Tag: New York City

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: “Surround Audience” at the New Museum

A few weeks ago I had a few hours to myself in New York and, after much consternation over both the Studio Museum and the Brooklyn Museum being closed on Tuesdays, I decided to check out the New Museum’s Triennial exhibition. Titled Surround Audience, the show is the third in the museum’s “triennial” program: group exhibitions which endeavor to spotlight important artists early in their careers, predicting the future of contemporary art. The result is a museum-wide showcase packed with awesome, diverse, young artists (so young, ugh) and I liked pretty much all of it! The size and scope of the show as a whole is daunting, and I could never write about everything I saw, so instead I’ve picked out the top five artists who stuck out to me.

 

huxtable-untitled-group-2015Juliana Huxtable: Untitled (Psychosocial Stuntin’) (left), 2015 and Untitled in the Rage (Nibiru Cataclysm) (right), 2015. All photos by the author.

benson-Juliana-2015Juliana Huxtable: Untitled (Destroying Flesh), 2015.

Juliana Huxtable

Artist-poet-DJ Juliana Huxtable has been making waves with her strong online presence, gathering a large following on instagram and tumblr. I had heard of her but wasn’t too familiar with her work, but her photography and poetry on view in Surround Audience immediately pulled me in. In her performance-photography, she creates personae inspired by pop culture, history, and mythology, with a narrative feel. Her photographs are interspersed with free-form poetry ruminating on identity, communication, capitalism, and generational history. In the center of the gallery with her pieces is a life-size sculpture of the artist created by Frank Benson (with Huxtable’s collaboration). With its tantalizing sheen and eerie green-gray color palette, the 3D-printed work captures the trans artist during her transition period, proudly showcasing her non-gender-conforming body while also placing it on a kind of sci-fi plane that matches the otherworldly feel of her self-portraits. Taken together, the works present Huxtable as both a changeable, larger-than-life fictional character as well as a bold, uninhibited, and real person.

 

Laric-untitled1-2015Oliver Laric: Untitled, 2014-15. Video still.

Laric-untitled2-2015Oliver Laric: Untitled, 2014-15. Video still.

Oliver Laric

Berlin-based video artist Oliver Laric’s untitled piece offers a study of transformation, appropriation, and narrative tropes within Western and Japanese animation. A string of short, hand-drawn animated clips are shown in fast succession, capturing characters and some objects at the moment of transformation, with humans turning into animals, alien creatures, mechanical contraptions, etc, but the full change never shown as it blinks to the next shot. There are also moments where the act of drawing is shown, as strokes of line and paint daubs coalesce into figures. The video as a whole seems tailor-made for internet-savvy folks, with references to furries, Disney, anime, and Saturday-morning cartoons, but it’s also easy to interpret its constantly shifting forms as a commentary on contemporary society, on a fast-paced culture that must endlessly re-appropriate the old into something new, preying on our sense of nostalgia. Honestly, I just loved watching it, the animation is beautiful and fluid, the premise is inventive, and the ambient score is hypnotic.

 

Kotatkova-NotHowPeopleMoveButWhatMovesThem5-2013Eva Kotátková: Not How People Move But What Moves Them, 2013.

Kotatkova-NotHowPeopleMoveButWhatMovesThem1-2013Eva Kotátková: Not How People Move But What Moves Them, 2013.

Kotatkova-NotHowPeopleMoveButWhatMovesThem2-2013Eva Kotátková: Not How People Move But What Moves Them, 2013.

Kotatkova-NotHowPeopleMoveButWhatMovesThem4-2013Eva Kotátková: Not How People Move But What Moves Them, 2013.

Eva Kotátková

I’m pretty sure I let out an audible gasp of delight when I came upon Eva Kotátková’s installation. Her collection of performative sculpture immediately reminded me of one of my favorite artists, Rebecca Horn, but pushed to even further extremes than Horn’s early body extensions. Kotátková’s work employs cage structures and prickly objects to create interactive tools and faux-appendages, accompanied by collage-drawings diagramming more elaborate creations. I love the possibility of her work, with images of hypothetical performers coming to mind as I viewed each piece (there were scheduled performances, but I missed them). Statically, they visually interact with each other within the installation, set against a cheery yellow backdrop that contrasts with the slightly menacing effect of the metal bars and rods that make up the sculptural shapes. Like Horn, Kotátková explores bondage as a concept, and her contraptions encourage users to consider the balance of bodily freedom and containment as they both hamper and enhance movement, along with the psychological effects of institutions that enforce these controls, like prisons and hospitals.

 

AkunyiliCrosby-anndwebegintoletgo-2013Njideka Akunyili Crosby: And We Begin to Let Go, 2013.

AkunyiliCrosby-thread-2012Njideka Akunyili Crosby: Thread, 2012.

Njideka Akunyili Crosby

It’s no secret I love collage, and these large-scale mixed media pieces by Nigerian-born artist Njideka Akunyili Crosby stopped me in my tracks. Her recent marriage to an American and move to Los Angeles serve as the context for these multi-layered portraits. For her, combining different styles and visual sources is a direct connection to her cultural history, referencing how colonized countries have often been forced to assimilate the art of Western cultures into their own traditions. With an eclectic array of source materials and brilliant color schemes, her works capture simple, intimate moments between lovers, focusing on expressive body language in her figures while the collage elements taken from Nigerian magazines capture the country she left behind. They drew me in almost immediately with their large size and tactile mixed-media layers, encouraging a close, lingering look.

 

Domanovic-SOHO-SubstancesOfHumanOrigin-2015Aleksandra Domanović: SOHO (Substances of Human Origin), 2015.

Domanovic-SOHO-SubstancesOfHumanOrigin2-2015Aleksandra Domanović: SOHO (Substances of Human Origin), 2015.

Aleksandra Domanović

Born in Yugoslavia (now Serbia), Berlin-based artist Aleksandra Domanović is concerned with the history of technology within her home country, and especially women’s roles in it. Her installation for the Triennial is the third in a trilogy of works connecting science-fiction, technological history, and the representation of women. Here, she has created three 3D-printed sculptures modeled after the Belgrade Hand, an early robotic prosthetic invented in the 60s by Serbian scientist Rajko Tomović, displayed within a hanging curtain of plastic sheeting decorated with blood cells and sea creatures to suggest a contrast between organic and man-made materials. Though based on the same model, the three sculptures perform different actions and seem to have portray diverse abilities, suggesting the technological advances that have since been made and more that may still be possible in future developments. Their realistic fabrication but fantastical look gives them an uncanny presence, and as I observed them it was easy to make mental links to robots-gone-bad sci-fi tropes like the disembodied Terminator hand or the hodgepodge mechanical killer in Hardware.

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: “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.

Exhibitions: Isa Genzken at MoMA NYC

Isa GenzkenNote: All photos taken by the writer.

With a career spanning nearly forty years (and counting) and a body of work notable for both its breadth and variety, Isa Genzken is an artist well worth a look. Her current show at the Museum of Modern Art in New York is a compelling retrospective, covering everything from her early minimalist sculpture and miniature assemblages to her street photography and memorial designs for the World Trade Center. Born and raised in Germany, Genzken has primarily worked in Cologne and Berlin, with some stints in New York. She studied under painter Gerhard Richter at the Dusseldorf Fine Arts Academy, and the two were married for a time after she graduated. Her work is wildly diverse, but characterized by its mix of wacky, irreverent hodgepodge and Minimalist gravitas. The exhibition galleries abound with so many different objects and images, blending advertising slick and experimental painting with large-scale industrial sculpture and colorful found materials. I was delighted with each new room, each new discovery, for I was largely unfamiliar with Genzken’s range and output.

The show opens with a brand new piece, entitled Actors. A number of assemblaged mannequin figures are arranged against a backdrop of magazine covers and headlines. Their eclectic collage elements make for a grouping both funny and confrontational, with the title suggesting a stage set. Walking into the exhibition proper, the galleries are organized chronologically and generally separated by decade. Genzken’s 70s work sees her burgeoning engagement with Minimalism as well as found imagery, with slender canoe-like forms that sweep across the floor, and enlarged prints of advertisements for stereo systems (the artist was fascinated by the aesthetic forms of audio equipment).

Genzken-Actors3Isa Genzken: Actors, 2013.
Genzken-Actors2Isa Genzken: Actors, 2013.
Genzken-actors1Isa Genzken: Actors, 2013.
Isa Genzken first galleryIsa Genzken: Retrospective, gallery view.
Genzken-Basic Research 1989Isa Genzken: Basic Research, 1989.
Genzken-MLR 1992Isa Genzken: MLR, 1992.
Genzken-gallery view Isa Genzken: Retrospective, gallery view.
Genzken-Little Window 1994 Isa Genzken: Little Window, 1994.
Genzken-Lamp 1996Isa Genzken: Lamp, 1996.

In the 80s and 90s she moved on to concrete and resin sculpture- some fairly monumental in size- and textured paintings. I loved the feel of this gallery, with its sturdy, large-scale works in different industrial materials and geometric forms, a few reaching up towards the skylight. They are reminiscent of ruined buildings and cityscapes, but somewhat whimsical in their tactility and shapes. Along the walls are various experimental canvases, adding some color to the room but generally maintaining the subdued tones of the sculpture. The MLR series of paintings were made with spray paint and stencils, with layered compositions that recall architectural patterns and photogram silhouettes. The Basic Research series was created through frottage (a rubbing-out technique), resulting in a fascinating textured effect that had me doing double takes. A lot of her work had me doing double takes, actually. Genzken does not go for the obvious effect, combining and altering various familiar shapes and objects in unexpected ways.

By 2000, she was making the kitschy assemblage sculpture she is perhaps most known for, as seen in the sardonic series Fuck the Bauhaus. With these frankly silly works, she knowingly goes against the Bauhaus school’s belief in function over form, putting together wonderfully convoluted and useless- but vaguely architectural- combines. Around this time she began using found objects and materials found in hardware stores or street fairs. She continued to create abstract sculpture but in using such objects there is a note of representation and figuration seen in them. Her works also became more suited to site-specific installation, with series of sculptures coming together to form one immersive room, while also allowing her space for political and social commentary. The American Room– a set of assemblages that pokes fun at material culture, capitalism, and nationalism in the United States- and Empire/Vampire: Who Kills Death– assemblages paired with a film that act as commentary on the American presence of Iraq- are examples of this.

Genzken-Fuck the Bauhaus 2 2000Isa Genzken: Fuck the Bauhaus 2, 2000.
Genzken-Fuck the Bauhaus 4 2000Isa Genzken: Fuck the Bauhaus 4, 2000.
imageIsa Genzken: Social Facade, 2002.
Genzken-The American Room 2004 Isa Genzken: The American Room, 2004 (detail).
Genzken-Empire/Vampire: Who Kills Death 2003-04Isa Genzken: Empire/Vampire: Who Kills Death, 2003-2004 (detail).
Genzken-Empire/Vampire: Who Kills Death 2003-04 2Isa Genzken: Empire/Vampire: Who Kills Death, 2003-2004 (detail).
Genzken-Empire/Vampire: Who Kills Death 2003-04 3Isa Genzken: Empire/Vampire: Who Kills Death, 2003-2004 (detail).

The final gallery shows a grouping of Genzken’s Ground Zero project, produced in response to a call for design proposals for the World Trade Center site. Genzken was in New York City during the 9/11 attacks, and these works serve as her response to the event. Together they form a sort of eclectic miniature city, with buildings constructed out of found materials both high- and low-end. The artist stresses celebration and fun over sorrow, transforming the space into a happy memorial to the city itself.

Genzken’s tremendous output is of course only partially represented here, but MoMA has collected together an impressive array of the artist’s works, reflecting her personal and professional development since the early 1970s. With such a diverse oeuvre, I responded differently to certain movements in her work. Her concrete and resin sculpture is fantastic, her miniature assemblages are complex and often delightful, and her abstract paintings are surprisingly intricate. I was less compelled by her earlier minimalist sculpture and mid-90s street photography, however. Ultimately, Isa Genzken: Retrospective is a fun, varied exhibit that has so much to offer: art historical references, urban culture, political commentary, visual wit, and a good dose of wacky humor.

Genzken-Light (Ground Zero) 2008Isa Genzken: Light (Ground Zero), 2008.
Genzken-Ground Zero roomIsa Genzken: Ground Zero, 2008 – gallery view.
Genzken-Untitled 2012 Isa Genzken: Untitled, 2012.
Genzken-friend portraits 1998-2000Isa Genzken: Kai, 2000; Isa, 2000; Dan, 1999; Andy, 1999; Wolfgang, 1998. Portraits of Genzken’s friends, including artists Dan Graham and Wolfgang Tillmans.
Genzken-Gay Baby series 1997Isa Genzken: Gay Baby series, 1997.
Genzken-Slot Machine 1999-2000Isa Genzken: Slot Machine, 1999-2000.