Spanish Painting from El Greco to Picasso: Time, Truth, and History
Open or Close
The Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York City
I’m an admirer of Frank Lloyd Wright, but I’ve never been a great fan of the Guggenheim Museum as a space to look at art. Nor have I always been enthusiastic about that institution’s programming which seems to default to puffed-up blockbusters.
So when the great Wright way muscled up its current exhibition: “Spanish Painting From El Greco to Picasso”, my first thought was uh-oh: "Here's Spain!" and up the long spiral we trudge to the sound of faintly playing flamenco guitars.
I was wrong. The show's curator, Carmen Gimenez has avoided the standard blockbuster formula of grandly presenting a gauntlet of masterpieces reverently arrayed by period. Instead, she manages to appeal with apparent modesty, despite the impressive docket of geniuses on hand. She does this by organizing the exhibition's 135 paintings into fifteen thematic groupings. It doesn’t really matter what these themes are, but this organizing principle provides an excuse to see a rich variety of paintings from different periods juxtaposed to one another. In one memorable example, three small portrait heads are exhibited together; the first by El Greco, the second by Picasso, and the last by Velasquez. The juxtaposition results in the consideration of these artists from different periods as compatriots. Unstuck in time; aligned as peers rather than as representatives of their respective eras, they become champions of their discipline, creating an illusion of a contemporaneous Spanish painters' "super-group", with El Greco, Velasquez, Goya and Picasso, all playing inspired solos on stage together at once.
This curatorial re-mix is given depth by the number and quality of the examples offered. It allows for cross readings and comparisons normally unavailable to viewers of chronologically arranged exhibitions. I couldn’t help feeling as if one could compare the artists’ passions by comparing their works.
El Greco revels in the noble, modest fragility of his sitters’ inner, spiritual lives. Despite being the farthest away from us in time, he retains a remarkably contemporaneous tone, with an emotional uncertainty that rings familiar.
Velasquez prefers the beautiful surfaces of common, if staggeringly beautiful people. His royal commissions never had the same passionate strength of his portraits of commoners.
Goya just likes people; common or un-common, beautiful or ugly, introspective or superficial, he just can’t stop making pictures of them - in spite of, or perhaps because of their foibles. In this group, he is the cleverest and fastest on his feet, the fox in the henhouse of Spanish art.
Picasso, the youngest, revels in, well, reveling. He has some of the same energy and wit as Goya, but he's more hermetic, seemingly spending his time and energy in the studio, instead of getting out and about. He has a great time playing with Spain's cultural patrimony, while never straying very far from it. But in the end, his energetic innovations seem a shade self-conscious and a tad self-serving in this company.
There are astonishing works presented by the other artists here too.
Francisco de Zurbarán's dark monk contemplating a skull he holds as if it were a chalice into which all human vanity and accomplishment might be poured.
Juan Gris is represented by satisfying, clockwork-tight cubist arrangements.
Even Salvatore Daly shows what he was capable of when he not only uncorks the showbiz surrealism of his imagination, but also the cogent rigor of his intellect and the surety of his craft.
There are other artists as well, many unknown to me. But each seems considered, contributing to the occasionally revelatory quality of the viewing - transforming that vertiginous trudge up the Guggenheim's ramp into a pleasant, thoughtful stroll surrounded by charm, intelligence, passion, and humor.
Spanish Painting From El Greco to Picasso, at the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum , 1071 Fifth Avenue, New York, through March 28th, 2007.
Paper WealthOpen or Close
(Introduction to an Exhibition by Cris Bruch)
I. An Accumulation of Interest
The Berkeley Art Museum has concrete walls in its galleries, which means that every time an artwork is installed new holes have to be drilled and lead plugs inserted to accommodate the hanging hardware. The museum doesn’t restore the walls between exhibitions so over time they have become spotted with small dark holes accompanied by notations and instructions penciled in by the installers. Cris told me how he had marveled at the pock marked walls between the artworks-- the “constellations” of holes and notations that had accumulated over the years.
Cris Bruch is a hard artist to categorize, particularly if one follows his work only casually. He requires more from his audience than those artists whose development proceeds in a more linear way. Both his style and the materials he employs seem to shift suddenly, disappearing from one path only to re-appear somewhere else happily high stepping in a different direction entirely. In the course of his career he has produced work in almost every conceivable medium- paper, steel, wood, clay, cloth, glass, light and sound. But despite the variety in the look of his work there is a remarkable consistency in the quality of his production. It is that consistency that rewards those who have watched his progress closely over the years.
To understand his propensity for changing the appearance of his art, one has to drop the notion of consistent visual style in favor of consistencies in artistic touch and in the underlying ideas driving the work. In other words his creative path is most strongly influenced by two factors directly embodied in the artist, not the look of the work. Cris has always been interested in the simple unconscious repetitive actions which, to one degree or another, define who we are. Those trivial acts that accumulate and become significant in that they construct our spaces, alter our bodies, form our personalities and frame our accomplishments (or failures). He revels in these tiny acts and wonders at our inability to recognize them as being among the most important things that we do to make ourselves who we are. At this point, Cris leans forward and offers helpfully- “You know, like Dizzy Gillespie’s cheeks.”
II. Labor as Capital
The de Menil Collection in Dallas, Texas is one of the largest and best collections of contemporary art in North America. The collection is respectfully displayed in a series of elegant white buildings designed by the architect Lorenzo Piano. One of Cris’ strongest memories of his visit to the collection was not of the art, but of paths which had been worn into the ebonized pine floors of the galleries by visitors as they wandered from artwork to artwork.
To properly consider his work, one must also take into account Bruch’s attitude towards (and regard for) labor. In spite of being well read, well educated and raised in an academic family he is a working man by temperament. He comes close to Thomas Jefferson’s utopian ideal American citizen-- someone who works hard with his hands and by his wits during the day and who relaxes in the evening by reading Homer in the original Greek. That Yankee work ethic becomes evident when talking to him about his art. While he cares very much about how his work appears, one senses that his aesthetic has as much to do with what it takes to make it as how it will ultimately look. The labor is always there, it shows and it is important to the work. Some of the decisions that Cris makes about an artwork’s appearance are made before he begins working on it. That is, he sets up a series of premises or rules from which to work, inspired either by a repetitious action or by the material at hand. Once those rules are set, he proceeds. Most artists’ creative practice begins with a set of assumptions that are defined and clarified by decisions made as the work goes along. Cris does much the same thing, but the completion of the work is not so much determined by whether or not the piece looks finished, but rather by when the predetermined process has run its course. For example, he once made a series of rubbings on paper by setting up small urban treks around selected downtown Seattle city blocks. He set off, proceeding in one direction only, stopping from time to make rubbings of interesting fragments of the urban topography-- sidewalks, sewer grates, manhole covers and building facades. The final drawings became abstract documentaries of those treks, overlapping close-ups of the built environment. After circumnavigating a particular city block the drawing was complete. According to the rules he had set for himself he could not go back to fill in an empty patch or change the composition. For better or worse the drawing was finished and the only decision left to him was whether or not he was going to keep it. Most of his artworks express this collaboration between a conscious decision making process and a strictly defined working premise. This means that very often the work is slow, repetitive, and can result in unpredictable consequences. Forms grow largely out of his repeated gestures so that often there is no exact mental image of how the work will finally look when he begins. The work simply comes into being- accumulating together. On those rare occasions when I have heard him complain, it tended to be about how long it is taking him to make one of his pieces. The quick red fox of his brain trying to jump over the lazy brown dog of his process. This repetitive work might appear to some as obsessive, it is not and he rankles at the word. His studio is in a nineteenth century building that has floors and ceilings constructed of 2" by 12" solid old growth planks nailed together side by side so that they look like huge butcher-block tables. Once he pointed up at the complex construction of his studio ceiling and said, “You don’t say that the people who built this building were obsessive, it’s just the way they made buildings then.” In much the same way, his work follows the premises he sets for himself—it’s just the way his work is made. The writer and critic Robert Mittenthal once told Cris, “Your role in the space time continuum is that you take time and turn it into space.” It is as succinct a statement about Cris Bruch’s work as anyone is likely to make.
III. The Accumulation of Paper Wealth
As I’ve watched over the years, this welder, carpenter, ceramist, hunter-gatherer, recycler and performer has always returned to the flimsiest and most ephemeral of materials- paper. It is a relative constant that underlies the swings of ideas and shifts in sculptural materials. There always seem to be new prints, drawings or delicate paper constructions in the studio- pinned to the wall, scattered on table-tops and occasionally carefully put away in metal flat files. In recent years he has found ways to fold and glue paper to make large, sensuous three-dimensional forms. The result is that even paper’s friendly ability to take a speedy image has been slowed down to accumulate into sculptural objects.
Recently the ambition behind these paper constructions has grown again. His installation Duty Cycle crossed boundaries into a realm where gravity and mechanics had apparently shifted just enough to allow for what in the normal world would clearly be impossible. The enormous wheel, which rotated slowly, gracefully, at once gossamer light and cast-iron heavy on an axis of wire, was constructed entirely of sheets of dried pulp. Cris and paper once again performing the improbable. Beyond the sheer poetics of the installation, its graceful engineering and careful craft, it spoke at once of both the meditative qualities of a Zen garden and the intrigue of a mysterious inventor’s workshop. Such double-barreled seduction is hard to resist.
The ever-expanding variety in Cris Bruch’s work paradoxically provides a lens to focus our view of his practice, mind, methods and the quiet ambitions that fuel them all.
Suzanne McClelland’s PLOTOpen or Close
In autumn, 1997, Suzanne McClelland arranged with friends to bury four of her large, recently completed drawings on canvas. The burials were widely dispersed in locations around the United States: near East Hampton, New York; Indianola, Washington; Playa Del Rey, California; and Stuart, Florida. She requested that these interments be videotaped, the tapes sent to her and that the canvases be buried in the fall and left until spring. No other instructions were given. The volunteers at each site directed, acted, framed, and conceived their own burial ceremonies. During the spring and summer of 1998, McClelland traveled to each of the sites, exhumed the canvases and examined them to see how the climate had affected the drawings.
The words that Suzanne McClelland paints are not written words meant to be spoken, but spoken words written down. Plucked from the air and drawn upon a surface, they appear to have dimension and contort as if animated. They flow, as if seeking direction through some strange typography, like water flowing on Mars - torrents forced to the surface under pressure, pooling, freezing and evaporating into a thin atmosphere.
Adding to this sense of dimension is McClelland’s contention that words have physical effect. This notion o f words having impact has been long appreciated in psychology. But McClelland extends this force beyond an affect upon the psyche. Occasionally, for explanation and emphasis, she will use the phrase “words can hit”. By this she means that words can not only hurt feelings or change behavior, but that language can disturb molecules. For her, letters are particles, not only individual sounds and inflections, but bodies of different weights and electromagnetic polarities.
The phrase on her buried canvases was “boys will be boys”. It is a perfect McClelland phrase: a cliché found in the language, more often spoken than written and vulnerable to inspection. The implication is that a boy has done something inappropriate, but that is to be expected because that is just how boys are. The phrase angers women because it grants absolution of bad behavior by men because they are men. It is doubly irritating to any man who believes in acting responsibly because it allows some clod to get away with something and assumes that all males will behave badly because it is in their nature to do so.
McClelland became so incensed by the phrase that she sent people to bury it at the furthest points of North America. The burial and resurrection of the canvases inspired a new series of meditations on the phrase. The boys of the original canvases grew harsh and in the new paintings they strut as sexual slang words for men - dick, stud, hunk, and tool. “Boys will be boys” still appears, scattered at the base of these harsh monikers like dried cocoons.
Other words appear as well. McClelland transcribed the sounds of the burial tapes and fragments appear in the new paintings: How deep? How long? How Close? How Far? The questions arise from ceremonies left undefined. McClelland responds as she would to the accidents of her painting gestures or her overheard words. She gathers them together and presents them back to us.
In McClelland’s hands the words have assumed a force independent of their origins. Such transformation, amplification and clarification of the everyday is the artist’s job. Suzanne McClelland seems intent on continuing her project with what has become a familiar grace, humor and rigor.
Zig-Zag Nature - Elizabeth Sandvig in RetrospectOpen or Close
(An "Afterword" for the artist's Monograph: I Surprise Myself)
It’s nearly impossible to talk about Elizabeth Sandvig’s artistic practice without mentioning her relationships to others or her biography. Her work seems surrounded by a loving entourage. But taken by themselves, Sandvig’s artworks are joyful, honest, hard won and intelligent. They fizz with innovation and radiate a cool sophisticated energy - like Prosecco.
She describes her approach to art making this way: "I am stimulated by the struggle to make images and ideas come together by seeking the right combination of my hand and my mind in arriving at an energetic resolution, which is primarily visual, and secondarily pictorial." *
It’s as if she believes that artworks are merely a result, the surviving evidence of an investigatory process. This might explain both Sandvig’s restless material shifts, and her occasional modesty about the work. After all, artworks are just the things left behind when one has finished, less important than the acts of conceiving or making them. But the strength to muster the thought, rigor, and hard work required for creation is something Sandvig respects in others, and is proud of in herself. Like a Quaker Minister, she admires the simple work of life while understanding that one is also a vessel through which revelatory spirit is expressed.
Of course, how she paints differs from what she paints. Where do her subjects come from? Start with her animals and what they’re not.
They are not inconvenient beasts of nature with fangs, claws, parasites or instincts. They are not fierce or threatening, nor are they endangered, so they don’t inspire guilt or environmental sensitivity any more than they inspire fear. They are not like Blake’s burning tiger. Her snakes are not versions of Eve’s tempting serpent, even though her view is said to be of Eden. Sandvig’s animals are not beasts from the Bible, or those of the scripture-driven painter, Edward Hicks - though his sweet, awkward paintings of a “Peaceable Kingdom” are cited as an inspiration. These creatures are not moral examples. They are not metaphors and they don’t tell stories. They are not characters from The Wind in the Willows, Winnie the Pooh, or Watership Down. They are not fairy tales, and they are not nursery rhymes. And yet, although they are not childish, they contain something of the memory of childhood in them – bright sun, a piñata filled with sweets, a wall painted with celebratory creatures, a festival poster, a sign or a silhouette meant to sell something. . . Sandvig’s animals are cut and freed from such fragmentary memories to float and cavort on the flat surfaces of her paintings, vibrant, happily seeking a state of grace, so much lighter than Mr. Hick’s grim protestant herds - more like crepe-paper decorations stuck to the surfaces of dour brown portraits of Spanish noblemen with little pointy beards. Her beasts venture out, colorful talismans applied against the grays of home, related to other works she has made: like cheery landscapes to be carried in a bag; or paintings of circuses; or screen walls to be seen through; or birdsongs made visible.
Visionary and extreme, they are things that might have been made for a child, perhaps the artist’s son, her grandchildren – perhaps herself. And when Sandvig creates her healing creation myths, joyfully generated from deep inside, the work becomes a perfect complimentary yin to her husband’s, and its masculine, Herculean yang.
As I say, it’s nearly impossible to talk about Sandvig’s art without mentioning her relationships- without talking about the people and places she has touched. Her work comes surrounded by a loving family of creatures from a peaceable kingdom. They are a rowdy crowd gathered together from Sandvig’s life, from her imagination, and from art history- all jostling into the studio whenever she opens her colors, all happily posing, waiting to be drawn into (or drawn just beyond) the picture frame, submitting themselves to Sandvig’s hand and mind, joining her struggle to create a suitable resolution between how they look and what they might mean. Zigging and zagging, Sandvig pushes her characters back and forth to make them particular, at once new and familiar. In this regard, she is like Edward Hicks, who confessed once in his diary: “My poor zig-zag nature predisposes me to extremes.”
That charming acknowledgement of personal extremity by a 19th century folk artist might just describe the 21st century painter Elizabeth Sandvig perfectly.
Kiki Smith: A Gathering, 1980 - 2005Open or Close
On view through February 11, 2007
As you may know, there are in several cities around the globe, competing exhibitions of flayed and cleverly posed, plasticized human cadavers, or "life-like posed whole-body plastinates" that are meant to educate by providing an opportunity to better understand the human body. Further, it's said that these exhibits assist viewers to become "aware of the naturalness of their bodies and to recognize the individuality and beauty inside of them"; as well as serving as riveting and accessible reminders of the fragility of our bodies "in a mechanized world".
As if we all needed another damn reminder of our own mortality. Frankly, the whole enterprise creeps me out.
But right now at the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York there is a different kind of show about bodies - Kiki Smith's retrospective entitled The Gathering (a wonderful title) organized by the Walker Art Center and curated by Siri Engberg in collaboration with the artist.
I'll take Ms. Smith's gathering of fragile creatures any day of the week if I want to see skeletons, muscles, nerves and organs convey anatomical individuality, being "aware of the naturalness of their bodies . . .to recognize the individuality and beauty inside".
In the past when I've seen Ms. Smith's work, it has been either as a single piece in a group exhibition, or isolated by medium - as in an exhibition of her prints or small multiples - or one or two larger sculptural works. While I've always liked the work well enough, the segregation of her objects by their medium and their consistent, apparently ephemeral material qualities never registered as being as ambitious as this exhibition proves them to be. I should have been paying closer attention. "A Gathering" is a rare retrospective survey that manages to jolt an artist's practice into focus, or at least it had that effect on me. Ms. Smith becomes more defined as to who she truly is, a poetically minded, multi-tasking, generative omnivore, fascinated by life and the stories told by things as they simply go about the business of living. Representing the creature body in an almost promiscuous array of materials and media: plaster, bronze, glitter, blood, paper, glass, porcelain, and presented as installations, prints, drawings, photographs, multiples, jewelry, costume design, artist's books, or as film and video works, even the tattoos she has penned on her own body.
Her art retains and evokes a human-ness in its sweet/sour depiction of homosapien (and other) forms, and in the hand-crafted quality of the works' execution. A steadfast but timorous touch helps in releasing harmonics of emotion evoked by the work- suffering, longing, fear, acquiescence, humor and the absurd.
She probably regards Hamlet's pesky "To be or not to be" question as a false dichotomy. Existence is not an either/or proposition here, but a both/and state of being.
Much has been written about her biography. Kiki Smith's mother, Jane Lawrence Smith, was the opera singer. Her father was the sculptor Tony Smith.
I once took a studio class from Tony Smith, which I mention only because Ms. Smith's exhibition made me think of something that happened during one of his classes. He was frail by the time we met and he would deliver his critiques seated, speaking in a quiet rasp that one had to occasionally lean forward to hear. During one evening class, for reasons I can't remember, he began to recite James Joyce's "Finnegans Wake", which he had apparently committed to memory. I remember his marvelous transformation as the stream of poetry flowed out of him, complete with brogue, no longer frail, rejuvenated, strengthened by beautiful language, the words transported on breath. The same would be true of her mother's singing opera. A daughter of such parents couldn't have escaped that notion of the body as instrument, of corporeal flesh giving rise to transformative and spiritual energies released through word, gesture, expression, imagination and art.
She may have learned her lessons about the body and energy from those who were close to her, but she has taken her expression of it closer to the bone than most, to make work as fragile and steely as we creatures can sometimes be.
Other ArtOpen or Close
A Review of: Cosmologies(James Cohan Gallery, 533 West 26th Street, New York January 11– February 10, 2007) & Mixed Signals(Ronald Feldman Fine Arts, 31 Mercer Street, New York January 6 – February 3, 2007)
The godfather of surrealism, André Breton, wrote in 1948 about Art Brut, art by the insane, as being an inspiration to the surrealists. That ". . despite the individual suffering these (artworks) may entail, emerge here as guarantees of that total authenticity which is lacking in all other quarters and for which we thirst more and more each day."
Breton was prophetic. The surreal has become familiar and authenticity in contemporary culture is rarer than an act of generosity by a neo-con. At the same time, Art Brut and Outsider Art have become generally discredited terms for that never very well defined territory inhabited by mad, naive or merely obsessed artists. The imprecision of those terms has been further complicated by the inflationary pressure brought about by those contemporary artists who have adopted the look or working methods of the so-called "outsiders".
There are currently two excellent exhibitions that embrace this blurring universe of art making and provide a compelling view of a catholic, accepting and thoroughly diverse spectrum of what might be exhibited as serious art in a commercial art gallery.
Cosmologies, a sprawling exhibition at James Cohan Gallery explores "the wide ranging strategies used to depict notions of the universal", juxtaposing all manner of works from the 10th century to the present which attempt to give shape and order to a world view. Diagrams, philosophy, pseudo-science, religion, enlightenment and humbuggery all vie for attention in this ambitious show.
In their collaborative curatorial statement, James Cohan, Elyse Goldberg, Arthur Solway, Jessica Lin Cox and Ginger Cofield declare that "Cosmologies aims to describe a lineage of thought which has passed through many cultures: an innate human desire to define a place in the universe. Whether it is through religious means, philosophical thought or personal expression, the instinct to create order from chaos is a commonality throughout time and history".
Further downtown, and delving further into that ". . . instinct to create order from chaos", the Ronald Feldman Gallery offers Mixed Signals, a group exhibition, curated by Ronald Feldman and Martina Batan, whose personal collection provided the majority of works in the exhibition. While this Mixed Signals does not reach back as far in time as Cosmologies, it does include work that spans over 60 years. Its curatorial sub-topics include invented territories, personal obsessions and depictions of real world concerns, constructed in a variety of high art and found materials. Advertising and magazine images merge in collages to create beautiful, troubling and amusing visions. Obsessive gestures and delusional musings slip around, passing through one artist's hands to another, from one time and place to another, building a loose, convivial fraternity of restless makers. This band of accumulators, dreamers, recluses, sophisticates, hipsters and nutcases gather to create landscapes, documents, portraits, histories and entire worlds. The artists in both shows constantly returning to that "instinct to create order from chaos" - even if the chaos is only that unrelenting storm raging within that particular artist's skull. I've purposely not mentioned the names of the artists in either of these shows. Part of the fun is the guessing at the names, the historical periods and the mental states of the artists as they were making their art. That uncertainty of authorship, of artistic intent, the variety of methods and the span of historical time, combined with the energy represented in both these shows helps to shake one's confidence in the concept of art historical evolution, while quietly reaffirming the notion that art making is a fundamental and irresistible human enterprise.