Cai Dongdong: Guns & Shutters

Cai Dongdong “Aiming at the Camera,” 2017, Gelatin silver print, Russian camera(!), wood. Photo courtesy Cai Dongdong and Klein Sun Gallery. Click any Photo for full size.

On October 6th the NYC Art world was permanently changed with the opening of the monumental “Art and China after 1989: Theater of the World” at the Guggenheim. Filling all 6 floors of Frank Lloyd Wright’s Rotunda and spilling over into two of the side galleries, it was as close to encyclopedic as any show of it’s kind could ever hope to be. Having closed on January 7, I’m still processing my thoughts about it. This much I can say- In it’s wake, the training wheels are now off. The flood gate of what’s been going on in Contemporary Art in China has opened and we’re officially in the deep water.

And it’s about time.

The 71 “key Artists and groups” as the show’s site calls them were remarkably well chosen, in my opinion, divided between historically important Artists and works, and those of the moment. Still? In a country of 1.4 Billion people, it’s impossible to include everyone. Many deserving Artists were missed, especially with only 9 women represented. While big on video & installations, almost completely missing was Photography, Ai Weiwei’s famous “Dropping a Han Dynasty Urn,” 1995, being one of the few works included.

Cai Dongdong, “Splashing Woman,” 2016, Handmade color photo, knitting, in Artist’s frame. I can’t say I’ve ever seen anything quite like this.

If you are among those left wanting to see more, see what other Contemporary Chinese Artists are doing, or see what Contemporary Chinese Photography Artists are doing, I strongly encourage you to check out some of the fine and daring galleries around town that specialize in Contemporary Chinese Art. With a 10 year history of representing and showing Chinese Artists who are, largely, in the process of becoming better known in the USA, Klein Sun Gallery on West 22nd Street is among the leading galleries in the field. Gallerist Eli Klein speaks with both passion and experience about the Artists he, and his gallery, represent, but, also about “the difficult concepts and social commentary portrayed by some of our artists,” as he told me.

The latter is exactly what makes Klein Sun a must visit gallery on my rounds. Mr. Klein comes by his passion naturally. He is the son the late, extraordinary, women’s champion, Janet Benshoof, who passed away on December 18th.

Installation view of the first gallery.

In all the years that I’ve been going to Klein Sun, this is a particularly good time to go. Their current show, “Cai Dongdong: Photography Autocracy,” through January 18, is an eye-opener, full of pushing-the-envelope creativity, in works that will linger with you after they upend your preconceptions. Mr. Dongdong’s work, which is centered on Photography, is rife with commentary, divided between themes including the military, the act of seeing and being seen, and Henri Cartier-Bresson’s famous “Decisive Moment.” But it’s the universality and humanity of his work as a whole that impresses me the most. Though the faces are Chinese, they could be anyone. For western eyes, there are echoes of Man Ray, Max Ernst, Marcel Duchamp and Joseph Cornell in works that are “Photo-Sculptures,”as he calls them, but decidedly different from Robert Rauschenberg’s “Combines.” Unique among all the Photographers I spent last year seeing, Cai Dongdong, also, constructs the beautiful stands and frames he uses himself, ala Joseph Cornell or Holly Lane, creating an all in one experience in which the Photograph plays one part. The Artist, who turns 40 this year, has a bit of a unique background. He joined the People’s Liberation Army- as a portrait Photographer, a post he remained in for about a decade. This served to have a lasting influence on him, as one might suspect, as one side of his subsequent Art incorporates these Photos, while another side uses found images, (selected from an archive that Phil Cai, Mr. Klein’s Associate at Klein Sun, told me numbers over 600,000 images), but in all his work, he combines Photographs in ways that defy the “Autocracy” of the image to force it to say “something else,” always unexpected.

Cai Dongdong, “The Photographer II,” 2015, Handmade color photo, photographic lens in Artist’s frame. The lens goes right through the work.

Going beyond Photographs with his passion for Photography, a number of these works contain camera lenses inserted right into the piece, making the viewer the subject. Many others contain mirrors or reflective surfaces, and one, seen at the beginning, and below, puts you at the place of the Photographer- if you dare.

Cai Dongdong “Aiming at the Camera,” 2017,

Through mirrors and lenses, he also puts the viewer in the work, reminding us of our complicity by looking and seeing, most poignantly they’re included in a number of nudes on view, including one that replaces the model’s head with a round mirror, all ready for your face.

Cai Dongdong, “Back from Target Practice,” 2017, Gelatin silver print, LCD Light box. These harmless looking smiling armed ladies are returning from target practice. Or? Are they coming for us? Interestingly, the piece is mounted about head high for many viewers, making it personal.

The central element, for me, in his work is the humanity that runs through it. In “Aiming at the Camera,” 2017, the Artist, literally, puts you in his shoes when he took this Photo. In “The Association of the Cannon,” 2016, a cannon goes off expelling a harmless and lovely nude. Right next to it, in “Back from Target Practice,” 2017, a group of armed young women walk towards the viewer, making you feel that even women, the givers of life, when armed, can pose a real danger to you-particularly when they’re coming your way. These Photos have a “journalistic” feel that’s turned into something else in the whole, something the Photo may, or may not have originally intended. Hence, the Photo’s “Autocracy” in the show’s title is subject to Artist’s intervention. The Artist is the one with the unlimited power to control what it says.

Detail.

The role of guns (rifles and cannons) is a recurrant theme in the Artist’s work that was also a memorable part of his last Klein Sun show, “Fountain,” 2015. Here, guns alternate between being a threat and being “defused.” The two shows mirror each other beautifully, down to their success, with “Fountain” selling out, and “Photography Autocracy” getting very close to it. (A word to book collectors-  The Artist created an extraordinary book for “Fountain,” in a limited edition of 500 signed & numbered copies, the stack of available copies at the gallery dwindled each time I visited, partially my fault. For someone who has been buried, literally up to his neck in Art & PhotoBooks, as anyone who has seen my apartment this year could swear to in court, I was shocked to see the intricate details that have been painstakingly included in this book. It’s gorgeous. Another example of the extreme care and craftsmanship that goes into Cai Dongdong’s Art.)

Cai Dongdong, “The Guerrilla on Hunghu Lake,” 2017, Gelatin silver print, wood. This is just an extraordinarily beautiful Photograph, in addition to being a powerful image. The background is ravishing, which serves to bring another level of meaning to the “action” of the approaching guerrillas in front of it. The idea of setting this in a hand made boat is just brilliant, in my opinion.

It’s fascinating to look for evidence of his experiences in the Army in these works, but it’s unknown (to me) which Photo Mr. Dongdong took and which he found. In the end, it matters not. Some of the end results, however, have a “day dream” effect, where I picture the Artist in his Army job, armed with his camera, fantasizing about whatever scene is going on in front of him. “Wouldn’t it be great if a beautiful lady came out of this cannon right now instead of a shell?”

Cai Dongdong, “The Association of the Cannon,” 2016, Gelatin silver print in Artist’s frame. Right out of Max Ernst, a work I might have expected from John & Yoko, seems to sum up this show.

I think it’s exactly that that makes this show so successful and so popular- it’s very easy to relate to the humanity in the work, regardless of your culture or background.

“Road,” 2016, Gelatin silver print in Artist’s frame. The Photo of the “road” in the upper right is collaged on and extends out from the surface, curved on the side nearest the lady.

Regarding his background, I asked the Artist a few questions, through the gallery since he lives and works in Beijing-

Frist- What inspired you to become an Artist?

Cai replied, “A rain when I was born.”

And- Who influenced your Art?

Cai- “My kids.”

Cai Dongdong, “Obstacle,” Gelatin silver print in Artist’s frame. Notice the ridge where the print is folded about 2/3 to the right. Photo courtesy of Cai Dongdong and Klein Sun Gallery.

As Phil Cai pointed out to me, looking at it from the right, the lecturer is cut off by the ridge made by the folded print…as the solders are cut off from him on the lefl.

I also asked Mr. Klein how he discovered Cai Dongdong. He said, “I first saw his work on a chance Studio visit in Beijing. His studio was close to one of another artist I was visiting and was told I shouldn’t miss it. Quite frankly I was blown away. It was such pure art, no bullshit, no trying too hard, not showing off. It was just Real. Cameras and parts all over the place, wood that he was using to make his own frames. A unique mix of installation, old and new photography, mixed media, collage, sculpture and compelling cultural commentary. I had to pursue representing him and knew that very quickly. His demeaner and dedication were also very clearly defined which is indicative of a better potential for a long and successful career.”

Cai Dongdong, “Big Harvest,” 2017, Silver gelatin print in Artist’s frame. Phil Cai spoke to me of the influence of China’s “Collectivsim,” in this work, that they are “gathering themselves.” When I see it, I see the succeeding smaller figures representing future generations.

Mr. Dongdong’s work speaks to the larger “cultural commentary” than to one that’s specifically Chinese, in my opinion.  These are works that end up expressing the universal experience of being human- even in a “collective.” People can be “trained” to move and operate together, but it’s harder to control their thoughts, imaginations, fantasies, and Artistic impulses. Yes, guns can be dangerous. Yes, nations are continually preparing for war. But, these nations are made up of human beings who are living their daily lives, too. Here are works about the experience of being human- from basic events like being seen naked, being seen at work, being seen serving your country, that every human being experiences. In Cai Dongdong’s Art, the world becomes a little smaller, and that’s one of the best things Art can accomplish. It also looks like he has fun creating it, and that comes through, too.

Time will tell if Cai Dongdong achieves the stature of Gu Dexin, Alec Soth or Ai Weiwei, but in the meantime he’s creating beautifully made objects with their own point of view, a decidedly unique way of seeing the world, each one overflowing with humanity. That’s certainly a recipe that’s stood the test of time, for a long time.

*-Soundtrack for this Post is “Happiness is a Warm Gun,” by John Lennon & Paul McCartney, and recorded by The Beatles on “The White Album.” (No, It’s not a drug song, as you can hear John say, here.) In lieu of their version, Gavin DeGraw does it here-

This Post is dedicated to the memory of Janet Benshoof. 

This Post was created by Kenn Sava for nighthawknyc.com
Please send comments, thoughts, feedback or propositions to denizen at nighthawknyc.com.
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R.I.P. Tim Rollins- A Remembrance

Tim was a miraculous being.

“I’m Blessed,” he always replied when I asked him how he was. Indeed, he was. Certainly, now, too.

Rarely in Art History, if ever, has there been an Artist who gave of himself so completely to his students that he put their names on the work they created and considered them collaborators. Right now, at The Met, you will look long and very hard at the work of Ghirlandaio for signs of the hand of his young apprentice, Michelangelo, in their blockbuster show of the latter’s work. Elsewhere, it’s the same with Verrocchio’s work for signs of the young Leonardo da Vinci. Would they put their apprentices names on their work? Never!1 Ditto for the apprentices and assistants of almost ANY Artist in Art history, right up through today.

Not Tim.

Each and every work he created is signed “Tim Rollins & K.O.S.,” for “Kids of Survival,” as his group of young students named themselves early on. While most Artists who collaborate do it for a short period, he did it for 35 years- his entire career! A career that has ended, now, way too soon with his passing on December 26th.

Beginning in 1981 at I.S. 52, an NYC junior high school, he took students from beginners and taught them about Art, Literature, discipline, technique, about what it took to succeed at anything, including Art, and, most importantly, about life. But, these were no ordinary students. These were “at risk” youths in the South Bronx during one of the worst times in recent New York City’s history! Tim’s was no after school babysitting Art class. His was the real deal. “Today we’re going to make Art, but we are also going to make history,” he famously told them.

And? They did.

He took classics of Literature, from Shakespeare through Malcolm X, and had the students read and study them. They then distilled the book down to an essence, which they each created images based on their own interpretation & experiences. These were then collaged over actual pages of the book.

Talk about making history? This one’s in MoMA’s Permanent Collection

“Tim Rollins, K.O.S. (Kids of Survival) with Angel Abreu, Jose Burges, Robert Delgado, George Garces, Richard Lulo, Nelson Montes, José Parissi, Carlos Rivera, Annette Rosado, Nelson Ricardo Savinon ‘Amerika VIII,’ 1986-87, Watercolor, charcoal, synthetic polymer paint, and pencil on bookpages on linen, 70 x 14”. That’s how the wall card read when I saw this work at MoMA’s “What is Painting? Contemporary Art from the Collection” in 2007. This work is based on Kafka’s “Amerika,” a key work for the group. MoMA Photo.

Imagine how it made the students feel to see this? Regardless of the commercial success they subsequently achieved, the notoriety and all the trappings of “Art fame,” that they got grief about, you can’t put a price on that kind of support for young people. In my opinion, what really matters is that quite a few of them have gone on to college and to Art careers themselves. Tim left his teaching post in 1987 and established a Studio with the group in Chelsea as the area was becoming a center of Art in NYC.

I met Tim some years later and had the privilege of speaking to him at length numerous times. He was very encouraging. “Recognize the creative glimmer in others,” was one of his mantras that he lived. He saw and encouraged mine. We talked about a huge range of things, from the Old Masters to current shows and developments. Contrary to many Artists who are focused on their current project at hand, Tim was aware of seemingly everything going on in the Art world. Was The Met’s determination that  Velazquez’ “Portrait of a Man,” was really a Self- Portrait correct? We both felt it most likely was. What about the small Michelangelo “Young Archer” that’s now in the center spotlight at their Michelangelo show- What it REALLY his? When it first arrived at The Met, where it has been virtually ignored for most of the past decade by most visitors, sure enough, Tim had seen it and we discussed it at length. He introduced me to the work of Joseph Beuys. I was endlessly impressed by his awareness, the breadth of his taste and the depth of his knowledge. He was a true student of Art History as well as of Literary History. The last two times I saw Tim, we spoke about the Rauschenberg show at MoMA. He had gone to see it on May 28th, and I ran into him on his way back. I could tell his mind was full of thoughts, and reactions to it, and he asked if I was going. Busy finsihing up other pieces, I went for the first of 18 times 3 days later. Then, he said quietly- “I knew him.” Instantly, I asked him if I could get a quote from him about Rauschenberg for my piece that I knew I was going to write, and he agreed.

I ran into Tim, for the last time, on July 31st, and again, we spoke about Rauschenberg, this time comparing notes on the show I was devouring room by room. I showed him my new at the time Raymond Pettibon Posts, and we spoke about him and his work. I told him I had blocked out the entire summer to research and write what turned out to be 3 Posts on the MoMA Rauschenberg show and the 4 satellite shows going on around town.

I have no excuse, but I never got around to writing him for a quote for those pieces. I was scrambling doing so much reading and researching I plum didn’t get around to it. But, I did hope he’d read them and we’d have a talk about them and how I did. Now, I dedicate all three pieces to his memory.

Tim on his Birthday in 2011, with three of his “Kids,” including Artist & Photographer Rick Savignon, to Tim’s left.

Over the years, I also became friendly with Rick Savinon, a wonderfully talented Artist & Photographer, who is one of the first Kids of Survival. After having known them both for a few years, I discovered the excellent Documentary, “Kids of Survival: The Art and Life of Tim Rollins & K.O.S.” WOW! Tim as a young(er) man! Rick as a VERY young man! It was like watching private family films, except this “extended family” was living a “quasi-public” life as their work was being shown in major gallery and museum shows, AND being filmed for a documentary! Award winning, it’s still the best introduction to Tim and the “Kids,” though I prayed for years it would be updated. I still hope it will be. I was also present after Tim received the draft of the retrospective monograph, “Tim Rollins and K.O.S.: A History,” which he was proofreading, and  which was published by MIT Press in 2009. It was the size of a MASSIVE phone book. I remember thinking that I had no idea how prolific he had been in his career (which would have another 8 years to go). A traveling Retrospective followed it’s release, which appeared at the Institute of Contemporary Art at the University of Pennsylvania and at the Frye Art Museum, Seattle. Ostensibly marking 25 years of work, there seemed to be so much vitality around Tim, and so much more still to do.

Tim Rollins had an extraordinarily kind and giving spirit- In many ways that I experienced first hand. When I ran into him, I could never tell if he’d had a bad day- he was extremely even tempered, and he always lived in the moment.

The Chelsea District of Manhattan is now known for it’s Art galleries and Artist’s studios. Tim Rollins is one of the people who made it what it is today. More importantly, his spirit, congeniality, supportiveness, creativity, and his firm guiding hand made many friends, and most of all, he taught at risk “kids” that Art could be a way to learn about life, and in the case of a number of them, a way to college, to a career, and a better life. I’m not surprised one bit that any number of the K.O.S. become longtime, even lifelong friends of Tim’s.

Also an Art Practice faculty member at the School of Visual Arts, Tim left a legacy that I hope countless teachers study, learn from and incorporate. And? I hope that NYC names a School of the Arts after Tim Rollins.

I prefer to think of Tim’s passing this way. Here, he (in the sharp Blue jacket) walks away, leaving me pondering our Rauschenberg conversation on May 28th, after he had seen the MoMA Rauschenberg Retrospective. I don’t know why I took this Photo. Something just told me to. I prefer to think he’s gone to his next meeting and we’ll talk again.

Tim taught me a lot, and in doing so gave me a tiny bit of the feeling of what “his kids” got from him. I’ll never forget his kindness and his supportive & encouraging words.

“Ask me how I’m doing
I’m blessed, yes
Living every moment, no regrets
Smile up on my face, I’m like, oh yes
I’m blessed, yes
I’m blessed, yes”*

“I’m Blessed,” too, Tim. I was Blessed to know you.

*-Soundtrack for this Post is “I’m Blessed,” by Charlie Wilson.

This Post was created by Kenn Sava for nighthawknyc.com
Please send comments, thoughts, feedback or propositions to denizen at nighthawknyc.com.
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  1. In fact, at the time, the apprentices paid for the priviledge of learning form the master, though they were often put to work helping him earn money.

Art In Manhattan, 2017- And Then There Were Five

It was a year of discovery. A year where I discovered some great Artists I previously hadn’t known, finally caught up with some I knew about but hadn’t gotten to see much of their work, and got lost exploring some remarkable Retrospectives- for Raymond Pettibon and Robert Rauschenberg, both accompanied by memorable satellite shows. Most of these are represented in my monthly NoteWorthy Show selections throughout the year. But? There was more! So, I’m going to take this moment to pause and look back at the revelations of 2017, look at some memorable shows I didn’t write about at the time, and finally, highlight a pair of men who, I feel, had an exceptional 2017 in Manhattan Art.

No doubt about it- the biggest discovery this year was a long overdue deep dive into the world of Contemporary Photography. From seeing well over 100 Photography shows, to spending five long days at “AIPAD: The Photography Show” (with well over 200 galleries from all over the world showing work), to going through hundreds of PhotoBooks, and meeting many Photographers, legendary, famous, or not quite yet, along with the staffs of two of the world’s leading Photography organizations- Aperture and Magnum, both celebrating major anniversaries this year. Rarely did a week pass when Photography wasn’t in the the picture. Of course, in a world were there are now more cameras than people it’s impossible to get to see everyone who’s doing great work. As happens each year, NO matter WHAT I do to prevent it, this year too, there were shows I didn’t find out about until they closed. UGGGH!!!! Along the way, there were quite a few revelations, and a good many other things solidified…at least for the moment.

First, the revelations. In Photography, particularly by those younger than 50 (I say 50 because I seem to know/have heard of many of those over) and unknown to me, Gregory Halpern was the biggest revelation I had this year. His book “Zzyzx” won the prestigious Aperture Best Book Award for 2016, but I didn’t know that when I discovered his work at Aperture’s booth at AIPAD. I had never heard of him.

Gregory Halpern, “Untitled,” 2016, from his “Buffalo” series. Click any Photo for full size.

The work, “Untitled,” was a Photograph Aperture had run in the Spring, 2017 issues of it’s excellent quarterly magazine, in a pictorial by Mr. Halpern, titled “Buffalo.” I didn’t know that then, either. I simply saw the work, and then couldn’t get it out of my mind. It now hangs a few feet away. Out of everything I saw at AIPAD, particularly by those younger than 50 and unknown to me, this work grabbed me and didn’t let go. I went home that night with one thought on my mind- “WHO is Gregory Halpern?” After researching him most of the night, (including finding his incredibly honest and insightful answer to one very important question), serendipitously, I got to meet him the next day, and spoke to him about his book. It turned out to be a classic case where some things are better left unexamined. Gregory was so forthcoming in his answers about specific images I came too close for comfort to losing some of their mystery.

Gregory Halpern standing next “Untitled,” at Aperture’s Booth at AIPAD, March 31st.

In addition to being, in my eyes, one of the most talented Photographers of his generation, he is, also, one of it’s best writers. He’s the co-author of one of the most popular and respected Photography Manuals of 2017, “The Photographer’s Playbook,” and his occasionally published articles always enlighten and leave me wanting more. A Harvard grad, he’s now a professor in the College of Imaging Arts and Sciences at Rochester Institute of Technology for some very lucky students. As if all of that isn’t enough, his wife, Ahndraya Parlato is, also, one of the revelations of the year as a Photographer. Her Photographs “glow”- in one way or another. Her most recent book, “A Spectacle and Nothing Strange,” is ethereal…mesmerizing…magical.

Leaving aside age or era, the work of Fred Herzog was, also, unknown to me. Early pioneers of color Photography have taken decades coming to the attention they deserve, such was the disdain color held among the Photographic cognoscenti for color Photography. With the publication of “Fred Herzog: Modern Color,” in February, 2017, an Artist who was fairly well-known, and appreciated, in his native Canada finally began becoming wider known in the USA. His work was memorably shown by Equinox Gallery of Vancouver at AIPAD this spring, where, I felt, it stood out.

Fred Herzog, “Main Barber,” 1968, seen at Equinox Gallery’s AIPAD booth.

Fred Herzog considers Saul Leiter THE master of early color Photography, and even with a giant like William Eggleston to consider (who’s 1976 MoMA show, “Photographs by William Eggleston,” which can be “visited” here, is widely credited with making color Photography “acceptable” in the world of “Fine Art”), it’s hard to argue with him. No Photographer new to me, regardless of age or period, had a bigger impact on me this year than Saul Leiter.

Saul Leiter, “Through Boards,” Circa 1957. This image appears (cropped) on the cover of the now classic book, “Saul Leiter: Early Color,” 2006, which launched the “Saul Leiter Renaissance.” It’s, perhaps, my very favorite Photobook. Sadly, now out of print, it would take real diligence to find a very good copy for less than $100. But, there are many worse uses of time. Photo by the Saul Leiter Foundation.

It took until 2006 for Saul Leiter to be recognized- FIFTY EIGHT years after he started taking color photographs. As with William Eggleston, Mr. Leiter was, also, a devoted Painter. I can see it in both of their work, and I believe it’s part of the reason their work speaks to me, perhaps, more than the work of any other Photographer of any period. It was his friend, no less than the great Artist Richard Pousette-Dart (who’s also an under appreciated Photographer), to encouraged him to pursue Photography.

“Walk with Soames,” 1958, This was 20 YEARS before William Eggleston’s ground breaking MoMA show “legitimized” color Photography in the Art world! Photo by Howard Greenberg Gallery.

Mr. Leiter saw and used color in his Photography in ways no one else has, achieving effects that today’s finest digital manipulators can only dream of. As very good as his Black & White work is, like Turner or Van Gogh, Saul Leiter was a true Poet of color, perhaps the greatest Master of Color in Photography, though it’s, of course, impossible and pointless to qualitatively compare.

“T,” Circa 1950(!).Photo by the Saul Leiter Foundation. Daring. Gorgeous.

Saul Leiter didn’t need Photoshop to get his results. He just stood there with his camera, and click…Art.

A number of established Photographers had terrific shows in NYC in 2017 that I didn’t get to write about here. Among them are Mark Steinmetz, Mike Mandel, Raghubir Singh (though marked by controversy), Richard Avedon, Herman Leonard, Michael Kenna, and Edward Burtynsky. But, I’m going to address one I simply can’t let pass, because I continue to think about it.

Richard Misrach’s Photo, “Effigy #3, near Jacumba, California,” 2009, Pigment print mounted to Dibond, right rear, with Guillermo Galindo’s Musical Instrumet/Sculpure “Effigy,” 2014, center2014. Barely visible are two strings between the forearms. The grey rectangle on the lower left side of the pedestal is where a speaker is mounted.

“Richard Misrach: Border Cantos,” (at Pace, 510 West 25th Street), was an utterly remarkable and serendipitous collaboration between renowned Photographer Richard Misrach & Composer/Sculptor Guillermo Galindo on the subject of our southern border, those protecting it, and those trying to cross it. To accompany Mr. Misrach’s large, atmospheric Photographs, Mr. Galindo created a whole orchestra of Musical Instruments out of objects found along the border, and proceeded to compose and record a 4 hour score that was looped in the show’s back room to meditative effect, ingeniously installed so that the music being played was coming from speakers mounted inside the display of the specific instruments that were playing at any given moment. (The Artists have an excellent website for this show where you can, also, hear these remarkable instruments.)

Instruments, like this. Guillermo Galindo, “Tortillafono/Wall Vibraphone,” 2014, Metal. The discarded metal cap of an electrical box from the failed SBInet (Secure Border Initiative) surveillance program was turned into a mallet and string instrument sits in front of Richard Misrach’s “Artifacts fround from California to Texas between 2013 and 2015,” 2013-5, 86 x 57 inches, Pigment prints mounted to Dibond. Photos of items found along the border.

And this- Guillermo Galindo, “Teclata,” His description- “On this keyboard, empty cans, bottles, and a plastic cup act as piano strings. The surface of the instrument is decorated with Border Patrol ammunition boxes.”

The surround sound effect was like sitting in the middle of a small chamber music group. The instruments, themselves, were beautiful as sculpture, and the music, which sounded to me like a cross between Harry Partch (who, also, made his own instruments) and John Cage, on instruments that looked like Rauschenbergs, had me asking if it had been released on CD. Why not?

Richard Misrach, “Playas de Tijuana #1, San Diego,” 2013, Pigment print mounted to Dibond, 42 x 160 inches.

Mr. Misrach, who has spent forty years working in the American Desert on his renown “Desert Cantos” project, showed a remarkable selection of images taken since 2004, but more intensely since 2009 (the collaboration with Mr. Galindo dates back to 2012), that told the story in slices. The effect of the music, the images and the sculptures (musical and non) was hypnotic, and ultimately meditative on the situation, the people protecting the border, and the refugees, while at the same time, even for those directly untouched by this story, the show spoke to a larger sense of walls, borders and refugees, and resilience. The Artists found, or created, beauty in this situation, reflecting the very perseverance that is at the essence of survival.

Richard Misrach, “Wall, east of Nogales, Arizona,” 2014, 68 x 84 inches, Pigment print mounted to Dibond

On the Painting & Drawing front, the most important Painting/Drawing gallery show I haven’t addressed was Kara Walker (at Sikkema Jenkins and Co.). Before it opened the buildup was downright intense. First, these posters began appearing, which certainly raised eyebrows until you notice (along the lower left side) that the text was written by the Artist. The show was also featured in a cover article in one of the last print issues of the Village Voice. I can’t remember the last time an Art show made the Voice’s cover, but this was the last time one did.

 Kara Walker sounds a bit weary in the poster, and particularly in the “Artist’s Statement” that appears on the show’s page on the Sikkema website.

“Dredging the Quagmire (Bottomless Pit),” 2017 Oil stick and Sumi ink on paper collaged on linen, 18 feet long, seen in the show’s first room. A “bottomless quagmire” is what the history of and current state of race and gender relations does feel like at this moment in time.

In the lower right side, this almost submerged head seemed to echo Ms. Walker’s weariness in her Artist’s Statement. “But frankly I am tired, tired of standing up, being counted, tired of ‘having a voice’ or worse ‘being a role model.'”

After all the anticipation and buildup, at the packed opening, Ms. Walker, herself, was only to be seen for a little while, at least while I was there.

Kara Walker at the opening, September 7, 2017, with part of  “U.S.A. Idioms,” 2017, Sumi ink and collage on paper, almost 15 by 12 feet, in the background.

While she continues to create her signature Silhouettes, showing a gorgeous 2017 work titled “Slaughter of the Innocents (They Might be Guilty of Something),” that’s almost 18 1/2 feet long, the bulk of the show consists on her ink and collage works, that have increasingly come to the forefront of her shows as time has gone on, most recently in her Cleveland Museum show, “The Ecstasy of St. Kara,” 2016, and at MoMA’s “Unfinished Conversations: New Work from the Collection,” which closed on July 30, 2017, where her “40 Acres of Mules,” a Charcoal Drawing on 3 sheets totaling almost 18 feet long that was acquired by the Museum the year before, was on view in what was something of a one-work preview for her Sikkema show.

“Slaughter of the Innocents (They Might be Guilty of Something),” 2017, Cut paper on canvas. For me, one thing Ms. Walker’s Silhouettes all seem to ask is “Why do you see, what you see?”

Whereas it’s hard for me to imagine the care, patience and deliberation it must take for Ms. Walker to create one of her silhouettes, her Drawing & Collages look like they are done in bursts of raw energy and passion. At times the images approach the quality of a caricature of an event. No matter the differences in creation, when you see her Silhouettes and Drawings side by side they’re unmistakably by the same Artist.

While the Silhouettes, mostly, seem to leave quite a bit to the imagination, including the race of each character, her Drawings & Collages do not, especially when it comes to violence. Nothing is held back, hinted at or hidden. In the Drawings and collages, she has taken away the curtain inherent in Silhouettes in depicting racism and gender crimes. We see the faces, skin color, eyes, and what each one is involved in doing.  You can choose to look away, but otherwise, it’s pretty hard to “miss” what’s going on. The results are shocking, though they have precedent going back to Goya’s “Los Caprichos,” and “The Disasters of War,” and Daumier through Warhol, as well as in the work of Photojournalists and “Conflict Photographers” from all over the world. In Kara Walker’s work, though, the time is centered between 1788, when slavery was legalized in the US, through post Civil War “Reconstruction.”  Where the Silhouettes present a shadow of the figure, and the actions, the Drawings shine direct light. In fact, there are almost no shadows in her drawings- there’s no where for the perpetrators to hide.

“The Pool Party of Sardanapalus (after Delacroix, Kienholz,” 2017, Sumi ink and collage on paper, Almost 12 feet long.

Eugene Delacroix, “The Death of Sardanapalus,” 1844, Oil on canvas, Louvre, Paris. Kara Walker is, also, an astute student of Art History. In her work, Sardanapalus lies horizontally near the upper left corner, apparently, taking no interest in the orgy of death going on, as he does, lying arm on elbow on a huge red bed in Delacroix’. Her Ed Kienholz reference is a bit harder to track down, but it might be this one.

In “Christ’s Entry into Journalism,” 2017, the ground is, also, gone. The figures hang in the space of the paper, though some sense of perspective remains- as you get closer to the top of the sheet, they get smaller.

“Christ’s Entry into Journalism,” 2017, Sumi ink and collage on paper, 140 x 196 inches.

In this work, Ms. Walker’s figures cut across time, with some appearing to be contemporary. To the right of center, a figure “rocks the mic.” In the lower center is a figure that appears to be a modern riot trooper, in a helmet with face shield and body armor. He appears to have clubs in each hand. Right next to his left hand is what appears to be a black head, in a hoodie, on a platter, being carried by a woman, who looks away, while others nearby watch, some with shock on their face, some pointing to the scene. Just behind them, an extended arm holds and American flag, while above them a figure gives a Nazi salute with one hand while holding a Rebel flag with the other. Up top, a lynched figure hangs from a tree branch while women on either side of him perform acrobatics, with Klansmen standing next to them. In front of that naked black women are attacked by a group of men, while, again, others see what is going on. In the center of the work, the decapitated hoodied head looks straight across at a Civil War soldier pointing a gun at him, across time. Is this 1863? Or 2016?

“Storm Ryder (You Must Hate Black People as Much as You Hate Yourself),” 2017, Oil stick and Sumi ink on paper collaged on linen.

The primacy of Drawing in her work was reinforced with the recent release of one of Ms Walker’s Sketchbooks from 1999, when the Artist was 29, as a book appropriately titled, “MCMXCIX.” It contains Drawings that, in style and subject, visitors to the Sikkema show will immediatley recognize. Interestingly, as Raymond Pettibon does in his shows (the latest concluding on June 24th, shortly before Ms. Walker’s opened), she prefers her larger works be tacked to the walls.

“Future Looks Bright,” 2017, Oil stick and Sumi ink on paper collaged on linen.

Kara Walker may be growing tired of being a “role model,” of being “a featured member of my racial group and/or my gender niche,” (as she says in her Artist’s Statement referenced above). Of course, I can’t imagine being Kara Walker, but I can understand that it gets to be “too much.” I’m not sure, however, what her other choice is. I mean, I’m sure she COULD do something else if she REALLY wanted to. After seeing all the work and passion she put into this show? I guess I’m just not convinced that she really DOES want to do something else. Yet.

Finally…Looking back on 2017… Last year I wrote that I felt Sheena Wagstaff had the best year in NYC Art. She’s had a very good 2017, too. But, this year, I think that The New Museum’s Massimiliano Gioni & Gary Carrion-Murayari. had special years, highlighted by the truly exemplary, and revolutionary, “Raymond Pettibon: A Pen of All Work” retrospective, which they then remounted simultaneously in Maastricht and Moscow. I feel it was “revolutionary” because totaling an unheard of 800 works, including brand new works created by the Artist for this show (some on the very walls of the New Museum), they gave an exhaustive look at Pettibon’s career, yet the show never slowed, never failed to keep and even raise interest. It even included work Pettibon did as a small child that he has now ammended in his own, unique style. Word has recently come that Gary Carrion-Murayari, who kindly answered my questions on the Pettibon Moscow show he co-curated, has also been named as a co-curator for the New Museum’s 2018 Triennial, so he could be ready to have another “big” year. Stay tuned!

The end result is that Massimiliano Gioni, Gary Carrion-Murayari, and the New Museum have served to put the “Big Four”1 Manhattan Museums on notice that, on their 40th anniversary, we are going to have to get used to saying the “Big Five.”

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A Special “Thank You!” to all the Artists who gave me their time and shared their thoughts with me in 2017, and to David White & Gina Guy of the Robert Rauschenberg Foundation and Gary Carrion-Murayari and Paul Jackson of the New Museum.
“Thank you!” to the Hattan Group and Kitty for research assistance, and to The Strand Bookstore for being open until 10:30pm seven nights a week. R.I.P. Owner, Fred Bass this week.

*- Soundtrack for this Post is “Heroic Elegy, Op. 36,” (1918), by Ernest Farrar, in honor of the 100th Anniversary of WW1, which was featured in another memorable show, “World War 1 & The Visual Arts” at The Met this year, as a way of honoring it, and all the Artists, and Musicians, lost during it. Shortly after “Heroic Elegy’s” premiere, Second Lieutenant Farrar was ordered to the Western Front. Two days after he arrived there, he was killed at the Battle of Epehy. He was 33. I first heard it while I was driving in Florida on September 11, 2002. The classical station there played it in honor of the first anniversary of 9/11. So taken with it was I that I pulled over and listened to it with my eyes closed, then immediately set about researching it’s composer. Though he wrote other fine works, “Heroic Elegy,” is special. It’s lightning in an 8 minute bottle. As beautiful as it is, there’s a quality, a confidence, in it that seems to promise so much more to come that he, tragically, never got the chance to give us, like the other Artists & Musicians lost far too early in this most senseless of wars.

On The Fence, #17, The Good Riddance” Edition.

This Post was created by Kenn Sava for nighthawknyc.com
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  1. With all due respect to The Frick Collection, who the powers that be that came up with “the Big Four” left out.