Sunday, September 18, 2016

Close Encounter

Local Honey, Still from I'll Be Your Mirror             
Local Honey
I'll Be Your Mirror
Good Children, New Orleans

After a two-month hiatus I was back out looking at art, the day after the Saint Claude openings. I would have liked if this outing were like a tall, cold drink of water after a long walk in the heat but it was more like the first morning run after two months of being a couch potato. I kept catching my face in a kind of pained and skeptical squint. I kept catching my thoughts drifting into the weeds: wait, what am I even doing here? In short, I was hardly an easy audience that day.

I hit the back room of Good Children, more inclined to ricochet back to the exit than stay to watch an almost eight minute video but I was drawn in by the only piece in the room, a dual-channel video screened modestly-sized and high on the wall. The left frame showed a bright window from a dark interior and the right a silo against a blue sky, the view angling up to match my own raised gaze. I am a sucker for an un-peopled view. The next minute both frames were peopled, a single figure in each frame. On the right a figure climbed into a rubber raft floating on a pond or lake, on the left a figure stood in front of a microphone inside the silo. Both figures were strange in appearance

These individuals (as well as the succession of solitary figures that in appeared throughout the duration of the video) seemed to be different versions of a single character. This was my impression in spite of dramatic costume, wig, and make-up changes. All incarnations of the character appeared to be a man in drag, making no effort to hide chest hair and other tells. The make-up was more Ziggy Stardust than Iggy Azalia, more alien-like than lady-like, though admittedly I know little of drag conventions. Actually, my own unfamiliarity with traditions of drag made me feel excluded at first, sort of targeted by this character whose gestures feel at times both taunting and solicitous. Is this exaggerated stripper dance sincere? funny? Who is the audience? I felt a little self-conscious about feeling self-conscious. I felt, in a word, alienated.

But the camera work, sound, editing, was so appealing I remained the captive audience. Gradually, partly through my familiarity with and appreciation of the natural settings, it seemed that the strange character was the ET here, not me. This person didn't seem to belong in these day-lit natural settings: by a river, lake, in a meadow or in the woods. This character seemed better suited to a dimly lit stage in a club or on an urban street. There were indoor scenes but they were constructed with props and acted almost more like metaphors than places. There was a sort of playpen made out of box fans over which a wig moved ghost-like. Throughout the video the natural world and the synthetic world come in contact but don't quite enmesh. The sound of birds chirping is replaced by an electrified voice, in a Radioheadesque not-quite singing. A disco ball reflects synthetic light in some shots and a magic-hour sunset in the most arresting sequence in the video. 

This sequence begins with the camera approaching a figure, twirling before a sunset (left channel) and (right channel) a single distant light, mirroring the placement of the sun. In a moment both channels show the twirling figure we now see is the same character, dressed this time in cowboy (or cowgirl) wear: a cow patterned cowboy hat, a sequined and fringed cape and matching skirt, a cowboy shirt with silver cuffs, and cowboy boots. The face is made up with silver or white black-framed lips and two braids frame the face. A disco ball lays nearby in one scene, in the other the figure holds it above. The body of water in the background, wide and slow, might be the Mississippi River. This is an American vision, it occurs to me. Cowboy, disco, the troubled river. Oh and this sequence began with a sound like Jimi Hendrix's electric guitar rendition of The National Anthem. Not that all this Americanness meant anything in particular but it hit a particular chord of restlessness, innovation, and done-up alienation. In the course of this sequence though the character becomes less solicitous, less concerned with the audience. The twirling becomes almost childlike in its lack of sexuality and precision.

Watching I’ll Be Your Mirror it suddenly occurred to me that my initial feeling of alienation was reflected on the character or vise versa. The character was alienated. The character was trying, setting after setting, costume after costume, to express something, to achieve something, to be a part of something, to connect with me, the viewer. While the character persisted in isolation, the video absolutely made contact.  

Local Honey                               Still from  I'll Be Your Mirror, Courtesy of the Artist                                     Good Children, New Orleans

Tuesday, June 21, 2016

Going Outside

Unfiltered Visions, 20th Century Self-Taught American Art
NOMA, New Orleans

I have walked through many museum exhibitions of so-called outsider art without stopping. My resistance is usually visual: quilts, raw wood sculpture, and whirligigs, I just don't see much that draws me over. My response to art usually begins with physical attraction followed by a more intellectual engagement with a work's conceptual aspects. I rarely experience instant chemistry. in exhibitions of self-taught art. Without getting too far into into the problematic
Ike Morgan  Portrait of George Washington  (Sorry about the reflection!)
labels–outsider, self-taught, and folk art–the set up is that one is not expected to consider the work of self-taught artists within the canon of Western Art History or within the context of contemporary art.

Considering my tastes and habits, when I looked in on Unfiltered Visions I didn't expect I'd stay as long as I did. I hadn't known 
Henry Darger was there and his work is always worth seeing. Hurry It'll Explode Any Minute no exception and is the show's obvious superstar. But there was also this fantastic ink and pastel Portrait of George Washington by Ike Morgan. This drawing was a stunning mix of familiar and strange. The subject is of course irresistibly loaded. 

Holland Cotter once wrote, "...the question remains of where, in the concept of outsider art, the stress should fall: on outsider or on art?" Both artists have biographies that situate them outside of the art world and are stories worth looking into. But for me the work itself more than holds its own in any room. 

Friday, June 3, 2016

Face Values, Last Call!

Cristina Molina Ice of the World, The Front

Erica Lambertson Pancake Face, Good Children

Latoya M. Hobbs Angelica, Staple Goods

This is the last weekend to see the shows on and off Saint Claude. 

Christina Molina's Ice of the World, a roughly four minute video, is alone worth going out for. It is the heart of her show titled The Matriarchs at The Front and informs the portrait and still life photographs that make up the rest of the show. I went home and saw the video again on the artist's Vimeo page; I liked it that much.

If you go to The Front, you should cross the street and see Erica Lambertson's funny little little oil on panel painting titled Pancake Face in a fundraiser/group show at Good Children. 

I plan to stop into Staple Goods to see the work of Latoya M. Hobbs for the first time. I saw these prints on the Staple Goods website just now. This will be one of those I've-only-seen-you-online encounters and I am hoping the work and I hit it off in person.

These shows will close Sunday, June 5. 

Cristina Molina      Ice of the World, Installation View The Matriarchs      The Front
Erica Lambertson     Pancake Face       Good Children
LaToya M. Hobbs      Angelica       Staple Goods

Monday, May 30, 2016

So That's a Thing? The Pleasures and Pains of Not Being in the Know

Phone Booth Koozie on St James Street, New Orleans
Never Trump Phone Booth Koozie, St James Street, New Orleans
Connie Shea at Ten Gallery, New Orleans
False Flags at Pelican Bomb, New Orleans

Craftivism. Yarn Bombing. Yeah, I missed that whole thing. So when I saw this Never Trump phone booth koozie on St James Street yesterday I looked at it in naive wonder. 

A couple of days earlier I was talking with the artist Connie Shea who was gallery sitting her show at Ten. I confessed to her that I often struggled with work described as fiber art. Part of my resistance to this show was the way these woven pieces seemed to unquestioningly adopt the language of the gallery, the wall, even the painter's stretcher, and even the picture frame.

Then I saw the phone booth wearing a political sweater. I stopped and looked at it curiously. I marveled at the fact that it was made at all, that it was anonymous; it was funny and bizarre. Not knowing that this existed in a context I considered and tried to interpret its elements: It covered a broken phone booth, it suggested the lines of communication might be down or obsolete. It was a thing made at home by hand, by a real individual. It's maker was most likely female; gender is playing a new role in this presidential race. It deployed the colors, stripes and stars of the American Flag, as if to say "Never Trump, but I am American, yes." I thought, Jeeze this thing is wonderfully absurd! And I "got it" in its absurdity. I get what it is, why it is, and where it is. And then, telling people about this phone booth I learned it was, as they say, a thing.

False Flags    at Pelican Bomb   Installation View
There is a reason Street Art is on the street, public art in the public space. There is a reason Political Art can struggle in the calm space of a gallery. But sometimes it's like tapas for thought, offering sampling of media connected by a concept. Two months ago, I went to the opening of Pelican Bomb's inaugural show, False Flags curated by Noah Simblist. I returned yesterday, the final day of the exhibition. This was a group show united by the nine artists' explorations of nationalism flags, both as an object and a concept. 

Unfortunately, someone had walked off with the gallery's last list of artists and works (the gallery attendant looked around but could not locate another one). Without the titles it was hard to enter some of the individual works and hard to view the works as individual. In a way this served the thesis; politics are not about the individual. Or, when they become about the individual (ahem) we are in trouble. The works offer cohesion not only in theme, but in palette, edges (all works are geometric), and scale. But much of this work about geopolitics (seen in my case, without names or titles) felt impersonal. Like the NPR effect, it was about all the right things but the content was sort of homogenized by the context. Or to return to the tapas metaphor, each serving was visually distinct, but I couldn't sense the maker or terroir behind them. I thought of Roberta Smith's comment in Interview Magazine about the totality of artwork, "it's political, it's pleasurable, and it's personal all at once. If you stress one over the other, things can get out of whack." I appreciate local opportunities to see new work and I'm curious to see more by these artists, if only online, to investigate where they are from, what else they make, and how these concepts play out in the rest of their work. 

Connie Shea    White #1    Ten Gallery
Some gestures seem inherently personal, like knitting. Some art forms seem to offer endless variation without becoming repetitive while others seem quickly tapped by use. Sometimes the gallery is the perfect space to share and distill ideas; sometimes ideas feel fresher in fresh air. What is fresh to one person (apparently living under a rock) will already be state to others. This article about subversive knitting in The New York Times (2011, in the Fashion and Style section, IMD) is interesting because it includes an apolitical origin story from a retail space in Houston, a terse statement from New York artist Agata Oleksiak a.k.a. Olek ("I don't yarn bomb, I make art.") and the inevitable absorption by Capitalism: a Toyota Prius wearing a Christmas Sweater knit by Magda Sayeg who according to the Times article and her own website, is widely considered the mother of yarn bombing.

Tuesday, March 22, 2016

Goodnight, Good World

From Goodnight Moon by Margaret Wise Brown, Illustrated by Clement Hurd
Trying to look at art with my children, two boys ages five and seven, can be an exercise in frustration. Pursuing my own thoughts and reactions while fielding their questions and trying to keep them from backing into artwork is next to impossible. I by no means idealize a child’s reaction to art, nor do I elevate their opinions for being “more pure” than my own. As far as I am concerned a child is just another viewer, and one less inclined to pick up on art historical references or contemporary context. I am happy to leave to them naive encounter; I like my informed one. That said, there are times when looking at art with my children, and in a sense as they do, seems to yield a particularly nice experience.

This weekend I went to the The Front with my sons. It was the Sunday after the Saint Claude shows opened, two Sundays before they came down and I worried I would miss them if I didn’t just go, entourage and all. There were two shows at The Front. The show Clouds/Cows occupied rooms one and two. The show is described this way on The Front’s website:

"Clouds/Cows, a collaboration between visual artist Jessie Vogel and performance makers Nat & Veronica, was initially conceived and presented as a theater piece. In this exhibition the artists attempt to access the same material through a different entry point by recontextualizing the work in a gallery."

In the second room there was an untitled installation. I learned later that it had been the set of a performance. A piece of plywood with a large, circular hole separated the ordinary space of the gallery from a scene on the other side. The gallery side was dark and the other space–pastoral, fantastic, and otherworldly–was lit for an effect sort of like the dioramas in the Museum of Natural History in New York. I was also reminded of a book I had as a child, a book I now read to my children each year at Easter time. We read it just yesterday. 

In the book, titled The Country Bunny and the Little Gold Shoes by Du Bose Heyward, illustrated by Marjorie Hack, there is an Easter egg with a tiny scene inside. Looking for the proper name for “eggs with scenes inside” I found an article about Victorian sugar eggs in The New York Times. The article is titled The Better World Inside The Sugar Egg. Exactly. This idea of an idyllic world you can only look into goes back so far in my consciousness that is seems to predate my consciousness. This idyllic place, this illusion inside the egg, or illustration, or diorama, is so perfect that as a child you pine for it though, what do you know about pining? This pining is at the very root of my addiction of looking into paintings, of making them. This piece at The Front, seeing it with my children too I suppose, reminded me of the early magic of the enchanted view, the promise of an alternative and perfect place.

"It’s a cloud!" one of my sons said. "It’s a rabbit!" the other added. Floating above the grass was a rabbit-shaped cloud! There was real green grass on the ground! And carrot stubs! Not the slimy nubbed kind that you buy in a crowded plastic bag at the grocery store but the fresh air market kind that look more natural, more old fashioned, more like we really want carrots to look! This word “real” hovered in my mind , a crucial part of my experience looking at this piece.

This rabbit-shaped cloud was made of wool, I think. Wait, back up: I am still not sure if it was really rabbit-shaped or if my sons and I imagined it, though I find the carrots a pretty good clue that we were on the right track. Inside this cloud were the bluish flickerings you see sometimes in a lone thundercloud. I don’t suppose Victorian sugar eggs or children's books were on the minds of the artists, but still...through a circular hole was a landscape over which floated a rabbit-shaped thundercloud. I was reminded of another children’s book, two, actually, written by Margaret Wise Brown and illustrated by Clement Hurd: Good Night Moon and The Runaway Bunny. In the former there are illustrations of a sort of weird, slow, idealized world held together by dreamy lines like “Goodnight nobody...Goodnight mush.” In The Runaway Bunny there is …wait for it…a rabbit shaped cloud!

From The Runaway Bunny by Margaret Wise Brown, Illustrated by Clement Hurd

Because my children were there I was not tempted to think too hard about the meaning or making of this installation and for that I am glad. I simply enjoyed the cascade of nostalgic references it provoked. I am still enjoying them as I write this. And this is not the topical and overused collective hipster nostalgia of mixtapes or instagram filters that seem to almost eradicate true nostalgic response by efforts to seize and brand it. In fact, I am not sure that the artists were even going for nostalgia, which was probably why I was able to access it. This nostalgia reached back to the recesses of early childhood, maybe just before or just after I dropped the spoon from the highchair enough times to understand “real” space. Once upon a time the distinction between real space and illusory space was nebulous. We learned to navigate real space by trial and error: dropping the spoon, trying to grasp the cylinder of water coming from the faucet, by falling down. The illusory world remained a mystery because access was available only through looking. We came to know the illusory world in pictures books, in landscape paintings on the wall, in small color TV screens containing seemingly tactile, pre-CGI worlds like the enduring and bizarre stop motion animation television special Here Comes Peter Cottontail.

Still from Here Comes Peter Cottontail
The New York Times article explains the remembered lure of the sugar egg: "The diorama was a glimpse into a blue-sky world, whose tiny inhabitants hunted colored eggs or enjoyed a springtime picnic. These were the sort of genteel activities I longed for, but understood were unattainable." The excruciating pleasure of longing, the pull of unattainable worlds haunts both art making and childhood. My older son is working tirelessly on building a hot air balloon. He wants to fly over the neighborhood. And why not?

Across the street on the ground in front of Good Children Gallery my sons found a scattering of beads, maybe from a broken necklace. One of the beads was a plastic, coral-colored peace sign the size of a penny. My younger son just learned to recognize a peace sign though he is still fuzzy on the concept. Inside the gallery, he was then enchanted to find a large painting of a peace sign, Study For Dark Peace by Stephen Collier. Huh, I thought. 

Today I woke to news of bombings, this time in in Brussels. Now, as I write this, the idea of unattainable worlds floats lazily in my mind with the cloud-like thought that everything has meaning, everything is connected. Praise the artists and children. Praise the idyllic world.

From Cows/Clouds by Jessie Vogel and Nat and Veronica

From The Country Bunny and the Little Gold Shoes by Du Bose Heyward, illustrated by Majorie Hack
Stephen Collier   Study for Dark Peace   Acrylic, Pencil and Enamel on Dyed Canvas

Sunday, February 28, 2016

Aaron Collier, Continued...

Aaron Collier                  Photo Courtesy of Jonathan Traviesa
This post will make more sense if you read the previous piece about Aaron Collier's show at Tulane.

Aaron Collier and I exchanged emails before I wrote a post about about his show. When it was finished I sent him a link to the piece I wrote about his work and invited a response from him. I told him that I am more interested in a dialogue than hit and run art writing. It is not customary for artists to respond to art reviews, but I am not really a critic. I aim to articulate my experience of artworks and my thoughts about art more broadly. I asked Aaron to share his thoughts about what I wrote and he did. I found these passages illuminating and asked him if I could post them here. I have his okay. His comments are in blue. 

On the medium:

AC: One of the mesmerizing features of using the Flashe, which I think you picked up on but relate to differently than I did, is its ability to seep and flatten and settle without any texture. Whereas you noted that the effect was like trying to meet the gaze through mirrored sunglasses (feeling denied "entry"), I perceive the lure to keep pulling me as the viewer closer, closer, closer into the work, with the scale of the painting filling the periphery and enveloping.  But, the lines do, in my opinion, too, remain elusive. I don't find myself "stopping" at the texture or the viscosity of the paint in the same way that oils stop me at their swell or shiny surface...  With Flashe, I don't follow the allure only to pull back and declare the surface distant so much as persisting in following the mark into a seemingly endless recessive space.

This issue of surface is so interesting to me and it comes up again and again when looking at and talking about paintings. Surface is related to what with some paintings feels like an ideal viewing distance. Sometimes I see a painting that draws me in but as I move closer the image stiffens or the illusion of distance closes. Sometimes though what you see from a distance gets stranger upon closer examination. I like that. I like leaning in and wondering how is that put together? 

On the owls: 

AC: The three owls, in my own estimation, were a way of suggesting that the physical world is not necessarily more revelatory than the illusory world of the images, so yourself feeling scattered back to the images is great to hear...  The pigeon reference was super sharp and poignant there, and I had not even considered such!  The owls seeming so physical and present and certain at first, only to break down and reveal their plastic seams and decoy-ness, was a hope as I considered their inclusion. 

Aaron Collier  Looking Into  Photo Courtesy of the Artist
Aaron Collier    Looking At    Photo Courtesy of the Artist

On contrasting experience:

AC: I found it interesting that you connected with the piece that sought to deny connection, those horizontal bands resisting "entry" or the "picture as window," an allusion that many of the other paintings were intended to construct.  Looking At is intended to contrast Looking Into, its neighbor to the right, the former obstructing entry (perhaps for the blue snippet in the bottom left?) and the latter inviting it.  But, I totally believe that we ask paintings to woo us in our own idiosyncratic ways...

I am caught on the phrase "intended to construct." Maybe this is part of what I sense in some of the works: the construction following the intention rather than the construction occurring simultaneously with, not so much intention as a hunch. Maybe the paintings in which the intention was accomplished successfully lack an open-ended quality or weirdness that I am attracted to. The piece titled Looking At is weird and I like that. Of course another viewer may have the opposite reaction, seek a kind of intention or closure. 

(Aaron, thank you for your thoughts and for extending the conversation.)

Wednesday, February 17, 2016

What I Found There

Aaron Collier, Exhibition View, Photo by Jonathan Traviesa
Aaron Collier
Something There 
Carroll Gallery, New Orleans

There were six large, dark, abstract paintings in the main room of Tulane’s Carroll Gallery, black rectangles reflecting in the polished floor. The effect was powerful. In New Orleans it is a rare pleasure to stand in the middle of a spacious gallery filled (but not over filled) with large paintings.

The palette widened on approach, blacks giving way to other darks, blues, mauves, medium grays and some sparse passages of translucent silver. Two of the six paintings contained sculptural elements. In Revisitation, a scrap of lumber deckled with yellow spray foam insulation leaned in a corner formed by two canvases. In A Certain Uncertainty one of those decoy owl statues used to deter pigeons sat on a shelf in front of the lower left corner of the painting.

Aaron Collier, Revisitation, Photo by Jonathan Traviesa
When an object is imposed on a painting it is an act of rebellion. The object undermines the sovereignty of the painting if not the sovereignty of Painting with a capital P. Robert Rauchenberg, Jasper Johns, and other Neo-Dada and Pop artists knocked Painting down a peg or two with their constructions combining objects and paintings. These artworks did not ask to be read as paintings in the traditional way; they ask paintings to function as objects. Painting contains an illusory world like a window, real but untouchable. Set as the backdrop to an object (containing the shadow of that object), a painting becomes an object itself, a surface to look onto rather than into. Imagine a vase of flowers in front of an abstract painting–a Cy Twombly, say, or Joan Mitchell. The vase of flowers would change the way we perceive the painting. In Peter Rostovsky’s Epiphany Models  the artist places miniature sculpted figures on pedestals in front of landscapes reminiscent of works by Caspar David Friedrich. I am not sure if these works are ironic or sincere but the viewers are not likely to study Rostovsky's paintings the way they would the originals. The object-painting dialogue is an artist's inside joke. In the work of  the artist Daniel Atyim, found and constructed objects are placed in proximity to a drawing/painting. These objects appear born of the same media, like they came from the two-dimensional world. They remind me of that A-Ha video in which a sexy stranger escapes a comic book and throws himself violently against the walls to lose the remaining sketch marks that keep him from appearing fully human. The objects in Daniel’s work look uncomfortable in the material world and redirect us into the illusion of the two dimensional space. But these hybrid works do not employ the traditional materials and vocabulary of painting and do not ask to be approached as traditional paintings.

Aaron Collier, A Certain Uncertainty, Photo by Jonathan Traviesa
Aaron Collier’s two works, Revisitation and A Certain Uncertainty, are pretty conventionally presented paintings on canvas. The objects only slightly violate the space of the painting while the paintings passively accommodate their objects. The artist’s relationship to these objects seems to be a tentative one. Painting is a proposition; an object can reduce it to a prop. The rest of the works in the gallery seem to strive for a different purpose and tone.

From afar the four remaining works in the room were somber, impressive, hitting full low notes like cello music. In relation to the room and each other (as well as the objects in the other paintings) they alluded to architecture. Looking closer, the interiors of the paintings contained contour lines that were more organic than architectural or geometric. With a couple of exceptions these contour lines did not fully describe any figures or objects. They were concentrated in the centers of the pictures, relatively few lines straying past the edge of the canvas. In some passages these contours accumulate to the point where I would expect a build up of paint and inevitable texture, but the surface remained almost uniform and matte. The medium is listed as Flashe, a type of acrylic described this way on the Dick Blick art supply website: “extra-fine vinyl-based paint dries evenly with intense coverage to a uniform, velvety matte, opaque finish.” Thus the smooth surface and absence of luminosity. The resulting effect is incongruent, active and expressive searching lines on a surface that stands aloof. From a distance these paintings were luring, but when I moved closer to the individual works, I couldn’t get closer to them. I couldn’t get into their headspace. I felt a little like I was trying to meet the gaze of someone wearing mirror sunglasses.

Aaron Collier, (detail) In A Line..., Photo by Jonathan Traviesa
The work in the two smaller galleries varied widely in scale, palette, presentation, material and painterly vocabulary. Compared to the body of work in the main gallery the palette was wider, more vibrant, and included pastels and fluorescents. The works ranged from miniature at six by four inches to over seven feet in height. They were on paper, found paper, panel, Dura-Lar, and canvas. The paint was applied in contour lines, opaque color fields and washes.   The exhibition as a whole contained such a broad range of materials, sizes, and art-historical allusions I wondered, why isn’t this show more of a mess? I think Aaron Collier can, with little effort, make order of chaos. I wonder if the exploration of materials and surfaces might be the artist's attempt to challenge his ability to make order, to challenge his habits, his control of paint, his tendency to establish balance within a pictorial space. If that's the motivation I think is necessary and courageous for an artist to do though as a viewer I want to see that there are also convictions at the core of the work.

Aaron Collier, Where Light Is As Thick As Darkness, Photo by Jonathan Traviesa
I saw the bright, synthetic green in the painting Where Light Is As Thick As Darkness as an effort to rabble-rouse an otherwise tasteful palette. It was a color suited to cause a disruption, but when a blotch of green that would be rebellious in volume or as a rogue mark, is  threaded tastefully into the composition it acts as–in Apartment Therapy terms–an accent color. (I really like the strange window reflection looking mark in the top of this painting.) A scrap of cloth collaged onto the canvas surface (In a Line, But Out of Order) was placed neatly in a corner, on the line of the golden ratio, parallel to the edges of the painting, its colors in harmony with the palette. If these are efforts to undermine conservative or repetitive impulses in the artist’s art-making process, these gestures are not disruptive enough to propose a true challenge to an artist who can, it seems, effortlessly make an attractive painting.

Aaron Collier, Exhibition View, Photo by Jonathan Traviesa
In addition to the two dimensional works in one of the smaller galleries is an object, a shelf with three owl decoys. These owls are identical to one in the main gallery except they have been painted with Flashe. This piece, A Lack Of Sight Not Being The Cause Of Darkness is reminiscent of Haim Steinbach’s work, not only in his use of mass-produced objects (including owls), but his signature wedged shelf. It is hard to know if this quote was intentional or the inevitable result of two artists employing the same quotidian objects. In front of the painting the owl introduced one batch of art historical references, as multiples on the wedged shelf it recalled another artist and set of ideas. As totems I sort of liked this watchful predator in the gallery, but I could not figure out its function in the show other than to be what it is, a decoy. This piece, hung well above eye level does not invite examination; it redirects me (like a pigeon!) to the rest of the show.

This body of work (or bodies of work) represented hours of labor and thought, broad investigations of materials, and a wealth of art historical knowledge. The exhibition as a whole was thoughtfully curated, impeccably hung and a pleasure to attend. But when I tried to make contact with individual works I repeatedly felt like I was presented with a decoy.  This might have been the intention of the work, to be evasive, to keep me moving, but I wanted to connect more–more deeply, more emotionally, more physically–with the individual pieces. 

Aaron Collier, Looking At, Photo by Jonathan Traviesa
I suspect the work in this show succeeds in accomplishing what it sets out to. And the work is all handsome. But me, I am drawn to art that comes closer to failure, like a racecar taking the corner too fast, threatening to skid into the wall and burst into flames. That said, sometimes an artist’s most exciting brushes with disaster are slower and quieter than a racecar. In this show the piece I found the most exciting was titled Looking At. It was modest in size at seventeen by fourteen inches and painted in casein on paper. The palette was muted, warm grays and pastels with the exception of a subtle cameo of orange and teal. Horizontal bands of color descended nearly the length of the vertically formatted painting. These wobbly bands didn’t exactly look like window blinds but to me they felt like window blinds, closed, askew on the bottom as if raised by momentarily by one’s thumb, revealing a second space beyond them. There a wedge of muted blue, cut by plum colored dashes, maybe a sliver of wavy water. Yes, this was just my impression, my fantasy. But the point is that I was lured to fantasy. I was not thinking about art or mark making or anything in the material world, I was within the world of the painting, within its unique proposition. In this piece there was a lack of fussing, a directness. I was reminded of post-Futurist Morandi, not because this work resembled that but because of the similar abandonment of devices. In Aaron Collier’s painting Looking At there is both chaos and order. This humble and audacious painting was a racecar on fire, silent and in slow motion amidst the spectacle of the exhibition.

Wednesday, November 25, 2015

Looking Good

In Memory, Photo Courtesy of the Artist

Rachel Jones Deris
Diboll Art Gallery, New Orleans

Our daily lives expose us to constant visual stimulus. Persistent and cursory engagement of our eyes seems to leave little room for more deliberate deployment of sight, which is to say, looking. Of the sight verbs–to see, to glance, to glimpse, to watch, and to look–looking seems to be the most directed, but it also implies an openness, a receptivity. It is the one most useful in engaging with art.

The first time I saw a painting by Rachel Jones Deris was in 2008. She is a confirmed painter who does not laurel-rest, who seeks new ground, and her work is continuously fresh. Compared to previous exhibitions, this group of paintings relies less on lyrical titles to buttress the content, and the content is harder to define. These paintings were surprisingly difficult to write about perhaps because they encouraged a suspension of thought, a resistance to conclusion. There are few or no conceptual footholds, save the title of the show and a couple of more expansive titles of paintings. The paintings lean toward abstraction but not closely enough to own that label nor are they descendants of notable abstract painters. They are representational but not in that irreverent I just found this image online-way. They are not geometric and they do not emphasize drawing. They are not political, narrative, or about anything you can easily put your finger on. I guess you could say they are landscapes in the sense that they (loosely) depict flora and in one case, fauna. All the things that these paintings are not lead us to what they are about.

In the end, I think this work is actually about looking. These paintings are a result of the artist looking, suspending her understanding of an image. I imagine that instead of looking at an image and concluding, I know what is there, she keeps asking what is there? What could be there? As a result we ask the same.

Rachel Jones Deris works from photographs, collected, altered, pared down. Paintings, any paintings, change and shift as you look at them, change from one viewing to the next. If a photograph freezes a moment, a painting lets it loose, leaves a moment eternally without conclusion. This is the mysterious potential of painting. These paintings, though they begin with a photographic image are not about photography or even image. If in an abstract way they are about looking, more practically they are about paint, lush, juicy paint. The designation “a painter’s painter” describes an artist who exhibits a confident and intuitive handling of paint while not subjugating this inherently unruly medium. Rachel Jones is a painter’s painter.

These paintings are made on Yupo mounted on panel. Yupo is synthetic paper, in layman’s terms it's plastic. Ad copy boasts its properties as stain-resistant and non-absorbent. You can see in these paintings how the paint sits on the surface of the Yupo, stains it to a degree, but doesn’t mingle with the ground. I confess I am a Yupo skeptic. While many painters work on a ground of acrylic gesso, which is also in part plastic, gesso contains calcium carbonate, or, chalk. This chalk is found in nature and brings to gesso a bit of nature’s unpredictability. I am not concerned about the archival integrity of the Yupo, its more of an aesthetic question: What would these paintings look like if they had been painted on gesso or even directly on panel?  On the other hand, Yupo resonates with the source material and process. The origins of these paintings are slick: a photograph, magazine page or inkjet print. It might make sense that the paintings begin on an equally sterile surface.

Stag, Photo Courtesy of the Artist
The paint seems to sit on the surface and the illusion of distance is built not by omission but addition. The artist piles on paint in spaces other artists would address with the sparest vocabulary. These are landscapes (all but one) but there is almost no deep space. Untitled (Grove) relies on an erasure to articulate trees. Meanwhile, the space between the trees is built up, a complicated articulation of color and directional marks bringing the distance past the foreground to the surface of our eyes. In Stag I find the inverted relationship cleaner cut and less convincing. The painting as a whole is way out there in its palette and spatial logic. But the popular and likeable shape of a stag, sits neatly center stage at a likable scale, keeping the painting from being too strange. The space may not have held its own without a form to anchor it, but the way that form was drawn, undermines the painting’s sense of freedom and confidence.

There were two paintings in the show that were like nothing I have seen. In Memory is a still life, a bouquet. A bouquet! Sill life is the wallflower (pun intended) of all the genres. Nonetheless I kept going back to this painting. My heart rate actually accelerated when I looked at it. It is gorgeous without being pretty. It is a still life, an inanimate object that seems to vibrate and sway. Many of the flowers are articulated in warm browns on white and when pink was used it was not as the color of the flowers but the shadows. The warm, saturated blues of the background press forward to tangle with floral greens, which do not seem to content to remain in the bouquet or even within the edges of the painting. And this bouquet is not anchored in a vase; the blue background continues across the bottom of the painting, the flowers pressing forward toward us.

I can compare looking at In Memory to looking at other paintings of flowers. But I can’t compare looking at Untitled (Weed) to any painting I have seen. On the left there is a dark passage cut by yellowish lines. On the right, the illusion of grass is confused by light blue hatching, almost a shape, dissected by lines of greens and browns. This illogical light blue has a satellite mark, a mark of the same blue resting strangely on top of an already strange passage of browns and yellows. To describe this painting is almost futile because the experience of looking at it is optically baffling, it makes vision feel like a physical activity. The palette, the composition, the articulation of the subject are completely original, the result of an artist who will bushwhack, who will step off the path and find her own way, who will treat each painting as a discovery. There is not a single uninteresting square inch in this painting.

It troubles me that so much of what I see in the world I have no choice about and also that I make the wrong choices about what to look at: advertisements, products, signage, screens, cars, junk mail, etc. A countermeasure to all that is to go look at paintings, especially paintings this stimulating, this good. These paintings require no discipline to look at them. They will seduce you into looking and when you eventually leave the gallery you will find yourself more attentive to leaves, and light and stones, and shadows, and spaces.

Please note: This show has been extended through December.

Untitled (Weed), Photo Courtesy of the Artist
Untitled (Grove), Photo Courtesy of the Artist