious prejudices and assumptions about race and ethnicity to the forefront of our looking experience.

In the final room of the show, there are a few paintings taken from a series dedicated to empty tiled rooms, in which Vareão chooses to forgo the sculptural guts for a more subdued composition, merely hinting at unseen acts of violence through stark settings and anonymous blood. The large-scale canvas The Guest perhaps makes the biggest impact of the whole show. Its bright white tiles seem to pop out of the wall, a believable three-dimensionality that invites the viewer into the painted space, only to meet them with a mysterious pool of blood. There is no visible body, no attacker, no weapon, no police tape or clean-up crew, no indication of the titular “guest.” Upon viewing this work, I was immediately reminded of Varejão’s peer Teresa Margolles, whose work Limpieza features a man mopping a palatial floor with the blood and grime of Mexican crime scenes. Margolles is literal and aggressive with her use of human remains to comment on the violence that has become commonplace in her home country; Varejão is similarly confrontational and visceral, but filters her commentary through history and metaphor so that the overall effect is more open-ended. Her presentation is varied in material and style but consistent in its iconography. She captures our attention with her unsettling compositions and forces us to consider why we are unsettled, why we feel discomfort when met with the atrocities of the past and the remnants of colonialism found in the present. Her work is strange and academic and often esoteric, but its full-frontal approach makes an impact regardless of context, and this exhibit is sure to stick with me for a long time.

 

varejao-PolvoOilColors-2013Adriana Varejão: Polvo Oil Colors, 2013.

varejao-PolvoPortraitsI-ChinaSeries-2014Adriana Varejão: Polvo Portraits I (China Series), 2014.

varejao-PolvoPortraitsI-SeascapeSeries-2014Adriana Varejão: Polvo Portraits I (Seascape Series), 2009.

varejao-TheGuest-2005Adriana Varejão: The Guest, 2005.

varejao-ThePerverse-2006Adriana Varejão: The Perverse, 2006.

Sources:

Federico Rosa. “Adriana Varejão: A History of Flesh.” The Culture Trip. http://theculturetrip.com/south-america/brazil/articles/adriana-varej-o-a-history-of-flesh-/

Anna Stothart. Adriana Varejão. Institute of Contemporary Art/Boston, 2014.

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

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.