Chelsea November

Detail: Rachel Whiteread’s Chess Set at Luhring Augustine

There were so many great shows in on 24th Street this week that I could hardly have paid enough attention to each, and skipped anything that was not on the first floor. There were two shows examining text in art, photography from André Kertész, a multimedia extravaganza from Mike Kelley, painting from Marcia Hafif, David Salle, Jim Shaw, Tony Magar, Luis Gispert & Jeffrey Reed, and selections from The Imagery of Chess Revisited.

André Kertész, The Early Years
The photographs at Silverstein Photography are so tiny they resemble early 20th century trading cards; they are so tiny that the gallery has provided magnifying glasses to better see them. I post a shot of nuns here because who can resist a shot of nuns? Who can resist tiny photographs? In a career that spanned much of the 20th century, the Hungarian photographer catalogued images from the documentary to the surreal. This tiny catalogue, available from Silverstein, beautifully illustrates the young man’s early lyricism and wit.

Who is Mike Kelley? I had never heard of him before this weekend, and whoever he is, I can tell you he is larger than life. Now at Gagosian, a gallery where I’ve seen huge Richard Serra sculptures snaking through the cavernous depths, Kelley’s multimedia installation Day is Done has the feel of a back lot, or a carnival side-show/fun house.

Apparently this is a “feature-length “musical” composed of thirty-two separate video chapters. Each section is a live-action recreation of a photograph of an “extracurricular activity” found in a high school yearbook.” Uh, huh. Well, for such a vast show I was amused, but filled with a general sense of “who let this kid in?”. Yes, there are many fun bits, but I kept thinking of that irritating kid in high school, the one who feels so entitled that all the space and resources get tied up with his or her vision. This sort of project usually ends up bolstering one’s ego or illustrating a private fascination—not one that serves those outside of the original visionary.

Promotional materials state that

’Day is Done’ will exist in several different forms. The one being shown at Gagosian Gallery is a large-scale video installation consisting of sets and projection screens. Various scenes will be programmed to turn off and on prompting the viewer to follow the action throughout the presentational space. Several scenes will run simultaneously in order to promote the effect of filmic cross-cutting in actual space.

Sounds intriguing no? And I admit there were moments of delight: the spinning table top props, etc. But by the end I was no further illuminated than at the beginning, and while spin-off products seemed to be selling briskly, and the gallery doors kept swinging wide, I looked so obviously perplexed that one of the security guards asked if I was okay. “Yes,” I replied, “I just don’t understand…” and this time it didn’t seem to be because it was art beyond me, art making me stretch. I live to be made to stretch, to think—not to be bored.

In an interview on PBS Kelley states “I really dislike popular culture…it’s garbage, but that’s the culture I live in and that’s the culture people speak”. I want to suggest that perhaps his lack of understanding is what makes this so flat. It may be what people speak, but it doesn’t seem to be what Mike Kelley speaks… Still it’s difficult not to be in awe of the grandiosity here.

The Glaze Paintings by Marcia Hafif at Baumgartner Gallery are a series of small, square panels of sheer glazed color. The gallery has odd angles and this gives the show a fragmented feel, hard to get a sense of the impact Hafif might have been going for. I wondered too, after seeing the Color show curated by the AGO in Toronto, what these paintings were adding to our experience/understanding of color and texture. On the other hand, her own text explains the project further. Each color:

annotated by the names of the colors involved in its making, such as Flesh Tint/Alizarin Crimson, Manganese Violet/Phthalocyanine Blue, Vermilion/Phthalocyanine Blue and Light Green/Indian Yellow; all are monochrome paintings constructed from two colors, made with the apparent precision of a dispassionate scientist. Hafif’s project, which is ongoing, involves every aspect of making a painting, from grinding the pigment into oil to deter mining the scale, proportion and mark.

So, in a way these are a kind of museum to traditional painting/making. At least this is what Hafif suggests. Paintings “can’t be made” this way. And yet they are hanging right now on the walls in Chelsea.

David Salle’s Vortex Paintings, now on at Mary Boone are fun. They look like collage, as though they might be modeled after photoshopped photographs: the swirl (or vortex) of an anime figure layered over bastardized pop cultural wallpaper (people fucking while Snow White lounges on a bucolic hillside). Interesting enough, but I kept thinking that the sum of the parts was not quite satisfying: from color choice to the oddly realistic items floating in the paintings.

The most striking aspect of the Jim Shaw show at Metro Pictures is the 79 foot long theater backdrop of a jungle landscape that looks as though Georganne Deen has been let loose on it, though it’s not as fun—or meaningful as her work. In fact the same old “culturally exotic” bubbles floating like tiny clouds across the vast expanse. I am sure it is not just the fall fashion for artists to be layering in random cultural signifiers (9/11, Shrek with a ‘corporate evil’ sign, Abu Ghraib) without any real analysis… Am I missing something here?

After the barrage of empty signifiers, Tony Magar’s paintings at the Mike Weiss Gallery were a welcome change. “Absentee Universe” takes us away from the incessant pop culture references in some of the above shows, to a place of line and shape, color and texture. I was happy to be in the gallery, a calm spot on an otherwise overly stimulated gallery afternoon. Not that I have anything against pop culture references, but of late I have been annoyed by the gratuitous inclusion of imagery and concepts that are much more potent than artists seem to take responsibility for. In beautifully textured canvases that resemble abstract giants Jasper Johns and Robert Rauchenberg, Magar’s abstract canvases,

feature bold color juxtapositions and fluid, open spaces, where bio-morphic forms float in a state of perpetual flux. Magar’s colors are layered one on top of the other, revealing his subtle and delicate forms in distinct stages. Multiple layers of translucent paint result in immeasurable deep fictive space that one is able to drift in and out of effortlessly. (Gallery Guide)

There is a sense of the Taos calm in these paintings. While the gallery materials suggest that these are literally paintings of the cosmos, I didn’t take them that way. Rather I found them emotive of mood and lyrical urban sensory experiences. A calmer, more grounded experience than being in a room full of Miro, but just as delicious.

Stereomongrel by Yale MFA graduates Luis Gispert & Jeffrey Reed at Zach Feuer was a great little show that I was fortunate enough to catch before it came down this weekend. The photographs here all dealt with levitation in one way or another. Playful, imaginative and freshly conceived I was happy to be taken out to a desert, to a log cabin, to a backlot in some urban location, where we were treated to surprising human forms, fresh perspectives, and a wonderful sense of motion and wonder in the shots. The ten minute film was supposed to be the centerpiece, the photos the bonus, but for me the photos were the show and the film, well, it just didn’t grab me. All photos are available for viewing here.

Two shows on text in art, one successful and one not. Looking at Words: The Formal Presence of Text in Modern and Contemporary Works on Paper at the Andrea Rosen Gallery has some nice small moments, but I can’t recall them here because there was just too much, too scattered, and too various. The images, hung one on top of the other all the way up to the ceiling, were difficult to see let a lone read (scrawls on hotel stationary). One wonders how the curator or gallery thought anyone would be able to take this in…an interesting idea, and certainly an exhaustive show, but ultimately not a very satisfying experience. In fact, it made me suspicious of the idea of using text in art.

Jean Michel Basquiat at Stellan Holm

Thank goodness that I stumbled upon the
Stellan Holm Gallery which did a much better job of exploring the idea—and it’s an idea I have found myself preoccupied with of late. This show is smaller, much more focused. Paintings by Jean-Michel Basquiat, Jeff Koons, Richard Prince, Andy Warhol and others, allow the viewer to appreciate the text itself and understand its place, its context in art. A playful exploration that could have been slightly larger, the pieces selected here were all strong and a pleasure to see: Richard Prince’s “joke paintings”, Warhol’s font focused slogans, Basquiat’s more balanced use of image/paint and text, only made me want more. Kruger for example—but also a few unpredictable inclusions would have been nice. Well, and a woman of any flavour.

Rachel Whiteread at Luhring Augustine

The imagery of Chess Revisited at Luhring Augustine is part of a larger show at the Noguchi Museum in Long Island City. The ten chess sets here include work British artists of Sensation fame—at least three that I recognize, there may in fact be more. But Jake and Dinos Chapman, Damien Hirst, and Rachel Whiteread’s pieces were also the most scintillating. The clarity of concept here was so refreshing. Whiteread’s meticulously crafted doll furniture (kitchen vs. living room), on squares of vintage lino and carpet in her balsa wood game box was delightful. Really, the chairs, the tiny little pots, everything meticulous. She really taps into the color palate (again, not unlike Georganne Deen) of the 60s and 70s childhood. The penis heads from the Chapman brothers disturbing as usual, with African Afroed figures against the white, plaited figures show here. I still don’t quite get what these guys are going for with the penis noses and, well, how do you describe those mouths??

Chess Set Jake & Dinos Chapman

It does make me want to go and visit the larger exhibition at Noguchi where work from the surrealist masters Marcel Duchamp, Max Ernst and Dorothea Tanning are exhibited. Other shows I didn’t cover here include Russell Young’s screens of famous folks: loved the Elizabeth Taylor. Also an odd installation under the el. Photo on the slideshow below. For more shots see my art & artist slideshow–warning click to the end for more recent shots.

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