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Tuesday, October 28, 2014

Kylie Heidenheimer

Kylie Heidenheimer arrived for her fifth residency at VCCA with work already begun on some of her pieces. “It’s what I like to do, to arrive with something in progress.” This ensures a relatively smooth segue into work without the added weight of a blank canvas staring you down from across the studio. And, as Heidenheimer points out, “You see things differently when you move them around.”

Beginning in 2010, Heidenheimer started working with more amplified color. This initiated a medium change from acrylic to oil, the acrylic colors being too highly-keyed for her taste. It was “an interesting adventure” since she’d been using the medium for 15 years and had to adjust her working methods to accommodate the demands of oil.

But the rich colors and translucent glazes characteristic of oil make it all worth the trouble. Heidenheimer paints on oil paper, canvas on stretched panels and canvas stapled directly to the wall.

It was interesting seeing Heidenheimer’s recent work after looking at a catalog from 2008. Not only was the vibrant color a surprise, but the looseness of her brushwork was markedly different from the more tightly controlled, all-over effect of those earlier paintings.  

With these recent pieces, Heidenheimeris exploring what she refers to as “a twisted space.” You’ll see in her paintings how one side comes forward while the other recedes. Heidenheimer does this as a way to acknowledge both surface and depth. “The painting is both an object and a container for space,” she says.

They’re also beautiful with pairings of color that are interesting and satisfying, and a complex lexicon of marks, that range from daubs to jagged lines to washes. Hue and gesture impart a wonderful drama to her compositions that are, as Heidenheimer says referring to her constant reworking, a few paintings in one.

Tuesday, September 30, 2014

Killer Heels

There are two take aways from Killer Heels on view at the Brooklyn Museum. One: women's shoes through the ages have been designed to keep the wearer down: trammeled and unbalanced in teetering pinnacles. And, two: everything old is new again.

Now, I like my heels as much as the next girl, even if that girl happens to be Carrie Bradshaw. I trace my obsession with shoes to when I was six. We had just made the annual pilgrimage to Best & Co. to buy our school shoes. The following day, I was sitting on our front stoop while my mother swept the sidewalk in front of our brownstone. Because I’d outgrown my sneakers, I was wearing my brand new oxfords. Back then things were simpler and also more complicated: us kids owned just three pairs of shoes: sneakers, school shoes and party shoes. Stores were more specialized — I don't think Best & Co. carried sneakers; we bought ours, like everybody else, at Melnikoff's on York Avenue and this entailed a separate shopping trip. My de rigueur party mary janes, which would have come from Best's, hadn't been purchased yet, perhaps because my party going needs weren't pressing and with the sticker shock of outfitting four children, my mother put off that purchase for another day.

In any event, while my mother wasn't paying attention, I took off my new shoes and put them on the steps beside me. Being six and easily distracted, when I got up and went inside, I left them behind. By the time my mother realized what had happened and ran outside to retrieve them, they were gone.

Of course, I was roundly scolded for being so careless, but the real punishment came when I was forced to wear a pair of white drum majorette boots with red tassels, part of a costume of my sister's, the only footwear that fit me. The problem was it was a Sunday and in the 1960s shops were closed on Sundays. It wouldn't have been so bad if we were going to spend the day at home, but we'd been invited to a barbecue on Long Island and so my humiliation at having to wear the horrid boots was public. Clearly, it made a lasting impression on me for I now possess the perfect shoe for every occasion.

But back to the Brooklyn show. Here, the emphasis is on the exotic. There's everything from the elevated 11” wooden Nalins Ottoman Empire ladies wore in the baths to keep their feet high above the water, to the most outrageous contemporary designs.

The show provides a heavy dose of fetishism, with plenty of stilettos and lots of boots. One pair, red and black high button boots from 1900, would be quaint except they're thigh high giving off more than a whiff of gilded age burlesque. There's a clip from a Betty Page film which shows her hobbling around in a pair of impossibly high — nearly vertical — pumps that, oddly, appear two or three sizes too big for her judging from the gap at the back. This kind of outré heel is seen in quite possibly the most extreme pair in the show: Christian Louboutin toe shoe stilettos, Fetish Ballerinas. God, they were weird.

There are plenty of other bizarre examples like the pair of high heeled booties made using real horses hooves that look like they clopped right out of a Matthew Barney video, a Japanese black lacquer platform thong sandal called a geta that forces the wearer to adopt a halting, dipping, figure-eight gait as seen in clips from Sakuran and Memoir of a Geisha projected on a nearby wall.

There are numerous sculptural and architectural examples including a bamboo and plastic wedge by Winde Rienstra that could almost stand alone as an art object and a silver pair designed by Zaha Hadid which would make you look like you were walking around with a couple of her buildings on your feet. 

Heelless heels have been a popular design since the 1930s. Theres a beautiful red and gold kid pair by Delman (1938-40) and a red suede sandal from 1940. Both look incredibly chic and modern. But apparently the practice of undercutting the heel goes back much further being evident in chopines from the 16th century. A steel cantilevered heel was actually patented in the 1950s. The most dramatic version of this design on view is Noritaka Tatehanas austere and quite beautiful, faux leather heelless platform bootie. According to the label, the footwear represents his response to the 2011 earthquake in Japan. Hmmm. But if you find this a stretch, theres a second design by Japanese/British artist/designer Sputniko! entitled Heeling Fukishima (Nanohana Heels). Adorned with flowers from a plant whose seeds absorb radioactivity. The seeds are stored in the spike heel and sowed as one walks. Giving the shoe a steampunk quality is an antiqued brass circular mechanism on the side, perhaps a Geiger counter? Another Japanese designer, Masaya Kushino continues the trend of shoe as art. His Stairway to Heaven, an elaborate lace-up, cantilevered wedged bootie, features outstretched crows’ wings at the ankles, their considerable span making it impossible to walk.

Beth Levines rolled heel slingback from 1962, Chanels light bulb heel, Pradas Cadillac inspired mules all show that beauty and a sense of humor can co-exist. I wonder where the shoes with the hollow Lucite heels in which you were supposed to put live goldfish into were? Or perhaps thats an urban myth?

For me though, elegance rules. My two favorites pairs were relatively tame. A black and gold brocade wedge by Christian Siriano and a kingfisher feather (sorry about the kingfisher) Roger Vivier “choc” pump, a re-issue from a 1959 design created for Christian Dior.

Notably missing from the show was Alexander McQueens Armadillos, not that I object as I see nothing redeeming about them except that they might have provided the inspiration for Leanie van der Vyers film, Scary Beautiful playing on a continuous loop.  In the film, a woman straps herself into a pair of grotesque acid yellow leather boot-like containers with enormous backwards-facing heels. She then struggles across the room, her body contorted by the weird and hideous footwear. It was a tribute to the overall strangeness of the actual footwear on display that a woman next to me remarked on the ones in the film in a way that indicated she thought they were real.


Friday, August 8, 2014

Tanja Softić

Both delicate and forceful, Tanja Softić’s paintings are like visual poems, offering up lyrical pictorial passages that are richly layered with meaning and technique. Tanja knows how to balance things, pitting geometric forms against lacy filigree, silhouettes against drawn lines, blocks of bold color against washed-out hues. She uses veils of muted green and rose to form a backdrop for her idiosyncratic iconography that brings together glimpses of botany, biology and technology. These complex arrangements of fragments relate to each other visually, but also have a potent relational significance to the artist.

Recently, Tanja has become interested in splats. The kind you see on studio floors or on the street. They’re images of impact, of violence. She employs artificially made ones and ones that naturally occur during the painting process. The very deliberate way she goes about producing the former is interestingly complex. First she spills the ink to make the blots, than she photographs them, then she plays with them in Photoshop, stretching or compressing them. When she’s satisfied, she projects the manipulated image onto the painting’s surface and outlines them. It’s all about process. “A weird circuitous way,” she says, “Going from actual, to digital, to actual, to digital and so forth. It’s funny how we set up these obstacle courses. But you need all these obstacles in order to get the thoughts worked out.”

Tanja Softić: Migrant Universe, 
a traveling show that explores the fragmented and multilayered experience of the immigrant organized by the Halsey Gallery, Charleston, SC will be on view at the University of Richmond (where Softić is a professor) August 20 - October 6. http://tanjasoftic.com/

Friday, July 18, 2014

Calme, Luxe and Volupté: Gwen Hardie's Body Series

Gwen Hardie has distilled her fascination with the human figure, down to its surface and what lies just beneath. Zeroing in on the flesh, these latest paintings could be anywhere you see a sprinkling of freckles and the undercurrent of veins, Hardie has abandoned previous anatomical landmarks—glimpses of an areola or telltale crease, and so removed all vestiges of narrative and psychological overtones.

Several years ago, Hardie settled on using tondos and oval shapes for her work because the squares and rectangles she had been using invited the viewer to mentally add on more, mosaic-fashion, to the composition. Circles and ovals are self-contained shapes, which your mind accepts as complete. They’re also sensual and feminine and reference the alpha and omega of nature from the cosmos all the way down to cells.

There is a distinctive volupté quality that comes from the consummate fleshiness Hardie depicts—one can sense the warmth, softness and pliancy of the skin—yet these paintings are also rather dispassionate formal opuses into how light and shadow plays on the surface of things and the manipulation of volume and spatial direction.

Hardie’s work will be part of REALITY: Modern and Contemporary Painting, Sainsbury Centre, Norwich, UK (September 27, 2014 – March 1, 2015), a survey of the last 50 years of representational painting which includes other art world luminaries as Lucien Freud, Cecily Brown, Jenny Saville and Peter Doig.

Tuesday, May 6, 2014

Pork Brains with Milk Gravy

What can I say? I love this little can for so many reasons.

First of all as if the pork brains weren’t bad enough on their own, here they're served with milk gravy.

You probably think I’m crazy, but once you move beyond the grossness, there’s something so poignant about this foodstuff. I think this is because, for me, it harks back to a time before fast food and cultural homogenization when country people ate a snout-to-tail diet not because it was hip, but because it was thrifty.

The can’s design is pretty nifty: pale (milk gravy colored?) yellow and black with bold writing. (These people are proud of their product!) Then there’s the name. If you were going to pick something that was the antithesis of pig brains with milk gravy, a rose is a pretty good choice. So you name it Rose and for good measure you slap a big pink rose on the can—quite literally putting lipstick on a pig.

Beneath the name a picture depicts the preferred way of serving them: chunks of pink brains liberally arranged on a plate of scrambled eggs (oy) garnished with a genteel sprig of parsley.

Rose Pork Brains with Milk Gravy only seems to come in a 5 oz. can because, quite frankly, that’s plenty. The can has a pull top so when the urge for some pork brains strikes, you don’t have to  waste any time hunting around for the can opener. Just pop the lid and voila!

Wednesday, February 26, 2014

Sleepwalking Through Fire

So finally, I’m weighing in on the Change.org petition to remove Tony Matelli’s statue, Sleepwalker, installed as part of a temporary exhibition on the campus of my alma mater, Wellesley College. According to the students behind the petition, the statue is an "inappropriate and potentially harmful addition to our community," and the Sleepwalker "has become a source of apprehension, fear, and triggering thoughts regarding sexual assault."

I don’t mean to devalue the actual violent reactions of sexual assault victims to the statue. But I seriously wonder if there have been such reactions, or whether the response is more about the possibility of these reactions transpiring. I know Wellesley to be full of conscientious people who bend over backwards not to offend. I also know from personal experience that just because something has happened to you, doesn’t necessarily mean each time you see something similar, a bad reaction is triggered. Many of us are able to separate out our personal experiences from things that are going on around us. And really, when you think about it, don’t we have to do this to survive? We can’t expect life to accommodate all our various issues.

I’m all for an Ivory Tower education, but one cannot turn one’s back entirely on the real world, and certainly not on the world of ideas. To censure artistic expression attacks the very foundation of, not only of an institution like Wellesley, but also of our free society itself.

The fact that the statue is both ugly and portrays a nearly naked man is no doubt irksome to many who chose Wellesley because of its Arcadian campus and commitment to women’s education and issues, and I’m sure he’s a particularly offensive eyesore to Wellesley’s Lesbian population. But is that a reason to justify censorship? And won’t this become a non-issue as repeated viewings desensitize people to the statue’s power to offend?

Naturally, Duane Hansen’s name has come up in regard to Sleepwalker and while Hansen who made a career out of depicting similarly unattractive people in a superrealist way, with the exception of his earlier violent, socially engaged tableaux, his work is rooted in a recreation and ironic exaltation of the banal. Sleepwalker has an added frisson that puts it in a different realm entirely. This comes partly from the fact the subject is doing something completely out of the ordinary—the show it’s part of, New Gravity, focuses on temporal and spatial, and in this case, I would argue, psychic ambivalence. But of course, its real power comes from the incongruity of its placement. Encountering it here on this women’s campus, and a particularly beautiful one at that, is strange, startling and also darkly funny. To not see the levity in this piece is to miss a very big part of it.

To me the statue is the opposite of menacing. This rather schlubby guy is depicted at his most vulnerable. (All the more so in those first weeks of February when he was knee deep in snow.) He’s bald, he’s got a paunch and he’s wearing droopy underpants. He’s also asleep. Yes, he could be a zombie I suppose, but a rapist? He’s too inert for that.

I’m not quite sure how it’s conveyed, but there’s a comfortably middle class aura about him. Like he’s a lawyer or accountant who sleep-wandered out of his nearby suburban bedroom onto Wellesley’s campus. And more to the point, he’s a memento mori of sorts in this progressive hothouse of women’s education, serving as a warning: if you do not work hard and become the captains of your ship, I am your future.

You can dismiss the statue as ugly or derivative all you want, but how can anyone dispute the power of Sleepwalker given the enormous contretemps it has generated? One thing’s for sure: it’s gotten people’s attention and gotten them talking about art.

What has been noticeably absent from the dialogue is Wellesley’s long and pioneering history in the field of Modern Art. In 1926 Wellesley became the first educational institution to offer an undergraduate course on modern art, "Tradition and Revolt in Modern Painting," taught by none other than Alfred H. Barr, Jr. legendary director of the Museum of Modern Art in New York. You have only to look at Wellesley’s art collection and the building in which it’s contained to grasp how deep this commitment goes. The museum, designed by internationally known Pritzker Award winner, Rafael Moneo, is a stunning structure that could easily stand in one of the world’s great cultural centers.

The students dressing the statue up remind me of the child recently caught climbing the Donald Judd at Tate Modern. It’s bratty behavior that would rightly get you banned from a museum. This is an artist’s vision and deserves respect.

I had to laugh when I read this part of the Change.org petition: “Further, we ask that in the future, the Davis Museum and the College notify us before displaying public art, especially if it is of a particularly shocking or sensitive nature.” As if. Such high-dudgeon and youthful arrogance.  I’m sure Picasso, Duchamp, Goya and Pollack are having a good chuckle about this in the great beyond.

I wonder, if the protesting students have given any thought to how they will feel when they look back on all this in thirty years time. Do they think they will be proud? Or, will it strike the mature thems as misguided and even sophomoric? One thing I know, the statue and the artist are not their enemies. There are much more important fights to fight than this, and I hope they turn their attention to those post haste.