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Monday, October 28, 2013

William Kentridge's The Nose

Based on a Gogol short story, Shostakovich’s 1928 opera The Nose, tells the tale of a Russian official named Kovalyov whose nose leaves his face one night while he’s sleeping. The next day, he finds it transformed into a human-sized nose that not only has a higher bureaucratic rank than he, but refuses to speak to him. The balance of the action involves Kovalyov’s attempt, and final success, at getting his nose back.

Absurd in the extreme, The Nose can be interpreted as a castration allegory speaking to the impotence ordinary people experienced under the totalitarian systems of Tsar (Gogol) and Stalin (Shostakovich).

Shostakovich’s score draws from Russian folk music, vaudeville and military marches, which he intersperses with complex atonal passages. Not exactly the type of music you’d have on your iPod Shuffle. Coupled with the bizarre story, the work provides a challenge I’m not quite sure I could take if it were not for William Kentridge.  

Kentridge’s production, which debuted in 2010, relies on an enormous screen onto which his wonderfully inventive drawings and animations are projected. These projections are the star of the show, both when they share the stage and during the four or five intervals when they have it all to themselves.

Collage-like, Kentridge’s projections use text from newspapers and encyclopedias as back drops onto which he projects another layer of images made up of material and film footage from Soviet archives paired with various images of the nose he has wrought, including a film fragment of Anna Pavlova dancing with the nose superimposed on her body. Kentridge’s approach is low-tech, using torn paper, drawing and stop action animation.

Objects and beings which seem solid at first, break apart and coalesce underscoring the theme of Kovalyov’s nose’s separation from his body. As is the case with his animations, Kentridge picks one color as a foil for all the black and white. This time it’s Suprematist red used to form Malevich crosses, circles andlines. He also uses great blocks of Cyrrilic lettering to dramatic visual effect.

There are ramps that cut across the backdrop along which the singers traverse, and box-like structures signifying rooms that can be moved across the stage. These are nonsensical spaces where a bed is way too small, a wardrobe is a withdrawing room and a picture on the wall, a ladder up to a hatch in the ceiling.

The costumes are a mix between ‘20s chic and middle European oddness, with what appeared to be a couple of lavender leisure suits thrown in with the Sonia Delaunay coats. I loved the randomness of it all and the fact that five, from a cast of about 60, inexplicably wore masks—wonderfully primitive masks, I might add.

The troop of soldiers was kitted out in nifty Soviet-style gray uniforms with hats that had red on the top, so that when they turned just so, they echoed the Malevich circles from the backdrop. The actual nose itself, a magnificent proboscis inspired by Kentridge’s own prodigious schnoz, appears only a few times, newsprint covered and with a red Malevich cross plastered onto it. A sprightly figure, the nose dances around sporting jaunty spats.

What with the music, the story and the crowd, at times it seemed that everything would deteriorate into pure chaos, but it didn’t. All this zaniness also didn’t seem self-indulgent or embarrassing, perhaps because everything was on such a high order and there was also this overall quality of handcrafted imperfection that rang with authenticity and truth.

As a South African who grew up under the shadow of apartheid, Kentridge is ideally suited to undertake “The Nose.” For Kentridge, it is through the type of brutal comedy evident in both Gogol’s story and Shostakovich’s music that we can get closer to the actual logic of the world, and he posits that apartheid, evil though it was, had an absurd logic to it. In addition to this societal form of absurdity, as an artist, Kentridge takes the absurd very seriously. Like Gogol and Shostakovich before him he sees the freedom inherent in it: because there are no rules, all bets are off and anything is possible. 

Wednesday, October 23, 2013

Janet Bruce: Presently Observed: Recent Work in Wax and Pigment

Presently Observed: Recent Work in Wax and Pigment, heralds Janet Bruce's foray into the world of encaustic and printmaking. A painter of great sensitivity and strength, Bruce has embraced a more physical approach, effectively rolling up her sleeves—tracing, transferring, pouring, layering, scraping and inscribing—pushing her work in new directions and neatly catapulting it to a whole new level of potency.

It was at two printmaking workshops in Upstate New York: the Women’s Studio Workshop in Rosendale and R & F pigments, where Bruce learned how to make trace and photo-litho monotypes and how to combine them with encaustic techniques of layering, inscribing, transfers and collage. Trace monotypes are reverse drawings using an inked plate, which can be printed as a positive or a negative (the ghost). Photo litho monotypes use Xerox images as the plate for oil based printmaking. An ancient medium, used by the Egyptians, encaustic, which is made from beeswax, can be translucent and lush in color. Says Bruce:

"I'm drawn to encaustic because of its rich hues and immediacy. Unlike oil painting, there is not a long drying time so it is easier to build up layers and drawing. Also, the possibilities for combining media are limitless. Often there are surprises along the way that open up new ideas for creativity."

In her oil paintings, Bruce composes her surfaces with layers of different colored paint. One of the great pleasures of her work is spotting the various coats of under painting peeking through subsequent applications. These flickers of color add visual and spatial dimension. Bruce also uses wonderfully expressive marks and scumbling to keep things interesting. Jagged lines, rendered in oil stick, temper the sweetness of the palette and the delicate, almost feminine quality of the veils of pigment. Yet, despite all the surface details, paint is thinly applied and the oil paintings have a sleek smoothness about them. With the addition of wax, collage and found objects, Bruce has introduced texture and three-dimensionality in her recent work.

Pyrenees is a large painting with, as the title suggests, a landscape feel. There appears to be a horizon line with great yellow sun above, but much of the painting is abstract. Bruce is inspired by nature, but her interpretations, focusing on the sentiments inherent in it, are non-literal, or as the brilliant German artist, Gerhard Richter, would say, incomprehensible:

“Painting is the making of an analogy for something non-visual and incomprehensible–giving it form and bringing it within reach. And that is why good paintings are incomprehensible. Creating the incomprehensible has absolutely nothing to do with turning out any old bunkum, because bunkum is always comprehensible.”

With its roiling blotches of color and liberal use of oil stick, Pyrenees seems charged with violent energies—of weather, of emotion, or both. For an instant, it teeters on the edge of total chaos, but Bruce maintains control. The effect is thrilling and a little disconcerting—in a good way—feeling slightly anxious at first, one becomes filled with admiration because the composition, with flying colors, succeeds.

Similar to Pyrenees, Approach is smaller and more purely abstract. A patchwork of inspired color combinations, the painting is overlaid with wildly zinging lines. There’s a lot going on in this dynamic work, but you don’t question Bruce’s choices, which are exactly right.

Another large painting, Mother, appears at first to be a quieter work on account of its cool palette of blues and beige with orange highlights. But the brushwork is complex, gestural and also subtle. Bruce says she was thinking of Louise Bourgeois’s Maman, a giant bronze sculpture of a spider, when she was working on this piece. As she explains:

“This painting was started in 2004. In the intervening years I had revisited a particular shape that showed up again and again, in various drawings—a shape based on a Yoshitoshi print of a bereft lunatic women reading and re-reading a scroll-like letter to her dead lover, a letter he presumably never saw that is also a letter from him. Initially, here, the shape, simplified into this oval with tendrils looked kind of camelia-like, or maybe something else….The leggy lines seemed spidery. I remembered "Maman,” which I knew from the Cafritz Garden at the National Gallery where my daughter and I went ice-skating once, memorably, (and I would guess she thought then, that I was more like the Bourgeois Maman, as I tried to keep her upright on the slippery blades….) Yet, this oval seemed less treacherous than that colossal Bourgeois bronze. Anyway, to my eye, now, it reads either as a cozily blanketed baby, or else like a protective thing—a hooded cape. To me, both are maternal images, but there is also a calm about this piece, which gave me pause before; somewhat reminiscent of a deep bath in the maternal. So to get to the point, when I came upon this realization—it was that moment of awakening you get in creative work...I figured that there was nothing more for me to do but allow this "Mother" to remain in this state of finish and wonder.”

Much smaller, but still packing a punch, the Forest series of three paintings marries a hefty schmear of metallic copper encaustic slathered across a simply gorgeous tapestry of pigment. It’s an audacious pairing of strength and softness.

In Bubbles and Clouds, encaustic is applied liberally over a trace monotype. The heavy wax impasto is almost sculptural, creating a pitted, blistered and iced surface of intermittent translucency through which we can discern the lines and pigment of the monotype beneath. It’s a visually arresting and marvelously tactile piece with a presence that belies its small size.

Bruce has created a series of small works that prove she is adept operating in a broad range of media and sizes. With these, she tries just about anything, using such found objects as a dried cabbage leaf, a mock orange and two bits of twisted wire to create compositions that are both curious and striking. They could have ended up looking like a mish-mash, but in the sure-footed Bruce’s hands, these pieces have real artistic authority.

Presently Observed: Recent Work in Wax and Pigment, comprises engaging works that challenge and which seem to suggest all bets are off and anything can happen in Bruce’s paintings. While they take nature as their starting point, they quickly veer off into a profound exploration of pure painting and technique. For Gerhard Richter (and for me) this is a good thing:

"Thus paintings are all the better, the more beautiful, intelligent, crazy and extreme and more clearly perceptible and the less they are decipherable metaphors for this incomprehensible reality."

Monday, October 21, 2013

Full Measure of the Man

Awhile back while walking through the Fralin Museum at the University of Virginia, I was stopped in my tracks by an arresting portrait of a handsome black man. It turned out to be Lloyd Patterson a Bronx-born theater designer who traveled to the Soviet Union in 1932 with a group of African American artists and intellectuals including Langston Hughes. The purpose was to make Black and White, a film about racism in the United States.

The film was never made, but while in the USSR, Patterson fell in love Vera Aralova, a theater artist, and stayed on. Patterson and Aralova had three children including James Lloydovich Patterson who at the age of four appeared in director Grigori Aleksandrov’s 1936 film Circus, which somewhat paralleled his life as he played the dark skinned child of an interracial couple. The younger Patterson also achieved recognition for his poetry in later years.

During the Second World War, Patterson’s family was evacuated from Moscow while he remained behind working at a radio station. He died from wounds sustained during the bombardment of 1942.

Though his life was short and his accomplishments few, the portrait suggests Patterson was quite a man. He would have to be to take such a brave step. Leaving behind his home to strike out for a place (and such an alien place!) where he would be treated like the proud person the painting depicts.

Edmund de Waal's Atemwende

Atemwende (“breathturn”), Edmund de Waal's show at the Gagosian gallery, which takes its title from Paul Celan’s 1967 collection of poetry, is "the moment when words transcend literal meaning."

The author of The Hare with the Amber Eyes, de Waal has established himself as a gifted writer. I only realized he was a visual artist after coming across a reference to his artwork while reading the book and then Googling him. Aside from being impressed with his work, I was also struck by, though markedly different, how similar it was to the family collection of netsuke that forms the basis of his extraordinary family memoir.

For the Gagosian show, de Waal has produced a series of vitrines in which porcelain vessels in various groupings are placed. Painted white or black, the vitrines are either narrow rectangles, squares or large bookshelf-like pieces. The vessels are cylindrical, mostly the size of a shell cartridge, though some are wider and shorter. Their surfaces ranges from lustrous to matte and colors from white to pale celadon, to pale wheat to a gunmetal black. They are mostly smooth, but some are pitted. Having worked for Eva Zeisel back in the '80s, I know a thing or two about porcelain and I had to admire the quality of de Waal's—its thinness, its color and its lovely glazes.

My favorite pieces featured a deep rectangular vitrine with two "rows" of randomly arranged cylinders, one set up behind a translucent material that blurred them so that they appeared like shadows. There were also actual shadows, so in fact three different versions of the cylinders were visible. They made me ponder notions of presence and absence.

I also was drawn to some of the squares, especially the black ones, which had beautiful, subtly metallic backdrops against which the vessels were placed.

de Waal's work is austerely beautiful, as calming to look at as it must have been to make. All these individual hand thrown pieces...one imagines de Waal toiling in this endlessly repetitive fashion and reaching a kind of Nirvana in the process.

Though manmade, there is something organic about the vessels; they seem to have much more in common with bones, seashells and eggshells than vases and tea sets. And while the vitrines made me think of Donald Judd, de Waal's rough, handmade quality was very different from Judd's sleek hermeticism. de Waal embraces craft and his work represents a wonderfully recondite marriage between it and high art.

Thursday, October 3, 2013

Imran Quershi

I think one of my favorite spots in New York is the roof garden at the Met. It's a glorious island surrounded by green with a nearly 360 view of the city rising above Central Park. It also has been the site of some pretty spectacular contemporary installations, such as the Starn Brothers’ Big Bambu and Tomás Saraceno's Cloud City. 

Recently, I set my alarm and got to the museum when it opened and hurrying back to the elevator was whisked up to the roof before the masses had made it through the intervening galleries. I was rewarded by having the place to myself save for a couple of guards and baristas at the coffee bar. It was a glorious morning. The city sparkled all around. 

The beautiful and classic vista of New York, my hometown, is reassuring and timeless, which is perhaps why Imran Qureshi's (born 1972), painted commission (his first large-scale installation in the United States) resonates so powerfully.

Thus far, 9/11 and the Boston Marathon aside, we have been spared the almost quotidian carnage happening in other parts of the world: Iraq, Israel, London, and Quershi's native Pakistan. The splatters and blotches in dried blood red powerfully evoke the ghastly aftermath of a suicide bomb. It's a powerful memento mori that hits you like a brick. And yet...within the awful splatters we discern delicate leaves emerging, beautifully rendered with chalk-like white highlights in the delicate style of the miniaturists who worked for the Mughal court (1526–1857). They're life and hope, civility and lyricism blooming from within the vestiges of violence. In Quershi's words: "Yes, these forms stem from the effects of violence. They are mingled with the color of blood, but, at the same time, this is where a dialogue with life, with new beginnings and fresh hope starts."

If only people could only cleave to these fragile fronds rather than the murderous hatred that rips us apart.