June 2009 Archives

The Art Gallery Heresies

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The Dinosaur Heresies, by Robert T. Bakker

A little more than twenty years ago, near the tail end of my tenure in high school or maybe my early days of college, I read a book by Robert T. Bakker called The Dinosaur Heresies. It's basically only slightly deeper than a popular science book in laying out its argument, which is, essentially, that the dinosaurs probably never went entirely extinct but are actually still all around us in the form of birds. Even more egregious: All the dinosaur exhibits you'd ever seen were put together incorrectly. Paleontologists were ignoring the evidence and nailing dinosaur bone fossils together as if they were building lizards and not birds.

The book was fantastically compelling, filled with tons of evidence, extrapolation, illustrations, and anecdotes. And Bakker rhymes with rocker: Bob Bakker writes like the rock star of scientists. Altogether a great book.

After reading it I was determined to get to the Museum of Natural History to see what they'd done wrong. Armed with my new knowledge of dinosauria, I was going to check out the exhibits and laugh at the deluded constructs of an earlier age. Ha ha!

When I finally made some time to get there, I found much to my surprise that the museum's dinosaur exhibits had been closed for renovation. Not the smallest part of which was, incidentally, rebuilding all the displays and skeletons to conform to Bakker's theories. Everyone, apparently, realized he was right, and they'd been wrong, and were quickly moving to fix things. Even the American Museum of Natural History, whose iconic dinosaur skeletons had stayed pretty much the same for generations of New York City schoolchildren, were remade in the image of the new vision.

Almost overnight, heresy had become orthodoxy. Nearly a hundred years of thinking was overthrown in barely an instant.

When I think about the current state of the art world, remembering the Dinosaur Heresies gives me hope.

Picking Artist Pockets


Francisco de Goya y Lucientes, Saturno devorando a un hijo, 1821-1823, Técnica mixta, 143x81 cm

Francisco de Goya y Lucientes, Saturno devorando a un hijo, 1821-1823, técnica mixta, 143x81 cm

The economic downturn -- a phrase which has its own macro on most pundit keyboards these days -- has caused many people to predict a new era of creativity as Darwinian pressures on businesses and individuals force innovation in the struggle to survive. With art galleries closing left and right, and the remaining dealers feeling the squeeze, creative means of making money are cropping up in the art world.

Unfortunately some of the creativity is geared towards wringing even more money from artists, not gallery customers. Lyons Wier Gallery -- until recently Lyons Wier-Ortt, and when we find out what happened to Anna Ortt, we'll let you know -- Lyons Wier, for example, announced recently something owner Michael is calling "Art Bazaar", where artists can pay him $20 to sit in his gallery all weekend in front of six feet's worth of their stuff. I thought this sounded like a pretty cool deal until I realized that he's just sucking money from his (potential) work force, kind of like McDonald's charging their fry cooks for the privilege of selling their wares.

Meanwhile Ceres Gallery -- which has always struck me as a questionable space -- is bringing "back by popular demand" their Exposure "show" where artists can basically rent out a tiny part of Ceres for a week at a time between November and December for only -- only! -- $250.

And then there's Smack Mellon which is using traditional oil painters as fundraising workhorses paying a pathetic $125 per half-hour per painting, which is a less than a professional portrait painter would make for simply taking a client's call.

Smack Mellon is something of a special case since it's not a for-profit gallery, and Ceres is some sort of non-profit co-operative kind of thing; to Lyons Wier and other galleries like them we could say that, rather than creatively finding ways of exploiting artists they should perhaps simply be doing their jobs of selling better. That is, after all, how real businesses go about raising cash: By trying to sell more stuff. Smack Mellon and Ceres aren't forgiven, though; as organizations ostensibly founded for improving the lives of artists, they should be getting their funding from elsewhere, not living off the backs of those they claim to be helping. The Second Great Depression is no excuse for eating your own young.

[Links and discussion from Stephanie Jackson, Sharon Butler, and Joanne Mattera.]

June 18, 2009


Julie Evans, that fantastic artist -- I think she's my current favorite, but you know me, I change all the time -- Julie wrote to me (and everyone else on her mailing list) to let me know she had a couple of pieces in the group summer show at McKenzie Fine Art (until, good lord, August 7, 2009). I therefore made it a point to be in Chelsea for the opening on June 18.

22 artists on the walls and a good crowd: That's Valerie's place. As I went around I saw a few artists I've reviewed in the past -- Eric Heist, Ken Weaver, Julie Allen. There were a number of artists I didn't know, too. Rather than run down the list of everyone in the show, I'm going to note the works that struck me as especially interesting.

Julie Evans, Umbilcumdom, 2008, acrylic and gouache on paper, 11.5x10 inches

Julie Evans, Umbilcumdom, 2008, acrylic and gouache on paper, 11.5x10 inches

Julie Evans' work is, of course, the standout. I find, doing my usual research for writing this up, that I've seen one of the pieces before, but this one I've pictured here is new to me, I think. Hard to say with abstracts, and anyway Julie's been working in this sort of series, all similar, for a couple of years. What I liked especially about this one is the sinuous olive green line snaking its way around the spreading watercolor. She has such a sure touch that it looks as if it went down in one stroke, with edges ever so slightly sfumato, merging perfectly with the surface. Nothing she does looks painted on; it all looks organically related, whether carefully planned or allowed to run its own random course. This is the level of abstract mastery that can only come from many years of practice and experimentation, and yet it all floats so lightly there, as if it just happened.

Karen Margolis, Dvitva, 2009, watercolor, gouache and graphite on Abaca paper, 14x11 inches

Karen Margolis, Dvitva, 2009, watercolor, gouache and graphite on abaca paper, 14x11 inches

More organic and less controlled -- more loose -- is the work of Karen Margolis. Her two small paintings (or drawings, whichever -- they straddle that line) are lovely little cloudbursts of subtle pastel color and fiddly detail, working up from tiny circles to larger ones in a cellular kaleidoscope. Smoky, cloudy, evocative, over fibrous, translucent abaca paper, altogether each painting flowers into a pleasant space.

Jim Dingilian, The Pines, 2009, smoke in empty glass bottle, 11.5x4 inches

Jim Dingilian, The Pines, 2009, smoke in empty glass bottle, 11.5x4 inches

It wouldn't be a trip to McKenzie Fine Art without some unclassifiable object presenting itself. This time there are two from Jim Dingilian. It looks like he burns a candle inside a bottle, coating the sides with soot. Then he somehow scratches into the soot to create a drawing around the inside of the glass. The result is intriguing. I can't tell how I feel about it as art. Certainly it makes a conversation piece and a curiosity, and maybe that's good enough.

The rest of the show didn't strike me as strongly as the three artists I mentioned here, but I do think the show as a whole is worth seeing.

Across the street from there is Lennon, Weinberg showing Cindy Workman's the women. (yes, the period is part of the title). Beware of shows with their own punctuation, especially if they have their own ideas about capitalization. Instead of being titled that way, they should just be called "Pretentious" and left at that. Truth in advertising, don't you know. (An aside: It says something, to me anyway, when a gallery can come up with a highfalutin title for a show like "the women." but doesn't have an employee smart enough to know how to spell Plexiglas in the work descriptions. To say nothing of including the damned frame in the media.)

Cindy Workman, Pebbles, 2003, unique digital print, Plexiglas and frame, 51x40.25 inches

Cindy Workman, Pebbles, 2003, unique digital print, Plexiglas and frame, 51x40.25 inches

And, oh, is Cindy Workman's show pretentious. Here are Cindy's own words from the gallery verbiage: "These composite images invite the viewer to perceive many roles at once. While addressing the complexity of today’s female self they invite the observer to process and examine this new model, continuing art's long tradition of shifting universal perceptions and prevailing standards." Inviting, addressing, continuing, shifting, prevailing. How wonderfully droll, considering her paintings all consist of heavy-handed juxtapositions of portrayals of women: Big boobs plus Pebbles Flintstone! Porn plus '50s-style commercial illustration! Young girl plus naked woman plus mathematical diagrams! A blowjob superimposed with a child's drawing! Lipstick lesbians and, um, the Lone Ranger!

Strip out the verbiage, ignore the ham-fisted social commentary and approach the paintings as visual objects: They're okay. They're mildly interesting to the eye. Cindy combines bold, simple compositions with solid color schemes; they're not boring. It's just unoriginal Pop, basically harmless fooling around coupled to good decorative sense. Hip wallpaper for the new bourgeoisie; thought-provoking transgression for those whose intellection involves deciding from which local cafe to buy overpriced coffee and whose idea of revolution is crossing when the sign says DONT WALK.

But maybe this summer is the time for yawnprop, propaganda that puts viewers to sleep with the laziness of its oft-repeated slogans. That would explain why Cindy's lamely obvious feminism slipped into a ground-floor gallery at the same time that Cedric Smith's lamely obvious explorations of blacks in early 20th century America showed up at Dillon Gallery.

Cedric Smith, The Big Top, 2008, mixed media on canvas, 36x80 inches

Cedric Smith, The Big Top, 2008, mixed media on canvas, 36x80 inches

Like Cindy, Cedric has a thing for Pop, but unlike her, he's not interested in creating a shiny, plastic, antiseptic surface; instead, like a painter of stage flats, he'd rather throw up some faux finishes to fashion trompe l'oeil antique signs. This gives the gallery the feel of an upscale Houlihan's or T.G.I. Friday's with its vintage advertising hanging around. Only the necessary art world twist differentiates these: Cedric has interposed old photos of black people into signage where they would not have been welcome originally. So we have an ad for the New York Times with a black newsboy, farm produce come-ons with cherubic black babies, and even part of an ad for Coca-Cola with a black child dressed as a jockey on a rocking horse.

Certainly Cedric is skilled in the technique department: I had to get up close to the work to see it was not, in fact, weathered, painted wood. He sure can turn canvas into old planking with the best of them. But the illusion aside, these just aren't very interesting in any way. Their only reason for existing is the conceptual underpinning, and frankly, it's so obvious and weak I can't imagine caring. Yes, black people drank Coke but weren't shown in ads. Yes, there were circuses with all-colored troupes. And? I don't believe it's a worthwhile goal for art to make viewers think, but if that's going to be your goal, you ought to at least make them really think. Or save everyone some trouble and just make one sign reading, "YOU KNOW WHAT'S BAD? RACISM!"

Anyway, I was only joking about the summer; it's not the season for yawnprop, it's the season for group shows. Although some group shows are more coherent than others. Sometimes a group show really just looks like a dealer emptying their closets. Such is the case with Low Blow: And Other Species of Confusion at Stux Gallery. Even the title lets you know there's no real connection between these works, aside from Stefan Stux still having them cluttering up his back room.

Which is not necessarily meant to insult to the art on display. Even the most doggedly random show can consist of good art. But, sadly, not this one. Most of the art in the show is dopey (Tom Sanford), weird (Benji Whalen), or both (Don Porcella). The front of the gallery is taken up by an installation that qualifies as dopey, weird, ugly, and incompetent all at once: Kristen Schiele's Burn for My Love, a pile of poorly made dollhouse-sized junk -- decorated with bits cut from magazines or photos or something -- and a wall-sized abomination possessed of not a single redeeming quality.

I usually respect Stefan's choices even if I don't actually like them; usually I can see how someone might like the art he shows, even if that someone isn't me. Not this time.

Ashley Hope, The Downes Effect: Swallows, 2008, gouache on paper, 48x48 inches

Ashley Hope, The Downes Effect: Swallows, 2008, gouache on paper, 48x48 inches

Two pieces did catch my eye in a good way, though. First was Ashley Hope, whose work I had yet to see. I'd been hoping to find some one day since seeing her work online in Jack Tilton's "School Days" show. This particular work shows her sure hand with gouache: It's not an easy medium to work in, and yet somehow she manages to work up a really large piece and keep the tones perfectly smooth across a relatively vast expanse of paper. It's remarkable. Her pigments glow, her composition is excellent, and, well, as a whole it's just mildly disturbing. Very nice.

Aaron Johnson, The Exposure of Luxury, 2009, acrylic on polyester knit mesh, 75x60.5 inches

Aaron Johnson, The Exposure of Luxury, 2009, acrylic on polyester knit mesh, 75x60.5 inches

I also liked -- but didn't totally love -- Aaron Johnson's work. It's ridiculously energetic, practically vibrating off the...whatever it's made out of. The media description says "polyester knit mesh" but that doesn't really communicate how alien the material of this piece is: Some of it looks like animation cels laid over canvas, some of it looks like acrylic paint, some of it looks like plastic. The layers don't all lay quite flat, or they don't seem to. Even up close I was kind of baffled by the whole thing. And the content, as you can see, combines Chinese and maybe some southeast Asian and Indian motifs into a phantasmagorical scene of sex and violence with a dash of Dalí. The beast doesn't quite hang together -- something just doesn't click overall -- but there are things about it I like, and certainly I've never seen anything similar.

I should probably also mention Barnaby Whitfield's pastel which is technically magnificent but which is otherwise so horrendously hideous, wacky, and nauseating I can't even bear to think about it for too long. On the plus side, it contains penises.

Judy Glantzman, ANGEL, 2000, oil on canvas, 90x80 inches

Judy Glantzman, ANGEL, 2000, oil on canvas, 90x80 inches

Finally, on my way home I saw an open door and went in. I was rewarded for my efforts with some of the most unappealing paintings I've seen in a long time, all under the name Judy Glantzman. Betty Cuningham, alas, is showing three years of Judy's work in The White Paintings, 1999-2001. Imagine for a moment that Willem de Kooning and Francis Bacon's love child suffered from epilepsy and some evil nurse stuck a paintbrush in their hand at the start of each seizure. Those paintings would be about half as vile as the ones I accidentally saw.

Also, Judy has drawings up. They're bad, too.

Interestingly, while performing my usual due diligence on this review, I found I unfavorably reviewed Judy's work almost exactly three years ago. What I saw then -- which was newer than the work in this show -- was so completely different I didn't even realize it was from the same painter. Those paintings were significantly less terrible. Still very bad, though. At this rate Judy will become only the world's third worst artist in approximately 3.5 eons. Watch your back, Marlene Dumas!

Good Bye, Bellwether


Part of being a good art world journalist is having your ear to the ground to pick up on important news as it happens. Which is just one reason why I'm not a journalist, let alone a good one. My back hurts when I try to get my ear that low. Nevertheless, I do hear things, and I heard today that Becky Smith has announced that she's closing her Bellwether Gallery.

My first thought was to get on my blog and gloat because I'd never seen anything even remotely decent at Bellwether and Becky was standoffish in e-mail to me the one time I wrote to her. But then I thought that schadenfreude does not become me; I shouldn't be happy to hear of someone else's misfortune that way. It's not right.

Then I read Becky's closing statement as quoted at the Awl:

I always tried to have a distinct voice and point of view, represent as many women as possible, curate from my values and not my taste and get behind artists whose brilliance and concepts were apparent in their craft.

And I realized I couldn't let it go. I can only hope that everyone who curates from their values and not their taste goes the way of Bellwether. Artists whose concepts are apparent in their craft? May they all get jobs driving street sweepers.

Free Posters of Crappy Art

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By the way, I finally saw Chantal Joffe's show at Cheim & Read.

She sucks.

Cody Pallo's Utopian Key


Does this look like a space for publicity? No it does not. But I'm going to go ahead and pass some on anyway because I couldn't resist.

I love getting weird e-mail. I don't get enough. Most of the time it's nothing all that interesting, but today I received a message from one Cody Pallo trumpeting the opening of his latest online venture. He's written to me once before, announcing something called Thought Showers, which seemed kind of okay but not terribly exciting. Who the heck is John Zorn anyhow?

Cody Pallo, Utopia Key (detail), 2009

Cody Pallo, Utopia Key (detail), 2009.

Cody's latest is called Utopian Key. I urge you to hie thee hence because it really is one of the most beautiful site designs I've ever seen. It's probably resource-intensive, so only go if your computer's all buff and stuff. Usually I don't approve of Flash and, I don't know, QuickTime and whatever else, because I consider that stuff to be a burden on the real World Wide Web. But here it's just too damned lovely to complain about.

It reminds me of Joseph Squier's Urban Diary, a wonderful little art experiment from 1995. That was the kind of thing that showed how good the Web could really be, but its elegance and poetry have, to my mind, never been topped.

In this case Utopian Key is selling stuff, which is okay, I guess. The stuff being sold seems neat enough.

Young or Old

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Not too long ago I noted that John Perreault is a chucklehead. I said I'd probably stop reading his blog soon. I haven't stopped yet, though, and today's entry taught me something interesting.

As a rule I don't try to research an artist before I go see their show. If I see some of their work online, that's okay. But I want to see art without any distractions. I don't want to know anything personal about the artist. I don't even want to know their gender. I want to know nothing. I like the idea of approaching art entirely openly.

It's not always possible. I can't see Picasso's work without knowing it's Picasso. I can't see Matisse's work anew. Recently in the comments on another post Tim asked me what I'd think about my own work if I saw it in a show (his guess was I'd hate it) -- this is a variant of the same problem. You can't really see art entirely freshly if you know anything about the artist. The more you know, the harder it is to be totally, visually honest.

I went to see Yayoi Kusama in a perfect frame of mind, then. I had absolutely no idea who she was. I had very little idea when I wrote my review, too, aside from her gender, which I had to figure out just to get the pronouns right. (As a writer, I've decided it's within my style guidelines to use "they" as an indefinite singular pronoun, as in "Joyce Kilmer is a bad poet, they write lousy verses", either to hide the gender or because I don't know it. (Joyce is a guy, by the way. Turnpike rest stop named after him. Wrote poetry about trees.) But it's an inelegant construction and not considered proper English by all editors.)

That admission, that I knew nothing about Yayoi, might be ammunition for those who think I'm a complete moron. That's fine. As I said, though, I like knowing nothing about an artist, because then I can be as honest and clear-eyed as possible about their art.

Today I read John Perreault on Yayoi and was quite surprised to learn that she is not, as I expected, under thirty years old. The mental image I'd formed of her through the show was that she was 25, a goofy Japanese kid. It turns out she's actually 80 years old and has OCD. Apparently she's been making much the same art since the days when she was fooling around with Joseph Cornell and Donald Judd.

I find this really interesting. I know you can't work backwards -- you can't look at someone's art and tell what kind of person they are (at least, I can't) -- and yet I'm still surprised when I'm reminded.


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