Sunday, March 23, 2008

Marcel Dzama at David Zwirner

Marcel Dzama's oeuvre is rife with disturbing childhood imaginations, executed in various mediums, each a successful means of connecting eerie psychosis with political imbalance. Scenes of the greedy and gruesome are displayed with the same dizziness and nonsensical story lines of twilight zone episodes, with decapitated heads, masked hunters, sexually questionable Pinocchios, burlesque theatrics, and the ubiquitous black bear. This cacophony of hauntingly nightmarish yet irresistibly cute figures come alive in this exhibition at David Zwirner.
In the first room, a series of drawings unite in color palette, where artist uses muted colors of red, beige, brown and gray, each drawing a constellation of figures mesmerizing the plane with repetitive patterns. In Poor Sacrifices of our enmity, a swarm of female figures utilizes the bow and arrow to point and shoot a goat atop a ladder, but none are placed on a sensical ground plane, filling the space from top to bottom swirling and rotating creating a layer of abstract patterns with the concentric circle of their bow. The blank background allows for this play on space and narrative, a violent scene marked by discombobulating placement of a singular figure. The minimal use of elements in these drawings send a strong message of the inhumane and inexplicable in each of us.
Pages from Dzama's sketchbooks reveal his interests in the magical fused with political manipulations and grievances of the individual. These dark themes are revealed thru quirky observations, each page of graph paper a collage of the artist's exploration of current events and random useless information. Page 5 of 13 in the sketchbook included in the exhibition includes a personal story in conjunction with a elementary science project study of the gopher, a naive childish caption beneath a violent scene with cartoon figures appropriated on top. And above the study for one of few puppet theater diamoras The Underground. The sketchbook is a precise portrayal of the artist's work in progress, his interests in the fantastical and the random, taking the mundane and newsworthy into a realm of imaginary characters and daydreams.
The second room is closed and dark, with a few dioramas in the likes of stages of stuffed animals seen in the museum of natural history, except these are scenes of greed, violence, and all that is deviously innocent. On the Banks of the Red River depicts men in gray suits from the olden days, scattered and numerous, pointing their rifles in the air as animals fall or in the midst of falling to their death. The scene is thrown into the fantastical with the inclusion of large decapitated heads and flowers billowing thru the empty space. The diorama creates contradictory reactions for the viewer, as we sympathize with the poor dead animals, feel animosity for the hunters, and are left with confusion as to why these zombie heads decorate the scene amidst beautiful blooming petals.
And the strongest and strangest work in the show is a 20 minute film shot in scratchy black and white, which is accompanied on select days by a pianist who plays in accord with the film, a beautiful trance of tunes accentuating each flighty scene. The protagonist of the film is an artist haunted by his own creations, costumed furry characters often masked who prance around the artist as both threat and revelry. There is a theme of keyholes thorughout the film, which is reiterated in an installation that reflects Duchamp"s Etant donnes, viewable through a peephole. Rather than the main image being a naked female, we are haunted by 2 figures, both male and female with a fox atop a hill, a successful predator preying on their fare skin and innocence.
A great show that merges the imagination with the all too real of our mundane and often ridiculously violent reality.

Sunday, March 2, 2008

Gustave Courbet and Nicolas Poussin at the Met

The Courbet and Poussin exhibition at the Met was an educational and intriguing viewing experience, an inspiring appreciation of formalism and psychological intensities.
While Courbet is engrossed in role playing turning every painting into narcissistic self-portraits, Poussin takes a modest approach thorough painting romantic narratives. They both singular intense emotions and psychological conundrums, depicting the intangible in opposing styles, Courbet with close perspective, simple, muted, and intense in limited use of color, Poussin with layer upon layer of hills and mountains in a vast landscape with multiple scaled figures and structures.
Courbet's multiple self-portraits often delve into fantasy as the artist depicts himself as wanderer, cello player, and madman. The hazy, sexy, stylized rendering gives Courbet a rambunctious arrogant look, a much intended representation. The fare skin, the seductive gaze, wide eyed, sharp nose and shaped lips are mesmerizing and relentless in enticing the viewer to come closer and be tempted to touch the realistic portrait he makes of himself.
In Self-portrait with Pipe, the figure sits very close to the canvas, taking up all foreground and background of the painting, ready to spill out and greet us with his awesome presence. The colors are dry and muted, monochromatic and thinly painted, his face lit from above as if shined on by the gods.
His pioneering Realism is tainted by the fantastic and lush, adding spice, delicacy and vibrancy to each portrait and landscape that he creates. The Meeting, or Bonjour, Monsieur Courbet, 1854 presents the artist as the lone wanderer in a happenchance meeting with a patron and manservant. The outline of the figures are extremely clear cut making it seem as if theyve been collaged onto the generic landscape surface, barren for the panting dog peering curiously at the bearded man with the walking stick. In Sleep, Courbet delves into the controversial and pornographic as he depicts what seems to be a lesbian couple in deep sleep, their bodies entangled in each other, within in a muted regal setting. The elements are again limited, a bed, 2 figures, and 2 tables in front of a shady monochrome background. The voluptuous figures float on canvas, delicate and peaceful in their embrace, a dreamy addition to a realistic brothel environment.
The works of Poussin are comparatively dense in its formal qualities and displays the physical and emotional narrative with subtlety and bountifulness. Landscape and narrative painting is merged to form a detailed and expansive palette, a multiplicity in scale of numerous figures, hills, mountains and skies that prance around the canvas simultaneously. The sheer scale alone can be daunting and can result in sensory overload but upon learning to appreciate one element at a time, the overall scheme of each work is perfection.
In Sight of Death, T.J. Clark writes about 2 Poussin paintings extensively over a long period of time in journalistic format and 1 of the paintings he discusses is included in the exhibition. Landscape with a Man Killed by a Snake consists of multiple layers of paths and hills with a lake as middle ground, more hills behind that, and a mountain above, then finally the sky. Three figures are placed in the foreground and near middle ground, 1 dead wrapped by a menacing snake, a man with arms and legs extended in opposite directions, running and warning/reaching out to the woman splattered on the floor with clothes basked next to her, her arms gesticulating in correspondence with him. We are not certain if he is fleeing from fear or if he in an act of heroism is warning the woman, refraining her from coming any closer. The right side of the frame is rife with trees and clouds, and the wind blows from right to left, in the direction the man is going, the direction his hand is gesturing, as if the whole of nature has come to warn the public the atrocity that is at coming. Each figure is placed on a different escalated hill, as if creating a series of events, and everything behind the woman is oblivious and at peace.n The subject of the painting is a myth amongst art historians, as there is no clear identification of the characters. Nonetheless it is a narrative strife with trauma, fear, death, and bliss.
Both artists has contributed to art history by providing realism and romanticism that incorporates and reveals psychological tension with the self and other. Each created a technique that allowed for multiplicity in identity and vision. They are masters of their time and have influenced many future artists. Each painting is refreshing and simply beautiful.

Jasper Johns at the Met and Matthew Marks

The Jasper Johns exhibition at Matthew Marks is an appropriate extension of his gray retrospective at the Met, both shows reveal with variety and precision his interests in literal execution and contemplative self-expression.
As a widely studied figure, Johns has been historicized for his use of representational icons such as targets, numbers, the alphabet, and the american flag. These motifs are easily recognized and the viewer is familiar with these representations creating singular interpretation through the view of universal symbols. He often gives new meaning, whether multiple meaning or non-meaning, to everyday objects incorporated directly onto canvas such as brooms, rules, strings, and household utensils, giving them triple functions as image, tool, and text. Johns reverberates the multiplicity of function and interpretation thru creating series after series of sketches and paintings, as if fighting each element for perfection.
Each flag, target, alphabet motif is generously represented in the Met, except with the absence of color. This thesis oriented exhibition breathes fresh air, albeit a foggy, thick and humid air, into all his signature works. The lack of primary and tertiary colors usually represented are silenced and choked by an overwhelming barrage of gray.
In Fool's House, 1962, a broom with wooden handle hangs vertically by a hinge at the top of the canvas, its body stained and used by the paint. It is also used as a mark maker evident by the scratch swooshy pattern made by sweeping the broom dipped in paint across the bottom of the canvas. A spontaneous and effortless gesture made by the artist, the broom seems to breathe life marking its presence, its significance in the back and forth act of sweeping. Johns uses text to label each item on canvas, a towel, stretcher line the bottom with a cup hanging off the tip by a hook. Each is labeled in a sloppy sketchy manner with an arrow relating the text to each item. A diagram, presentation, statement of the obvious, an inventory of belongings inside a fool's house, the fool most likely being the artist himself as he presents us with objects in his studio, the objects that he is most intimate with, the most widely used and functional. The oversimplification and literalism of the works are rife with dead pan humor mixed with somber meditation on the meaning of things.
A more recent work, Untitled, 1992-1995 keeps to the idea of using familiar icons, such as a floorpolan, stick figures, and eyes, and mixes with abstract figurative and non figurative motifs, the use of line as it billows around the canvas and makes for a surrealist take on object making. The background is split in three shades and patterned with dots, text and lines. A ladder sits diagonally on a cross, and somber stick figure prances around out of the cross as if just stepping off this ladder, a fallen man entering a surreality encased with abstraction. A geometric symbol consisting of two circles supported by diamond bodies and triangular wings float above this figure as if angels in duality representing his conscious. The colors are muted and thick, the motifs are plenty, overlapping and tumbling within each other's presence. The scattered positioning seem to be a reflection of the happenings within a mind, the thoughts and emotions presented in a conglomeration of literal and fantastical images.
These symbols of ladder, stick figure, and angelic form are also presented in a sketch shown at Matthew Marks, a repetitive positioning of scattered images, spontaneous in placement, a marking of the mind.
The drawings in the Matthew Marks show reveal the artist's interests in mark making in the last decade, many with references to Matisse and Picasso, an ode to modernist expression. There is also presented a few works on gray, the cross hatching and rectangular shaping create a field of abstracted infinitum. The exploratory referencing reveals the artist's recent interest in back tracking to history of mark making and representing.
Both exhibitions reveal an artist always at work, his never ending curiosities an impulse, a statement to the exploratory learning process of an artist who has himself made a mark in history.