Thursday, April 24, 2008

Top Dog

Well, check it out—Jeff Koons on top of the roof, NYC Metropolitan Museum of Art!

Chocolate heart candy, twisty-balloon dog (gold), and Winnie-the-Pooh coloring book page, all bigger than life, up there, open to the sky.

Top of the world, Jeff, top of the world!

Pics courtesy of The Independent and The NYTimes.

Tuesday, April 22, 2008

I Heart Koons

I confess. I dismissed the whimsical work of Jeff Koons.
It was, in fact, only last year that I began to pay attention to what he has been doing all these years. Paying attention is getting to know is becoming familiar is one of the deepests acts of love.
I let Jeff Koons into my heart.
If I sound a bit evangelical it is to the point: Art Saves and Koons' art saved me—as was his intention all along.

I grew to appreciate him last year through a profile by Calvin Tompkins in the New Yorker. Tompkins reports that Koons speaks ingenuously about the spiritual intentions of his work, which of course is suprising given he (re)creates playthings. Koons said to Tompkins, "I wanted the piece to deal with the human condition, and this condition in relation to God. I wanted it to be a contemporary Sacred Heart of Jesus."

He was talking about Puppy though of course his Hanging Heart could easily fit that bill.

Puppy is a 40 foot tall wire-frame terrier filled with soil and blooming plants. It is a form upon which life blossoms so of course it is a sacred heart, eternal spring.

Puppy renders all who see it equal. —Jerry Saltz

Puppy or Balloon Dog (Blue) or red for that matter—Koons' sculptures are accessible and that isn't a bad thing.
I'm just as elitist as the next art-snob, and take my art seriously, and this is probably just the thing that has kept me from enjoying Koons' work. The loss has been mine.

Tompkins explained that Koons early on "recognized and embraced his own ignorance of art history." "I realized you don't have to know anything, Koons said, and I think my work always lets the viewer know that. I just try to do good work that makes people feel good about themselves, their history, and their potential."

You don't have to know anything—or—you don't have to know everything. Something Marie Louise von Franz said comes to mind: "I hope that we may get to the point where consciousness can function without the pretension of knowing everything and of having said the last word." This idea that one can have awareness—consciousness—without having it all figured out, without having the last word as though in an argument with the world, this has been very important to me. Feeling that I have to know everything before I can respond to things is self-limiting, but is also encouraged by others. Certainly the art world has this tendency to elitism, making art appreciation the special domain of those in-the-know. Von Franz added, "Knowledge is one of the greatest means of asserting power."

Koons addresses this by making his work approachable—thus the subject matter, the familiar and friendly, serves as affable welcome. With the same democratic, sociable attitude one appraises a flower, a sunset, a small dog, one—anyone— can then take in the work in its particular display. Koons' work breaks down my assumptions of what is appropriate or weighty. This is the elitist stuff I bring to the work. When I let this down—or when a different viewer drops his feeling of being intimidated by art—the work at hand can speak.

What speaks then is not mere whimsy, nor merely ironic inflation of mass-produced artifacts of popular, mass culture (read low-brow). Not merely. It is all that and an affectionate embrace of all that we collectively are—and all our inflatables: balloons, boats, basketballs, et cetera. The man knows a lot, of course.

"I just try to do good work that makes people feel good about themselves, their history, and their potential," he said. Feel good about the pop star who is a pop star because the masses (and masses everywhere) felt so good about him. Set him on a pedestal and consider that, that he is on a pedestal, pet chimpanze and all. St John the Baptist an icon as well, with baby pig. Same same. This is our history, and our potential—both to be the pop star and to be aware of how that works, how that comes about—the collective makes the individual a collective idol, or commodity—that too.

Hanging Heart, at the top of the post, was purchased last year at the highest price paid for a work of art by a living artist: $23.6 million. There isn't anything more idealized and desired in our culture than romantic love. The longing for it drives so much commerce—and I don't mean just on Valentine's Day, but every day in all ways from selling toiletries to the commerce of therapy for the lovelorn. How appropriate then that this token, not the sacred heart, but the ornamental heart, reach the pinacle of price.

Louis XIV is one of my favorite of Koons' sculptures and I saw it in LA at BCAM which shows a really fine selection of his work, probably the highlights of the Broad inaugural exhibition. This bust of the Sun King is made of stainless steel. (The man knows a thing or two about manufacturing too.) The 17th century world revolved around the Sun King, hence his title; Louis' world was gold—our stainless steel world is likewise not truly tarnishless, but classist, racist, sexist, divisive. Zhan Wang coats scholar rocks—objects of aesthetic, ascetic contemplation and emblems of Chinese traditional spirituality—with stainless steel, China's major commodity. He's on the same track as Koons was in 1986. Just how self-reflective can we be about this material? It is pervasive, the metal of the people, born of the industrial age. The factory, a collective mass enterprise, rolls out the metal of perfection: non-corrosive, stainless, shiny and strong, to be used in countless applications. Symbol of an age and the conundrum of an age. When steel is king and everyone has a stainless pot to piss in, what is the spiritual goal? Where is the alchemical gold?

My Koonsian answer would be the gold, the ultimate prize, is found in self-reflection. Witness his picture-perfect paintings of his own shiny, polished, reflective works set against shiny, reflective, refractive background. Are his works, these sculptures made of "high chromium stainless steel with transparent color coating" about "just the surface" of things, or is the virtue of a thing, anything, in its reflective surface? This is a self-reflecting universe after all. Here, on the transparent surface, we touch the depth and weight of his work. These painting are in a series called Celebration. Party hats, balloons, ribbons and bows, toys—celebration, yes that and a celebration of the world, an endlessly repeating, unfolding gift.

There's so much more to learn and love about this man's work. I haven't mentioned his mirrors, the collage-like paintings, Hulk Elvis and Monkey Train, or his embrace of sexuality, Made in Heaven. I'm so happy to have come out from under my rock and found him. I delight in his world. He's made it new, eternally new, like a new model vacuum cleaner, the New Deluxe Convertible perhaps! The piece pictured above is The New Hoover Celebrity III's, 2 vacuum cleaners, Plexiglas, flourescent lights from 1980. This from a series called The New, consumer items reborn each year encased in electrofied reliquaries. How we bow to the New—of course, it is in our very earthly nature (Spring), our emotional propensity (Hope), our religious heritage (Easter), our cultural tendency (Cutting Edge), why not in our consumption: Bigger! Better! Brand New!
Well, he's my New Favorite. Jeff Koons Takes the Cake!

Jeff Koons' website is the place to see more works online. In person, go to BCAM.

Sunday, April 20, 2008

Of Masks and Humanity

You want to know what else I saw in LA last week?

Not too much.

But it only takes one.

In this case it takes three. Count on the Rose Gallery to have a show to save a trip to Bergamot Station from being a complete let down. (It depresses me that so many galleries could collectively have uninteresting shows. Not bad, but blah. Track 16, another sure-bet, was closed for installation.)

Rose Gallery was showing Three from Britain: Chris Killip, Martin Parr, Graham Smith. All three photographers of very, very interesting work. The show was of pictures from the 70s and 80s—intimate cultural documents. "Intimate" because people and things are shown with their guard down, at home, in the bar, on the beach, not posed but ungainly, broken, drunk and silly. "Cultural" because instead of portraits of individuals, each series—and certainly all three together—produced a portrait of a culture, a country's style of being when they're being themselves with reference to their country: the royal wedding for instance, or the coal mines. "Documents" because all three photographers share a documentary style so completely devoid of posture. Killip's and Smith's works are in black and white. Most of Killip's are outside, cold and rubbishy; Smith's pubscenes are poignant, personal, tender. Parr's extraordinary cold light makes the color of the middle-class world strange, at times nauseating, certainly seeming disfunctional.

This is Smith's Thirty Eight Bastard Years on the Furnace, Front Mess Room for No. 4 and No. 5 Furnaces, Clay Lane, South Bank, Middlesbrough, 1983.

And Chris Killip's Helen with Hula-Hoop, Seacoal Beach, Lynemouth, Northumberland, 1983.

Runner-up at Bergamot was Salomón Huerta showing a series of large portraits of Mexican wrestlers at Patrick Painter. Oversized head-shots of men in masks, fiery dramatic masks, covering all but the eyes. Recently Huerta had a show of portraits of men, from the back. There's a theme here of the hidden, obscured face—What does it say to not show your face?

Across town at Regen Projects, Catherine Opie had face-front portraits of football players. The young men in full football gear stare at the camera and sometimes I felt engaged by the person, his stance, his appearance, and sometimes not—sometimes it works and sometimes it doesn't. I suspect that when it worked was whenever the individual was self-possessed and his energy not shielded so that he was communicating something about himself however so subtly. It was really mysterious to me why sometimes "something" was there and sometimes not.

I would not say this was my favorite work of hers, but then I haven't really liked her surfer portraits either.

The first time I saw a work by Catherine Opie was in 1996. Her diminutive etching-like photos of massive, curving freeway ramps were included in a group show, Lie of the Land, at the Museum of Art, University of California, Santa Barbara. They were beautiful: a loving touch to major construction. Then there were her landscapes: ice houses—little blocks of color on a snowy field—very specific to a northern culture, and a series of annonymous rural roads—annonymous, yet with that certain "something."

Then I encountered her self-portraits. Always in these, something was conveyed. Masked and pierced she was very much revealed and a statement was made. Even if it were from the back.

Her photos of her family and friends, the private, ordinariness of their lives, are like the work of Graham Smith and Martin Parr and Chris Killip, intimate and tender documents of a culture. Her portraits of herself, posed, or the surfers and now the football players, these are a different record, working within a different rubric, that of portraiture, and sometimes they work and sometimes they don't and that mysterious sometimes is something that, for the moment, eludes me.

This is Gold Hill, 1988, by Martin Parr which curiously says it all: faceless portrait document.

Maybe that's the thing: in Opie's surfer and football portraits, the subjects are faceless—they are nearly annonymous. These photos could be printed in any yearbook or surfer magazine, year after year, barely—or only sometimes—revealing character beneath the garb. Perhaps, in these collections of nearly interchangeable shots, these are portraits of collective appearance and not of individuals at all. Is this because of her unfamiliarity with the subjects? The subjects are not friends or herself, known in a subjective way, but objects much like the houses in Beverly Hills, those odd, closed, impersonal houses she photographed before. And maybe that's the whole point.

Salomón Huerta also showed bronze casts of wrestler masks with bright colored patinas. Maybe Opie could have photographed football gear to the same effect. Houses have street numbers; jerseys have numbers. As an exercise in displaying conformity that would be enough. But for arresting portraiture more than a body—with or without face— is needed. That's that something I was looking for.

Thursday, April 17, 2008

Be All You Can Be

BCAM at LACMA (Broad Contemporary Art Museum at Los Angeles Country Museum of Art) was a great place to be on a hot-hot-hot, as in swelt-er-ing hot day. —Unseasonably hot? Depends on what season. We're in the season of climate melt-down and so, mid-April, it was hot hot hot in LA.

The Broad Museum is the newest addition to what they are now calling the LACMA complex. Like any complex, it is a messy conglomerate of seemingly unrelated constructions—but BCAM is beautiful. I like it. It takes the cake.

First, the building. Clean, yet textured, with a goofy flip of a roof line and a red exterior escalator that takes you to the third floor. Just like an IKEA building, you start your visit from the top. Architect Renzo Piano says "I love the idea of the escalator. It's part of the almost anthropological ritual of rising up slowly. You can just stand quietly. You have time to look around and to realize what you are doing, like levitaion." I'm not sure what he means by "anthropological ritual of rising up slowly." I'm afraid he means like evolution, walking on our knuckles, then standing up straight. I hope that's not what he means. But I do like the analogy of levitation. It does feel like that (like I know). No, I mean, it feels like a soft lift in mid-air because you are out in space as you rise slowly to the top level where the view is expansive: palm trees and hills in the distance, and behind you the big mother stone building with her embrace of creativity.

Ah yes. You enter and up there at the top are two flanking grand spaces—8,500 sq feet each—with glass ceilings, no columns. Wooosh, big airy space with floating walls. Oh yeah. The glass panelled ceiling lets in soft light bouncing off sun shades—those metal roof flips. The light is extraordinary.

There's a massive red metal and glass elevator between the two big rooms. Through the glass you see the 86 foot tall, red & black piece by Barbara Kruger, Shafted. Did I mention the exterior escalator is red? Red is the accent color, just the right red to go with the creamy stone walls. This is a good-looking building—and the art is good-looking in it.

Oh yeah, the art. There's been a lot of wanking in the press about the inaugural exhibition being just big-ticket heavy hitters, the "usual suspects." Well, ye-ah. The Broads are big-money collectors of big-price-tag art, so it seems to me, they built the space (which years down the line will have housed all sorts of interesting shows) so why not showcase their collection, or the best of their amazing, eye-popping collection of contemporary American art? I mean, really, get over yourself.

I for one was happy to sail around the commodious spaces, cooling off, and taking in the excellent works by Koons, Baldassari, Ruscha, Twombly, Kelly—no I'm not going to list them all. Let's say a museum's worth of sparkling works. But I did mention Kelly—the Ellsworth Kelly room was a revelation to me. I think it was about five works that only work in person. The effect was of such searing clarity and optical engagement the like of which I never expected. More than likely in another setting I passed his work on by. Here, the paintings fairly leapt off the wall—no, more that they bore colored space into them. Hard to explain. Had to be there. This is Blue Red from 1968.

I will mention the women artists in the exhibit, there being only four. There was a Jenny Holzer installation that involved quotations on stone slabs. I mentioned the Kruger in the elevator shaft. On the second floor there was a retrospective of Cindy Sherman, 49 pieces in all, looking very much the Victorian portrait gallery. And then there was one iconic, quietly beautiful painting by Susan Rothenberg, Blue Body.

Trivia: this Spring, Rothenberg is being recognized, with her husband (I didn't know they were married. What should I know who's married to whom, but it struck me, Wha-? Really?) Bruce Nauman, by the The Santa Fe Rotary Foundation For the Arts as Distinguished Artist of the Year 2008. It's an award that goes to local lights. I guess they live thereabouts. What you learn on the internet. Agnes Martin was one. She lived there. She was a Distinguished Artist for sure.

So BCAM. What else do I want to say? I want to say Damien Hirst. Damien Hirst, Damien Hirst. Damien Hirst's cold-blooded, sterilized, and cool—cool-cat cool—art ran to two rooms. Butterflies, pharmacology, botanics and Away From the Flock, the sheep in formaldehyde. I was cooling off; now I had the chills.

And Basquiat. I really liked seeing the choice selection of Basquiat—what I mean to say is, selection of choice Basquiat, including this skull which not only is in the color-scheme of this post, but could be considered his signature piece and here it is in the Broad Collection which exemplifies what a choice collection this is, but more, brings home the point that this collection is now public. The Broads gave $60 million to LACMA to build the museum along with an arrangement to show their incredible collection of works. Wow.

Outside the museum there were Robert Irwin's palm trees, Jeff Koons tulips, and Chris Burden's Urban Light, an installation of antique lamp posts he rescued and refurbished and set up in a grid, shoulder to shoulder like. As a work of public art it is a whimsical gift to the city—a memory, no, actual, literal pieces of her past retrofitted, reworked, reimagined as a focal point, an illumined gathering together of individual beacons of light to be a community of lights. It is a sweet and humble 21st Century, West Coast answer to the torch-bearing lady of the New York harbor.

What a gift. I say, Bravo all around.

*images, except the last, courtesy of LACMA and the The Broad Art Foundation.

Thursday, April 3, 2008

Twin Cities

So here's a question. What's up with building the city out of tinker-toys?

Okay, not tinker-toys (I'll bet it's been done) but jello, pots 'n' pans.

Headlands Center for the Arts resident finalist Liz Hickok builds a miniature San Francisco in jello. She phtographs and videotapes the cityscape as it morphs, melts, decays.

Visiting Chinese artist Zhan Wang creates a room-sized San Francisco out of ubiquitous Chinese stainless steel teapots, pans, strainers, and such for his show, On Gold Mountain at the Asian Art Museum.

I worked with Hickok on her piece for the Headlands show, but never asked her what her heart-connection to jello is. I like the pretty poly colors and the illusion she creates on film. And the rot. It may be a childhood thing.

For Wang seeing the city develop out of the common-ware export of his homeland must be connected to the same material he pounds over rocks to create his reflective scholars' rocks. Stainless steel is the technological wonder of the industrial age, the tarnish-less gold of the people.

The city, and the material it is reflected in—it all depends on your perspective. This perspective from NASA.

Tuesday, April 1, 2008

(He)Art Reflex

Today I saw a short video from 1969 called East Coast, West Coast starring Nancy Holt and Robert Smithson. Holt plays uptight East Coaster, Smithson is laid-back West Coast. It's all pretty awful, mostly because it is unscripted and unedited. Also on the bill was another piece that could have used some editing: John Baldessari's Teaching a Plant the Alphabet from 1972. I guess it wasn't really meant to be shown to a sit-down audience. Unless stoned to a vegetative state.

These were part of a April Fool's Day screening called It's No Joke at SFMoMA. Included were early videos by William Wegman—clunky, funky, very, very funny, wacky scenes of himself with dog. The man has natural comic genius—and also knows about set-up, practice, editing.

It was a little video diversion on a blustery San Francisco day. It is nearly always a blustery day in San Francisco, so really I could have left that bit out, but it was in keeping with the experience: I blew in, saw the show and blew right out again.

Seeing Holt and Smithson in conversation reminded me of their dialog with Lucy R. Lippard in ArtForum, February 2008. The conversation was recorded in 1973. Lippard, preparing to write a book about Eva Hesse, interviewed friends who had known her. Lippard had wanted to edit the dialog for print, but the magazine editors and Nancy Holt persuaded her to leave it "rough." It is a little rough, three people speaking over one another, but they're not play-acting artists here as in their video. They are thoughtful, engaged, and a bit prescient as they consider what impact an early death has on the effect of an artist's work. Smithson died in a plane crash some six weeks after the interview.

One exchange in the conversation was particularily interesting to me:

RS: I think I was really interested in, most of all, her perception of the world, or just her outlook... I mean, there was a kind of understanding, as I say, of these more troublesome areas of things. It was a kind of mutual comprehension of the problems of the world, but not being sentimental about them, just sort of facing them. I never really had that idea that it was ugly art. That seemed to be too much of a one-sided view, it seemed to me. There was this whole thing with you [Lucy] for awhile there about "ugly" art.
LL: I always used the word ugly in terms of "unexpected." I meant that people didn't want art to be ugly until they accepted it to be what they wanted art to be—then it became beautiful.
RS: There's more of a moral thing, probably, not so much between ugly and beautiful but more between evil and good and those two interlacing elements. She seemed to respond to that.
NH: She was very conscious of reacting to "tastefulness"—you know, she always tried to go against it, in a very, very shrewd and honest way...
LL: Yeah, like if somebody liked it immediately. I don't think she was very worried if none of us liked something.

(This last bit reminds me of Tracy Emin saying, "Being an artist isn't just about making nice things, or people patting you on the back; it's some kind of communication, a message.")

Any way. Around the time I read the ArtForum piece, I was also reading Gertrude Stein Gertrude Stein Gertrude Stein by Marty Martin, a one-character play based on published and unpublished letters and manuscripts. At the end of Act One, Stein recalls how her brother Leo considered the portrait which Picasso had painted of her "incoherent." Stein goes on:

Picasso said and I agreed that at that time ugliness and the confrontation of ugliness in art was beginning to unsettle people's pictures of life just a bit everyone's definition of ugliness was beginning to grow vague and it was understandable the nineteenth century was in a total state of inertia with regards to esthetics until just toward the end when it began to break and give way to the explosion that was and is the twentieth century. Always before ugliness was an effrontery to traditional esthetics but once those traditions were thrown into question by the fact that a painting can totally disregard and in fact challenge one's concept of beauty and still remain an intense and pleasurable experience, then everyone's definition of what constitutes ugly started to become vague indeed.

Ugly is "incoherent," "unexpected," unfamiliar, what we don't know we don't like.

The play, set in 1938, was first produced in 1979. Also in 1979, James Hillman presented a lecture, The Thought of the Heart at the Eranos Conference, Ascona, Switzerland. He followed up in 1982 with an essay titled, Anima Mundi: The Return of the Soul to the World. Both these works concern aesthetics and posit another way of approaching the question of beauty. First, he unhooks the notion of beauty from adornment, decoration, making pretty. "Beauty is appearance itself," he says, "an epistemological necessity." "Aisthesis is how we know the world." Each particular thing had its own display, each form its own presentation by which we know it.

"...what I mean by aesthetic response," he says, "is closer to an animal sense of the world—a nose for the displayed intelligibility of things, their sound, smell, shape, speaking to and through our heart's reactions..." Hillman's heart, any more than Eva Hesse's, is not the romantic or sentimental heart, but a sense organ, the aesthetic heart which takes in, takes to heart, interiorizes the image presented by the object, the other, the eachness of each thing. In the Shabda Kalpadrum, lexicon of Sanskrit, beauty (sundar) is defined as a perception which melts the heart (ardra).

If beauty then is the face of things, then ugly is the faceless. And as Smithson supposed, this is where evil and good interlace into the question of beauty and ugliness. Here is where Hillman's expanded thought unpacks what is behind what these others are saying.

The novelists William Styron and George Orwell, and the social philosopher Hanah Arendt, in writing of totalitarian evil and the Nazi systematic murders in particular, have each come to the conclusion that evil is not what one expects: cruelty, moral perversion, power abuse, terror. These are its instruments or its results. But the deepest evil in the totalitarian system is precisely that which makes it work: its programmed, single-minded monotonous efficiency; bureaucratic formalism, the dulling daily service, standard, boring, letter-perfect, generalities, uniform. No thought and no responsiveness. Eichmann. Form without anima becomes formalism, conformism, formalities, formulas, office forms—forms without luster, without the presence of body. Letters without words, corporate bodies without names. ...

The "general" and the "uniform" happen in thought before they happen in the street. They happen in thought when we lose touch with our aesthetic reflexes, the heart no longer touched. The aesthetic reflex is indeed not merely disinterested aetheticism; it is our survival. So, when we are dulled, bored, an-esthetized, these emotions of bleakness are the reactions of the heart to the anesthetic life in our civilization, events without gasping—mere banality. The ugly now is whatever we no longer notice, the simply boring, for this kills the heart.

So I started with a yawn in It's No Joke and it is no joke: questions of beauty still matter—35, 70 years on. Perhaps it is time for the plant, or the planet, to teach us its alphabet.