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Saturday, December 25, 2010

Collecting on a Dime...

so to speak. That’s what the Vogels did. They were hoarders in a way. But instead of a snarl of clothes, broken-down household items, out-grown toys and cast-off fast food containers, the Vogels hoarded art. Beginning in the 1960s the Vogels acquired over 4,000 works (paintings, drawings, sculptures) by mostly Minimalist and Conceptual artists ( Sol LeWit, Donald Judd, Richard Tuttle, Robert Mangold, Lynda Benglis, to name a few). The collection, much of which was literally kept under wraps, was crammed into the one-bedroom Manhattan apartment they shared with turtles, fish and a cat named Archie.

The Vogels are considered among the most important art collectors of the 20th century. Certainly they are it’s most unusual: an unassuming couple: Herb was a postal worker, Dorothy a librarian. Self-taught, they collected what Chuck Close called “the most unlikable, the most difficult art.” And the best thing is they did it all on a shoestring.

To be fair, the Vogels, did rely on a certain amount of creative financing, particularly when buying more established artists’ work. As the Vogels’ stature as collectors rose, artists naturally wanted to be part of their collection and so cut deals or arranged barters. For instance, the Vogels accepted a collage in exchange for taking care of Jeanne-Claude and Christo’s cat while they were away building Valley Curtain in Colorado.

I love the Vogels because they are obsessed and passionate and they show that challenging art is indeed accessible if you are willing to put in the time to develop an appreciation of it. Decidedly un-chic they went about the business of collecting in a quiet, modest way and managed to show up other pretentious poseurs. By the time I encountered them in New York in the early '80s they were well-known bellwethers, watched like hawks for what emerging artists caught their fancy.

The Vogels were not speculators, "buy what you love" was their motto, and they never sold anything to improve their humble lifestyle. They began working with the National Gallery in the early '90s and In an act of mostly selfless largesse, ended up giving their entire collection to it (832 works were donated outright; 268 were promised gifts; in 2008, 2,500 were distributed throughout the nation, with fifty works going to a selected art institution in each of the fifty states http://vogel5050.org/) in a combination of partial purchase and gift because as Dorothy has said, the collection was “built on the generosity of artists.”

The Vogels are the subject of the documentary, Herb and Dorothy (2008) by Megumi Sasaki.

Friday, December 17, 2010

Abby Kasonik

Abby Kasonik is a calm, centered presence. You get the sense she’s one of those people who’s always had a clear vision of what she wants out of life. Kasonik lives with her boyfriend (antiques dealer, Roderick Coles owner of The Curious Orange Shop) in the charming house she bought when she moved back to the Charlottesville area after college. 

Abby Kasonik is a calm, centered presence. You get the sense she’s one of those people who’s always had a clear vision of what she wants out of life. Kasonik lives with her boyfriend (antiques dealer, Roderick Coles owner of The Curious Orange Shop) in the charming house she bought when she moved back to the Charlottesville area after college. It’s a chic setting with an unpretentious elegance that suits both the architecture and its owner.

The common theme is clouds in a sky that takes up most of the picture’s real estate. This low horizon line emphasizes the infinity of space and engenders a sense of contemplative peace. It is so exaggerated that it keeps the paintings from being mere derivative iterations of traditional landscape,
though there are certainly elements that remind you of van Ruisdael and Turner.

Another unifying element is the rivulets of water Kasonik overlays on the paint. My first impression was rain on a window and thought of being on a train passing through countryside. But the rivulets perform a more important role than evoking precipitation; their real purpose is to keep the work contemporary; to remind you these are not your garden-variety landscape (Kasonik dislikes the classification) paintings. Indeed the “landscapes” aren’t literal; they’re mystical, dreamlike vignettes of the inner topography of the artist’s imagination.

It is telling that Kasonik studied sculpture at VCU as the paintings are so textural with surfaces composed of so many layers they almost appear three-dimensional. Fresh out of college, Kasonik worked as a furniture restorer using faux finishing techniques to disguise mars and says that she found inspiration in the aged patinas she came in contact with.

Kasonik’s process is laborious. She builds up her surfaces with alternating layers of acrylic paint and a glaze of clear pigment. In between layers she uses water almost like an eraser to help form clouds, trees, land mass, etc. When she’s satisfied with the image, she takes a squirt bottle and sprays water in a pattern of even lines that run down the panel before sealing it within the glaze coat. She repeats these steps through many, many layers. The results are luscious. Both surface and depth are emphasized; the image remains intact and smooth behind a watery undulating curtain of line.

Kasonik says she wants to achieve the effect of hard candy, which has a shiny exterior but is translucent so you can see into its depths. Like the candy she references, her work is beautiful but it has a psychological weight that takes it beyond mere beauty and makes it so very satisfying.

High Art/Low Art

I couldn’t sleep last night and for some reason thought again about the amazing sand animation portraying life during the USSR’s Great Patriotic War against the Third Reich in World War ll (in which it's estimated that 20 -30 million soldiers and civilians died) Ukrainian sand artist, Kseniya Simonova that went viral on the Internet last year. If you missed it, it's worth a look:


It really got me thinking about High Art vs. Low Art because it is so appealing, beautiful to watch and very moving. It shares some compelling similarities with William Kentridge (chronicling potent episodes of human suffering, whether through political oppression or war with graphic images that shift from one to another by “erasing” and “re-drawing.” Granted Kentridge is really drawing and erasing, while Simonova is moving sand around—with incredible control I might add. And lastly, both artists use powerful musical scores to add dramatic effect.) Yet, I hesitate to put them in the same league. There’s something undeniably Vegas about Simonova’s work. First of all the setting, Ukraine’s Got Talent screams show biz, and Simonova is almost too perfect: show girl-gorgeous with a dancer’s grace.

Though she manipulates it masterfully, the medium is undeniably gimmicky in a David Copperfield, sleight of hand kind of way. A quick survey on the Internet shows that there are other (less comely) sand animators out there and though it looks hard, Simonova only took sand animation up a year before the video was shot. Meanwhile, Kentridge has been practicing his oeuvre for years. His pieces are much more labor intensive, requiring hundreds of drawings and stop-and-go animation. While he works, he is making countless artistic decisions; Simonova’s work is more about chance. At the end of the day, Kentridge has something to show for all his effort whereas Simonova’s work is completely ephemeral. True, videos exist, but they aren’t part of the piece, just a means to record it. Not that there’s anything wrong with this, much of conceptual/performance art is ephemeral, but Simonova’s goals seem different from those artists.

That said, I love to see Simonova at work, watching her fingers tease recognizable objects out of the sand (not so unlike Bob Moss, who I’ve always found somewhat irresistible) and I admire her dramatic flair when at the climax she throws sand across the light board to evoke exploding bombs. One only has to see the audience’s reaction to grasp how effective Simonova is.

And as for Ukraine's Got Talent? Not surprisingly. she won.

Sunday, December 12, 2010


When mentioning memorable noses in art in my review of Megan Marlatt’s show, I completely overlooked Piero della Francesca’s portrait of the Duke of Urbino (c. 1472). Talk about nasal character! And character in general, since the story goes that the duke, who had many enemies and was blind in one eye, had the bridge of his nose removed, in theory, to improve the peripheral vision on his blind side. I can’t imagine the surgery would have worked, but years before any real anesthesia, it must have hurt like a mofo.

Saturday, December 11, 2010

Toys and Tondos

I went to the Athenaeum in Alexandria, Virginia this week to see Megan Marlatt’s show, Molded from Complicated Mixtures, which includes her tondos of various cartoon characters, and drawings and large-scale paintings of toys.

You can tell from looking at the work that Marlatt has a really good time making it. There’s a joyful exuberance that shines forth from each piece. Painted in oil in an Old Master style and using a shape usually reserved for religious paintings, the tondos of Olive Oyl, Pinocchio, Captain Hook and others are both spare and rich, funny and serious. Though her tongue is firmly planted in her cheek, Marlatt knows when to pull back. Her images never devolve into the overly cute level of dogs playing poker in the back room. Part of this is her restraint, part of it the beauty with which they are rendered and part is because there’s frankly, something a little creepy about the vintage puppets with their just a-tad-too-jovial expressions she uses as subjects. Marlatt is well aware of this and uses it to her best advantage.

As far as I’m concerned there are two real stars of the show. Portrait of Pinocchio is one. There’s something about the position of the figure, the palette and the retro lighting that makes this painting so very appealing. Though it has already grown a bit, Pinocchio's nose looks twitching and ready to shoot out some more. (It's a nose that vies with Ghirlandaio’s for most nasal character in a painting.) Coupled with the mirth in Pinocchio’s eyes, these two features convey perfectly the mischievousness of this most famous junior prevaricator.

I also love the three-quarter view Portrait of Ms. Oyl. Again, the lighting and palette are superb. The sitter’s position is what gets me. It recalls the glamorous studio portraits by say a Horst of some starlet or other. Here, this “glamour shot” perspective adds a poignancy to Olive Oyl’s image because she’s such an ugly duckling, clearly doesn’t know it and is reveling in her movie star moment.

Special mention must go to the Portrait of Ms. Oyl as a Rembrandt, which Marlatt said was inspired by a real Rembrandt of a woman who resembled Olive Oyl. It was perhaps natural for Marlatt to take the work to this point and she almost goes too far into the poker playing dog realm. What saves it is the incredible Rembrandt-like virtuoso painting of the ruff and the laugh-out-loud bulbous shadow of Olive Oly’s nose falling upon it.

Marlatt has been painting mounds of toys for several years now. They are fun to collect, fun to arrange and fun to paint. Large assemblages are both visually interesting but also offer so many opportunities to flex one’s artistic muscles painting soft and hard, shiny and dull, masculine/feminine, animal/machine and so on. Plus there’s the eye-popping color that comes with the territory. (Marlatt uses acrylic in addition to oil paint because she simply can't reproduce the toy's colors with oil alone.)

But fun aside, by focusing on toys Marlatt forces the viewer to confront other issues. The jumble she paints seems to reference the chaos in our personal over-stimulated lives as well as the larger conflict-ridden world. The junk heap of cast-off toys points to our consumer culture where endless giant container ships arrive bearing fodder for the yawning shelves of Walmart and Toys R Us. The toys are both ephemeral and permanent. Interest in them is short lived—the child grows up and moves on, yet the toys are made from materials that will never degrade, ensuring we’ll be stuck with them for eternity.

My favorite is Orange Slinky whose luscious DayGlo slinky of the title commands front and center attention. There’s so much here to look at and enjoy in the busy snarl of toys at the bottom of the painting. A riot of color and form, it’s tempered by a refreshingly empty background. But empty is not boring and here the layers of hue that produce the shimmering pink and the prominent brushstrokes create a stand alone authority that holds its own against the more clamorous toys.

Marlatt’s work is so satisfying on so many levels. A storyteller, art is her medium and her passion. Though her work is not as overtly political as some, she is concerned about the human condition and the current state of the world. She confronts these issues gracefully with beautifully painted images that are rich in humor and metaphor.

Good news for all you locals: Megan Marlatt will be showing this body of work at Les Yeux du Monde in January, 2011.

Friday, December 3, 2010

Sally Mann: The Flesh and the Spirit

More than just an exhibition of sublime photographs, Sally Mann’s The Flesh and the Spirit at the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts also reveals the measure of the remarkable person behind the extraordinary images and the courage and conviction with which she operates. 

Mann burst on the scene in the ‘80s with her achingly beautiful, honest, yet provocative portraits of her children. The VMFA show includes some of these early images, but focuses primarily on her new work. Mortality is the underlying theme. It’s a natural subject for someone passing the half-century mark and it has particular resonance for Mann given her husband’s diagnosis of muscular dystrophy. 

She turns her lens unflinchingly on him, recording his once vital body now showing the ravages of the disease that will eventually kill him. They are elegiac images, thrumming with the sexual pull between sitter and artist. Shot by a female these beautiful nudes aren’t prurient but stand as Mann’s unsentimental, yet poignant love letter to her husband and their conjugal bond. Further exploring the theme of mortality, Mann also turns the camera on herself recording her neck, chest and face without vanity and unflatteringly (in real life Mann is a striking woman) capturing wrinkles, bags and blemishes that are the souvenirs of advancing age. These are powerful works. Indeed, the opening piece, a series of self-portraits on glass got my “best in show” award.

A number of years ago, an escaped convict was shot and killed by the police on the Manns’ farm. After his body was taken away, Mann went to the spot where he died and found a “chocolate syrup-like” pool of congealing blood. She reached out to touch it—if there’s one thing Mann isn’t, it’s squeamish—the blood seemed to retract away from her hand as if “the earth took a sip.” 

It got her thinking about those places where thousands have died. And so she set up a darkroom in the back of her Suburban and began to travel around the south shooting Civil War battlegrounds. She decided to employ the wet plate collodion process used between the 1850s and 1880s (so what contemporary CIvil War photographers would have used). The process is both arcane and challenging involving cumbersome equipment and various toxic chemicals. 

Photographing outside means the work is always subject to conditions (wind, dust, a falling leaf or twig) beyond Mann’s control. She welcomes these serendipitous incursions which bring visual interest to the work. In some prints the image is pitted by flecks of light, created by dust motes on the print, others have ripples radiating across them from how the chemicals were applied and in still others the image seems eaten away. 

Mann is interested in capturing the unseen spirit of the place and producing grave images that seem to whisper of the enormity of what occurred there. The process requires a long exposure time (six minutes), which means many things can happen to affect the outcome. It also means that with living subjects, you get those penetrating stares of sitters who must remain still for the exposure’s duration, or blurry effects if they happen to move. In the excellent documentary, What Remains, on view at the end of the exhibition, we see Mann pose with glazed eyes for a self-portrait straining not to blink. She describes the sensation of posing like this as being almost in a state of beatification.

The large format wet plate collodion photographs of her children are haunting. Especially placed in a room adjacent to the one containing her early color photographs of the (much younger) children gamboling in the river by the Manns' cabin. Looking at these closely cropped head shots with their corroded looking surfaces, one immediately thinks of death and decay, certainly unsettling given the children’s youth and beauty and the fact that their mother took the pictures. But "unsettling" adds weight and interest and the approach is in keeping with Mann’s exploration of mortality. 

Given Mann’s flintiness it was perhaps natural that she would move beyond this metaphoric treatment to the very extreme tactic of photographing real decomposing corpses at the University of Tennessee “body farm”. These photographs are not for the faint of heart. Hard as they are to look at, you have to admire Mann for looking death straight in the eye.

Watching What Remains which chronicles Mann’s working process and her near-perfect life in rural Virginia, I was struck by what a contrast this full-color, unedited world is from the restrained and plaintive one Mann creates. It’s a wonderfully revealing portrait of an artist with many scenes that expose Mann’s character and mettle. She is likable, articulate and down to earth, an ordinary woman making extraordinary art. 

One vignette stood out for me. Mann is taking one of the affecting photographs of her husband that are at the beginning of the show. In the real life scene captured on film, the gravitas of the resulting print is completely absent. It’s a funny scene. They’re in the bathroom; he’s wrapped a navy blue towel around his waist that keeps revealing a little too much as he bends to clip his toenails. She wants their Greyhound in the picture. They joke around as she smears bacon grease on her husband's leg for the dog to lick. She makes sure the stitches closing a large wound on the dog's flank are visible. Filmed in color it’s such an unexceptional, even banal scene of the easy interaction between a long-married couple. But in her hands it will be transformed into a profoundly moving image far removed from the everyday circumstances of its creation.