Tuesday, February 28, 2006

Gallery Report, 02/25/2006

The temperature hovered around 45F on this unseasonably beautiful Saturday afternoon. I wound my way - west-east, east-west, west-east - through Chelsea for upwards of four hours. A little hung over and fighting a cold, I kept the brim of my winter cap pulled low, avoided people I recognized and turned the volume up on my iPod. I had high expectations; a number of current shows had been recommended to me by artist friends and critics.

As usual, rather than write reports on everything I saw, I highlight only a very few exhibitions below. But first, breaking from the usual format, I've decided to give passing mention, cruel though it may seem, to the duds of the day. Judith Eisler's "television" paintings at Cohan and Leslie Gallery are insipid things, though, to be fair, they may have been exciting a decade ago. Just next door, at Alexander and Bonin, Stefan Kurten's fading landscapes of a vaguely European suburbia would make excellent gifts for despised, wealthy mother-in-laws - and this harsh critique comes from someone who adores landscape painting. Charline von Heyl's acrylic paintings at Friedrich Petzel are about as bland as can be although, curiously, they work better in reproduction (on the gallery's website, for example). Huma Bhabha has three clusterfuck sculptures on view at the small ATM Gallery; I'm all for naivete or primitivism, but Bhabha's work can only be dubbed retarded. The much touted Bendix Harms exhibition at Anton Kern, "Solid As A Rock," falls far short of the mark. There are a couple of reasonable works hanging, but I agree with The New Yorker's assessment: "as sappily sentimental as a greeting card." Furthermore, the majority of Harm's over-sized paintings are crude in the most unappealing way.

Fortunately, not every exhibition was bad; most of what I saw was merely forgettable. And, no, I won't attach this negativity to my being sick; I was actually feeling rather upbeat, all things considered. It's just par for the course on a typical Art World afternoon.

A few artists piqued my interest, even though I don't have much to say about them yet. Scott Anderson has a painting included in a small group show at Freight and Volume. After some nosing about online, I came across this page of older works by Anderson. Cartoonish, dystopian sci-fi is "in" these days, and one can easily stroll past such a work without registering it, but Anderson's paintings, many of which look like a World's Fair gone awry, are more interesting than most. I was less taken with Jin Meyerson's oil and acrylic paintings at LFL/Zach Feuer, though I sympathize with the impetus. Meyerson produces big, colorful "frantic moments," but, so far, I smell too much Photoshop. The compositions were strong, though, and I'll definitely keep my eye on this relatively young artist.

Thankfully, four shows were particular exciting. I plan to write on each of them in more detail in future posts. For the time being, I'll just list them. Feigen Contemporary, a space which almost never puts on a good show, has a very interesting, if schizophrenic group show on display. "Blessed Are The Merciful," curated by Jerome Jacobs, is hit-or-miss - absolute shit rubs elbows with some real stunners - but it is a pertinent show ...maybe even an "important" one. Several of Julie Heffernan's new paintings at P.P.O.W. are remarkable, and the show, "Heaven and Hell," satisfies overall. A number of Lee Baxter Davis's mixed media works at the CUE Art Foundation are fantastic and his work merits repeated viewings. Frankly, I was dismayed to learn that this was his first solo exhibition in New York. The fourth show, Robert Gutierrez's new work at Sixtyseven is "blurbed" below.


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"5 Points, Long Island City, 2004"
Pigment Ink Print
20 x 48 inches
(The image above is woefully small; Julie Saul Gallery never replied to my request for larger images.)

Julie Saul Gallery: Digital photography startles the eye, bringing every object in the frame into sharp focus, no matter how distant. Jeff Chien-Hsing Liao's panoramic views of and from the 7 train are an excellent case-in-point. In "5 Points, Long Island City," one of my favorite photographs on display at Julie Saul Gallery, the graffiti covered walls in the foreground are vibrant and clear, but so, too, are the striped smokestacks of the KeySpan facility reaching skyward to the northwest. Likewise, traffic signs many blocks from the camera's vantage point remain sharp enough to be read with ease, if you feel so inclined. This clarity, in combination with a saturated palette, can discombobulate viewers, resulting in a dream-like experience. Interestingly, Liao shoots several pictures of each prospect and combines them as he sees fit, a common practice among young digital photographers, but one Liao excels at; before reading about his process, I didn't suspect any such manipulation. I'm sure part of my appreciation for these photographs is tied to my own time in Long Island City, Queens, where I kept a studio for two years, but, that connection aside, these are striking images that encourage prolonged contemplation.


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"Red Diptych II"
Acrylic on Canvas
72 x 146 inches

Paula Cooper Gallery
: I have no beef with artists who argue that art is principally decorative, but I prefer my decoration to pack a conceptual or technical punch Dan Walsh's abstract paintings are passive creations, incapable of forming a fist, even if they do allow for a little Albers-like optical fun. After any satisfaction derived from visual play wears off, however, viewers are left with Art World IKEA, the perfect compliment to pastel couches and saturated, retro rugs. I'm more of a Wunderkammer guy, myself, and even the Dwell magazine reader in me can't get off on these paintings. Since surface is of little concern to Walsh - despite the gallery's claims to the contrary - I'd suggest he turn these paintings into considerably smaller prints, producing high volume runs. He'd certainly gain more of an audience and his color experiments could continue uninterrupted.


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Fiberglass sculpture, sound system, projectors
72 x 72 x72 inches

Metro Pictures: The latest offering by Tony Oursler is a disappointment. The basic approach remains the same: mouths and eyes are projected onto lumpy, cartoonish blobs and the accompanying soundtrack is, as always, a schizophrenic monologue of postmodern woes and fears. (As the press release describes it: Oursler uses mercurial elements to describe "the present moment in America...of constant flux and lack of solidity...") This time 'round, Oursler has provided a context for his haunted grotesqueries by placing them in front of "atmospheric wall projections" and adding "noise" to his audio tracks; the voices are now adrift in a vacuum. Unfortunately, whereas Oursler's recordings were once foreboding, today, they're just confirmation of our shared wretchedness. A few years ago, Oursler's melancholy, frightened creations kept us transfixed, but on Saturday most gallery visitors nodded and walked away after only thirty or forty seconds. We know what these disintegrating forms are kvetching about and communion is never as good without wine and finger foods.


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"The Mansfield Disguise"
Collage and Graphite on paper
11 x 14 inches

Bellwether Gallery: "Trifecta," a group exhibition that just closed - I caught it on the final day - was a mixed bag. The show's standout was a collage/drawing by Timothy Marvel Hull, entitled "The Mansfield Disguise." It's straightforward enough, but is every bit as successful at communicating our contemporary anxiety as Oursler's recent efforts; what's more, it's damned attractive. I was also interested in the awkward paintings of Paul Green, hanging in the rear of the space, under the heading, "Hysterical Realism." I have been referring to my own recent landscapes as "hysterical transcendentalism," and I found curator Becky Smith's choice of the word "hysterical" curious. I think we can expect to see this word popping up more and more frequently in Art World discourse.


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"Sitka Spruce, Cape Blanco State Park, Curry County, Oregon"
Gelatin Silver Print
16 x 20 inches

Matthew Marks Gallery
: "Turning Back" is a sprawling exhibition of recent black-and-white photographs by Robert Adams. (Like Bellwether's "Trifecta," the show closed on Saturday.) The subject matter - "inspired by the bicentennial of Lewis and Clark's journey across the Northwest territory to the Pacific Ocean" - is right up my alley, and I enjoy the pictures as documentary. They would make great illustrations for a lengthy essay on the meaning of contemporary landscape and conservation, but as stand-alone works of art, they miss the mark. There are a few exceptions, however. Most notable is "Sitka Spruce, Cape Blanco State Park, Curry County, Oregon," which draws viewers in with it's radiant composition and warmth while also appealing to our base need for shelter and refuge. I feel this exhibition would have been better served in a more intimate venue. Adams's photographs, small in scale, struggle to hold their own in the airy surroundings of the expansive Matthew Marks gallery space.


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"untitled (Horseman)"
Mixed media on panel
20 x 16 inches

Sixtyseven: I'm a big fan of Robert Gutierrez's "fever atlas" show, currently on display at Sixtyseven. A year ago, when I first saw reproductions of his colorful, subtle paintings online, I was surprised by the small dimensions. Most of his biomorphic landscapes feel expansive and, given the "bigger is better" attitude of so many contemporary painters, I assumed Gutierrez's works would dwarf the viewer. Not so. Most of his works are no bigger than a sheet of loose-leaf paper. I worried that perhaps this was too small. Would I be able to navigate the paintings in the way I desired? On Saturday my fears were put to rest. Give these small paintings some time. Gutierrez's forms bleed and morph into one another, changing scale - is that an eye or a cavern? - as often as they do substance. The strongest work in "fever atlas," "untitled (Shaman)" is, at a cinematic 14 x 33 inches, also one of the largest. I spent several minutes with the piece. These paintings are like precious stones: familiarity and patience are rewarded. I admire the painter's ability to allow the medium to "do it's thing" in places, before reigning a blob or drip into some semblance of representation. The resulting effect is alchemical and absolutely stunning.

Photo credits: to each of the respective galleries, thanks!

Thursday, February 16, 2006

Shameless Self Promotion

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This link will whisk you to a recent interview I did with Scrawled, an Australian based, international arts/culture webzine that premiered last month. (Disclaimer: Yes, I did promote the publication - a couple of weeks ago - and add it to my blogroll knowing that the interview was forthcoming. I'm transparent.)

A pleasant bonus, the editors have since invited me on board as the NY Art Correspondent, so starting next issue, I'll have a monthly "column" in Scrawled, which will usually be a review/profile piece on an individual artist or collective.

Follow-up Note: In response to several emails already received. Yes, I am aware of just how out-of-character the photo used on the first page of the interview is. I described it as the "International Male shot" when I sent it in to the editors, but now seeing it online, the "fabulousness" of the pose is magnified.

Photo credit: courtesy Scrawled webzine

Wednesday, February 15, 2006

Gallery (Opening) Report, 02/09/2006

I'm always happy when I first learn a new word, but more exciting is the period immediately following, just after you file the word away for future reference. Suddenly, it seems, you hear the word - or read it - everywhere. It's revelatory...at least for a time, until the word finds a place in your staple vocabulary. The same is true of cultural trends and their related Art World manifestations, so it's doubly curious when a trend you spot in every third solo show is a blood relative of "your own" strain. Of course, like a new word learned, none of us owns a concept or impetus - it exists before we assimilate it - but we all battle proprietary inclinations.

I've been happily surprised then, as of late, to see so many young artists returning to landscape in order to raise questions about our human standing, particularly as it relates to our environment. The series I'm currently working on, so far seen by only a few close friends, is very much in step with this tenor. Although the "capital 'P' painter" in me yearns to be ahead of the curve, I find the issues so important, I'm thrilled to have company.

All three of the shows mentioned below tap into this line of inquiry in some respect, with mixed success. (Note: Earlier this week, a good friend told me I'm too "harsh in my critique," while another claimed I'm "fickle." To that I say, I ain't claiming to be an objective critic. I'm an artist and I feel strongly about most of what I see. If anything I write offends other artists or the dealers and collectors who support those artists, so be it. It's not my intent to offend, however...I just call 'em like I see 'em. Furthermore, if I change my mind down the road, so what? That's life. No one ever said it's supposed to be clear.)


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"So Soon"
Metal collage on wood
9 x 8 3/4 inches

Lennon, Weinberg: After I navigated through the tony crowd, giving each of the metal collages a once-over, all I could muster in the way of a response was, "Dear Lord." "Within," Tony Berlant's current exhibition of colorful hotel art gone terribly wrong, makes my tummy ache. Described as "hallucinatory work...[plumbing] the unfathomable realities of nature, consciousness...perception...and time," these nailed, sheet metal landscape and floral works sound exciting to me. Unfortunately, the distinctly forgettable collages are more confused than hallucinatory and they do little to encourage a mental mining of the universe. My gallery hopping partner looked at one particularly bright, floral disaster and said something to the effect of, "Collage is so overdone now." I'm afraid her statement is essentially accurate, despite my feeling that our contemporary condition demands communication via pastiche, meaning and "originality" arrived at via assemblage of the already extant. (It's all so bloody postmodern, man.) At any rate, this collage doesn't make the cut, even for those of us who appreciate a good clusterfu*k. (Note: The gallery staff on hand was unable to provide me with a press release, but they explained that the .pdf was available online. The tree-hugger in me likes this policy, but I really wanted to make some notes then and there. They should print them on request, at least.)


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Acrylic ink on mylar collaged onto watercolor paper
37 1/2 x 40 1/4 inches

Clementine Gallery: I really liked Kurt Lightner's mylar "paintings" included in PS1's "Greater New York" show and I also enjoyed his Wave Hill installation - at least in reproduction. Furthermore, reading the press release associated with his latest outing at Clementine, my suspicion that Lightner is a compatriot was confirmed: "Lightener's collages are inspired by nostalgia for a childhood spent exploring the five acres of woods and farmland that surround his family's pig farm." Given my admiration for Lightner's previous work and my being endeared to the artist by what little I know of him, I was shocked to find his current exhibition totally unsatisfying. Perhaps I need to give the work more time - it was an opening, after all - but my gut tells me Lightner is approaching - and maybe postponing - a transition. The works hanging at Clementine represent a period of wheel spinning, a muddy (or slushy, at the moment) business. Such trough periods are healthy - much good can and usually does come of them - but, as one friend remarked to me, "[Lightner's] show fails, but not spectacularly enough." Here's to hoping his current hibernation becomes a metamorphosis. I'm always rooting for my fellow bumpkins!


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"Glacial Blossoms"
Color pencil, graphite and collage on paper
7 1/2 x 5 1/2 inches

Derek Eller Gallery: The latest exhibition of David Dupuis's paintings, drawings and collages is a mixed bag, but some stunning works are included in the selection. As unimpressed as I was with the three large portraits on display, I was very taken with four of the smaller pieces. "Glacial Blossoms," "Flower Power Glam Rock," "Madrid Memory," and an untitled work featuring an orderly mountain range all manage to marry psychedelia to nostalgia and more traditional modes of representation. Plus, they're just damned pleasing, which despite the opinion of many Art World colleagues, isn't something to be ashamed of. Most impressive, though, is the large, mixed media landscape, "Promontory." Stepping back about eight feet, the viewer grasps the transcendental, heroic impulse Dupuis taps into. The two, sculptural heads - one collage, one graphite - planted atop a central, receding ridge line encourage us to ponder the temporal nature of all human endeavor, but also recall the poem, "Anecdote of the Jar," by Wallace Stevens, in which the poet's placing a humble jar in the "wilderness" contextualizes the surrounding, "natural" world, providing a focus for the human eye and, in effect, taming the "wild." Approach the work, however, and the landscape breaks down into colored pencil craziness; the aggressive scribbling runs counter to traditional notions of classical landscape as a bucolic "window on the world," and reminds us of how absurdly hopeless the human desire for control is. Eventually, everything built, written or conceived will be erased by the fury of geology and time, and therein lies a hell of a reason to cherish our short time here and approach all life with respect and sensitivity.
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Color pencil, graphite and collage on paper
60 1/2 x 44 inches

Photo credits: all images ripped from the respective gallery websites; thanks!

Friday, February 10, 2006

The Art of the Con

"February 26, 2000

Dear Mr. Van Strad,

Please excuse me if I have misspelled your name. It was difficult to understand on our answering machine.

Unfortunately, [the painting you expressed interest in acquiring] has been sold.

I have been trying to reach you since we received your first call regarding [the piece in question]. I tried to contact you continually, at different times of the day, but the number you left on the machine was one that never rang through. All I would get is a recording of a woman's voice saying that the 'number you have reached is either busy or you have entered an incorrect number.' This always happened before it rang.

I am faxing this reply to you now because the number you left this time doesn't seem to take a voice message.

If I can be of any further assistance, please do not hesitate to call me.

Best regards,

[X], Co-director of SoHo Gallery"

In the fall of 1999, when I first moved to New York City, I found work as a preparator and jack-of-all-trades in an art gallery that I'll call SoHo Gallery. I liked the job well enough, but the daily routine lost its luster by the five month mark. No matter how many paintings I framed, crates I packed, or lights I changed, the job seemed ever more tedious. Something had to be done.

The answer to my work woes presented itself on a typical Saturday night in early 2000. I was hanging out at a friend's apartment in the East Village, drinking beer and bullshitting, when conversation turned to my SoHo Gallery job and the exhibition then on display. Knowing how frustrated I'd been with work, a friend suggested that we prank call the gallery.

Enter Alexander von Stradtt, an eccentric, European art collector. This impressive man, known for his generous spirit and colorful presentation, stopped by SoHo Gallery during an art buying trip to New York City and Los Angeles. One of the paintings on display - by a now well-known artist/illustrator who shall remain anonymous here - caught his eye. von Stradtt was enamored of the work, but felt that it was missing that special something, that je ne sais quoi. Distracted, or perhaps lost in thought, he left the gallery without introducing himself to the dealers. He didn't even sign the registry.

One week later, on a particularly blustery Saturday evening, von Stradtt attended a grand party at a mansion in Prague, Czech Republic. Still preoccupied with the painting he had seen at SoHo Gallery, he made his way to an alcove, where he could only just be heard over the din, and placed a call to information. Moments later, he was connected with the gallery. Because it was such a late hour, even in New York, von Stradtt was forced to leave a message identifying himself and conveying his interest in the piece. Though I do not recollect von Stradtt's exact wording, the thrust of the message is below.
"Hello, this is Alexander von Stradtt calling. I am an established collector and I recently saw a painting in your gallery which I am very interested in acquiring. [Here, von Stradtt named and described the piece.] I do, however, have one request...a request that may initially seem rather unorthodox. I would gladly pay twice the asking price, maybe more, but I will need your staff, or the artist himself, to spray paint a purple 'Q' on the center of the painting. I will be in touch. Good evening to you."
And so a drunken goof, a prank call with a brief back story, was the beginning of the Alexander von Stradtt saga.

On Monday morning, when I arrived at work, the gallery staff were already abuzz with talk of a mysterious caller and his absurd request. I stood alongside the gallery owners/dealers as they replayed the message for me, repeatedly, exchanging baffled looks and shaking their heads slowly. Fighting the urge to double over in laughter, I mustered a passable performance as Surprised Gallery Preparator #1. (Requisite to being a good liar is first convincing everyone that you're a terrible one.)

There were so many questions. Why had von Stradtt left no telephone number? Why had he not called during gallery hours? What in the world was the significance of the letter "Q"? And so it went...but it seemed clear to me that the dealers wanted to believe in von Stradtt. I decided that the calls should continue.

And so, over the next couple of months, Alexander von Stradtt was rendered more distinct. A website was produced, featuring a photograph of the collector and art aficionado giving one of his "impromptu, guided tours of the Louvre" along with a narrative biography and a listing of his many honors. His pseudo-celebrity was made clear: according to the site's text, numerous magazines had lauded von Stradtt with praise, "most notably Paris Match." (The choice of this "notable" magazine was the brainchild of a good friend; it still makes me chuckle.)

An assistant named Gunter (pronounced: goon-ta) was also invented. This short, excitable German placed calls to SoHo Gallery on two occasions. The painter of the piece von Stradtt expressed interest in was contacted at his California studio, drawing him into the hoax's orbit and resulting in a hilarious exchange between the artist and the gallery directors. ("Who in the hell is this guy? Is he for real? You can't do that to my painting!")

The fax that heads this post was sent after Gunter "mistakenly" provided the gallery with a fax number instead of a working phone. The gallery's response, above, resulted provoked an incensed message from von Stradtt, assuring the gallery that "the incompetent Gunter," had been "dealt with" and that, furthermore, he was unaware of any trouble with his phone service.

The highlight of the project, for that is what it had become for my friends and me, was a casual remark von Stradtt dropped in the midst of yet another late-night voice message. "I'll call you when I next head to New York, but I've been just crazy as of late. I'm in Munich, of course. A-huh...I think you know why." Upon receiving this message, the gallery owners frantically began searching the Internet, looking for information on current events in Munich. Was von Stradtt attending some sort of bacchanal? An insider only art fair? Why didn't the gallery know about this event? Desks were pounded, feathers ruffled and, me....well, I no longer found the work day so tedious.

Frankly, I don't recall why the project ended. I suppose my friends and I started socializing more, and our lives filled with commitments and concerns other than beer, ladies and juvenile entertainment. The painting was finally sold to a collector who didn't demand a purple "Q" and, not long thereafter, von Stradtt quietly faded into the background. Even the URL of his publicity website provided only a broken link.

While the von Stradtt project was in its prime, however, many people suggested we document our chicanery. In the eyes of some, particularly those folks familiar with the art world, von Stradtt represented an exhibition opportunity. The leavings of the hoax - phone calls, photographs of involved parties, writings, web sites, news clippings, etc. - could easily be presented in a gallery context, a performance history of sorts. The notion was tempting, but in the end I thought better of it.

Having never intended the affair to be more than a lark, my friends and I hadn't created a fully formed character. Furthermore, we had already turned von Stradtt's eccentricity into over-the-top silliness - the verbal abuse he dealt Gunter, for example. It would be difficult, if not impossible, to marry the messages on SoHo Gallery's answering machine to the humanitarian celebrated in Paris Match and elsewhere. Most importantly, to make the hoax believable we would need to enlist the services of others; a crackerjack production team would need assembling if we intended to work up convincing news articles and presentable magazine layouts. With what little material we had, our mischief didn't warrant a show. Or did it?

Six years later, the art world has proven to be a rather undiscerning arena when it comes to von Stradtt-like experiments. The truly successful hoaxes - I'm thinking particularly of The Museum of Jurassic Technology (though this is a more loving, complex enterprise and something truly special), Andy Kaufman's antics, or Jose Alvarez's "Carlos" - are those that "go all the way." The artists involved in such hoaxes are intimately tied to their asserted realities; the hoax, in effect, consumes them, at least for a time. As Lawrence Weschler suggests in his book, Mr. Wilson's Cabinet of Wonder, the critical component of a successful hoax is the perpetrator's willingness to abandon irony. A hoax is only believable when those confronted with the fiction believe that the bluffer is sincere. In such cases, even those in the know will second-guess themselves.

Keeping this in mind, what are we to make of the recent Binary show at Postmasters Gallery? (See my earlier remarks on the show here.) Sincerity plays no part in the creation and marketing of "United We Stand," a fictional "Hollywood-style blockbuster." I hope Eva and Franco Mattes, the artists behind the 1s and 0s, are having fun with their fake promotional campaign, but, ultimately, "United We Stand" is a lazy, puerile project, a Grade D, acerbic response to the state of the world. Standing in Postmasters, I felt expected to nudge other viewers in a self-congratulatory manner. The message conveyed: "We cognoscenti should be proud of our clever artist friends...and of ourselves. Why? Because we're educated and in on the joke."

But it's not only Binary's superior, acrid message that rubs me the wrong way. I also react against the show because I'm a product of our replacement culture. Philosophically, the global zeitgeist resides somewhere between embracing tradition - to a fault, in the case of the strengthening fundamentalist streak - and tearing down existing foundations. Most of us pay lip service to tradition and revolution, but our day-to-day actions reflect our consumerism and our willingness to render obsolete products and ideas that are still valuable, all in the name of progress.

Advertising does this better - or worse, depending on your perspective - than any other industry, although technology and fashion don't lag far behind. A hip commercial is considered tired two months after it first airs. As a result, advertisers constantly tweak their approach to make certain their product appeals to the younger demographic. Ad companies one-up one another by injecting dialogue even more barbed than the competiting spot or randomness even more "clever" (the Sony PSP television spots airing now, for example: "It's cheese you can listen to outside!").

Living and performing in front of our individual blue screens, we're eager to see what improvements will be made to our existing background. "What's next, man? C'mon. Let me see it. Cycle it! Now!" It's a sad state of affairs, and one the smart kids, Binary included, comment on. Unfortunately, their brand of arch critique - the self-assured, fuck-all posturing of hipsters and matriculating English majors - no longer sits well with me. Like nerd rock, I'm so totally over it.

I want the irony turned down and the crooked smiles pried open into gaping wonder. I don't want to deal with the hoax as wry commentary, rather I want - and I think the world needs - the lines blurred, I seek experiential abandonment.

I was twelve the first time I watched the 1984 film satire, "This Is Spinal Tap," and I believed it. I didn't laugh much; for most of the movie I just stared, dumbfounded. What's wrong with these morons?, I thought. After it was over, I asked friends of mine if they had ever heard of the band; this provided them with quite a few laughs at my expense. There are plenty of clues in the film; even at twelve, I should have recognized it as satire, but like the owners of SoHo Gallery, bent over the office answering machine, I wanted to believe. Christopher Guest provided the actors with a screenplay they could immerse themselves in and the rest is history. It's no surprise that a cult of Spinal Tap blossomed following the film's release. The movie doesn't ridicule its subjects, rather it endears their stupidity and arrogance to the viewer. Even if Guest didn't intend his "mockumentary" as a proper hoax - at least not in the same way that Orson Welles intended his 1938 radio "play," "War of the Worlds" - the ingredients were all present and the art persists.

So where are these competent con artists in the contemporary art world? There are clowns and jesters aplenty, but the working magicians, the cultural alchemists, are hard to find. Maybe they're just quiet for now? I'm hoping this is because we're not supposed to hear them. After all, if the con artist is uncertain of where commentary or character ends and reality begins, then the rest of us should be unsure, too. Perhaps, like David Wilson (of the MJT), the best con artists are those who have ceased conning, those who have entered into, or been consumed by, their own creations. As Wilson writes on the MJT Membership page, "Here at the Museum we feel a strange affinity for these first exceptional, earth-born creatures to leave our planet. Like the dogs, we feel ourselves to be lonely vanguards in a rarefied and unknown atmosphere." Amen. All hail the space cadet and a toast to those who keep our day jobs interesting.

Photo credit: image of Andy Kaufman, www.bodyslamming.com

Tuesday, February 07, 2006

Exoparasitoid in the Morning

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How do you animate me in the morning, pre-coffee? I can think of a number of possible answers, but on this particular Tuesday, a recent Loom post had me wide-eyed and mouth breathing while the coffee was still percolating. Even if you aren't a biology geek like myself, I imagine you'll be mindblown by the alchemical relationship between the American cockroach (Periplaneta americana) and the exoparasitoid wasp (Ampulex compressa). I've highlighted some of the details below in an attempt to whet your appetite for more.

"The wasp slips her stinger through the roach's exoskeleton and directly into its brain....She continues to probe the roach's brain until she reaches one particular spot that appears to control the escape reflex. She injects a second venom that influences these neurons in such a way that the escape reflex disappears.

From the outside, the effect is surreal. The wasp does not paralyze the cockroach. In fact, the roach is able to lift up its front legs again and walk. But now it cannot move of its own accord. The wasp takes hold of one of the roach's antennae and leads it--in the words of Israeli scientists who study Ampulex--like a dog on a leash.
The zombie roach crawls where its master leads, which turns out to be the wasp's burrow."

The horrifying, Borg-like take over of the cockroach's neural wiring is permanent. The wasp lays an egg on the roach's underbelly and, as you would imagine, the larva burrows into the roach and devours the still fresh - um, alive, at least initially - organs when it leaves the egg. After roughly eight days, an adult, sated wasp emerges from the husk of the cockroach...and so the circle of life continues.

Exoparasitoids like Ampulex compressa have been appearing in scientific journals a lot these last few years. Humans have studied proper parasites for centuries now and learned much about them in the process - at least, the ones we have identified - but of exoparasitoids we know comparatively little. Furthermore, they represent a transitional phase of evolution. As Carl Zimmer writes at Loom, "it's not hard to envision an Ampulex-like wasp evolving into full-blown parasitoids that inject their eggs directly into their hosts, as many species do today."

I get very excited by this sort of "discovery," not only because of the grotesque nature of the relationship or because I believe it "proof" of Nature's complete ambivalence, as Darwin did(1), but because it requires of the researcher only admiration, dedication and observation.

Photo credit: Ampulex compressa goes to work on a cockroach; FREDERIC LIBERSAT

(1) "I cannot persuade myself that a beneficent and omnipotent God would have designedly created the Ichneumonidae [wasp] with the express intention of their feeding within the living bodies of caterpillars or that a cat should play with mice."

Friday, February 03, 2006

Jake Berthot's Landscapes

"Then let us pass farther towards the north, until we see the orient colors change gradually into a vast belt of rainy green...the pastures...and dark forests...seen through clefts in grey swirls of rain-cloud and flaky veils of the mist of the brooks, spreading low along the pasture lands..."
-John Ruskin, "The Nature of Gothic"

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Oil on panel
12 3/4 x 10 1/2 inches

Full disclosure: I'm partial to Jake Berthot's paintings because I admire the man. He was, by far, the best teacher I had in graduate school. I took to him immediately, even though our first interaction was rocky. In September of 2000, he walked into my studio, introduced himself and then stared at my drawings for several long minutes. A necklace of glasses hung down his chest - I recall three pairs on this particular day, but he sometimes wore four - and he fumbled between them, squinting through heavy lenses at some detail, a moment later stepping back to consider the whole through more dainty correctives. Occasionally, he shook his head in dissatisfaction. My palms were sweaty. Is this graduate school?, I wondered.

Finally, Jake sighed, stood up straight and turned to study me. "So do you like truck art?," he asked. I wasn't sure what he meant. Could he be thinking of airbrushed grim reapers, perhaps, the sort of heavy metal work emblazoned on the side of purple-black vans with tiny, tinted windows? "Truck art?," I asked. "Yeah. Truck art. Do you like truck art?" "Um...like the air brush stuff of flames and skulls?" "Yeah, truck art. Do you like it or not?" "Well, some of it. But I wouldn't say I'm really that into it."

He continued to look at me for a moment before returning his attention to the drawings hanging on the studio wall. Again with the musical glasses. I remained perched on an uncomfortably high stool in the corner of the space, eagerly awaiting some sort of verdict. Truck art? What in the hell is with this guy? At last he spoke again. "Well, I don't think I can work with you this semester." A pause...me, dumbfounded. "Yup...this isn't going to work." And, with that, he left the studio. Jake is an upfront guy. He calls things as he sees them and, often bleak, he can be a cantankerous fellow, but my semester with him at the School of Visual Arts was a special one, though I'm only beginning to fully appreciate this now, as both my work and I mature.

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Oil on panel
25 x 25 inches

My own experience with the artist aside, his new paintings, currently being exhibited at Betty Cuningham Gallery in Chelsea, are bound to provoke a wide range of reaction. I attended the opening of the show yesterday evening and was impressed by the evocative, almost elegiac power of these recent works. The paintings are borne of Romantic impulse, surely, but the honest, visceral immediacy of the dark landscapes suggested an artist fathoming the sublime on his own, an artist less concerned with quotation than with keeping his own head above water.

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Graphite on paper
21 x 27 inches

These are passionate, emotional works and I found myself recalling John Ruskin's 1853 essay on Gothic architecture and the Nordic cast of mind. In it, he writes, "...a strong intellect will have pleasure in the solemnities of storm and twilight, and in the broken and mysterious lights that gleam among them, rather than in mere brilliancy and glare, while a frivolous mind will dread the shadow and the storm." The gallery's press release notes Jake's stated attempt to "paint silence before it completely disappears." I like that turn of phrase, but there is more than silence in these pictures, particularly in some of the smaller works on panel.

Turning to Ruskin again, I see in these landscapes an awe and violence, a "splintering into irregular and grisly islands...until the roots of the last forests fail from among the hill ravines, and the hunger of the north wind bites their peaks into barrenness; and, at last, the wall of ice, durable like iron, sets, deathlike, its white teeth against us out of the polar twilight." Jake includes no ice, no cragged and rough mountainscapes, in these pictures, but they bite all the same. Curiously, the aggression is reactionary but the technique remains considered, almost methodical, as the artist attempts to light his way while navigating increasingly dark terrain. Jake Berthot, years after Art World celebration of his work quieted, is producing potent, pertinent paintings. May his journey continue for many more.

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Oil on panel
27 3/4 x 24 3/4 inches

Photo credit: (c)Jake Berthot, Courtesy Betty Cuningham Gallery, New York