Thursday, March 30, 2006

Rid Of The Candiru

Thoughts On Four Shows

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I conceive of the creative process as a wave, a series of crests and troughs.  The fertile upslope is indicative of possession by a duende, but is invariably followed by a usually unproductive, even terrible downslope.  This representation accurately describes my painting activity, but isn't applicable to my writing. Writing, for me, rarely involves a duende. Lately, I've come to think of my lexicographic compulsion as a candiru (Vandellia cirrhosa), the tiny, Amazonian fish species infamous for swimming up the anus, vagina, or urethra, wherein it erects spines to hold it in place while it enjoys a hearty blood meal. (Yeah, ouch.  In fact, the candiru is one of a very few vertebrate parasites that targets humans.)

Each of the four shows reviewed below "stuck" with me, demanding ink or, in my case, keyboard. I've been planning to write about two of these exhibitions for several weeks, but one or another shiny, neat thing caught my eye and off I went, galloping clumsy in pursuit. The longer I ignore the writing impulse, though, the more the candiru's spines dig in, insistent and maddening. By broadcasting the thoughts I can temporarily rid myself of the fish, and it is with great relief that I finally get this bunch of reviews "out."


New York Center for Arts and Media Studies:  NYCAMS, the physical manifestation of a course credit program affiliated with Bethel University, a mid-sized school located in St. Paul, Minnesota, occupies a stunning, seventh floor space not far from the Flatiron District. Judging by what I read online and my visit to "Paramnesiac Landscape," the group exhibition currently on display in the gallery area, the nascent program is already noteworthy.

I'm a sucker for the show's clever title.  "Paramnesia" is defined by Webster's New World Dictionary as a "distortion of memory with confusion of fact and fantasy" or the "same as deja-vu."  The exhibition's curator, Robin Reisenfeld, selected the nine participating artists because each "create[s] imaginary landscape worlds through the interplay of memory, fantasy, and recent scientific trends."  With the recent art world brouhaha over the role of curators - are they artists, orchestrators, or what? - Reisenfeld's thematic selection may appear too tidy for some folks, but it works well enough.  All the work in the show is good, but standouts are Daniel Zeller's drawings and paintings by Sarah Trigg and Cristi Rinklin.

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Daniel Zeller
"Skim Level" (detail)
Ink on paper

Zeller's work has generated a fair amount of ink in the past couple of years, deservedly so.  His fine line drawings represent the best of two contemporary art world trends: obsessive drawing and pseudo-science.  On hand at NYCAMS are four of his fantastic, topographic renderings.  "Resistance Factor," a small ink and acrylic work, is quite handsome, suggestive of internal workings - a mapping of capillaries, perhaps - but also of pipelines on the color-coded mish-mash that is a United States Geological Survey chart.  Across the room, "Remedial Disfunction," one of the largest wall-works in the show, at 44 x 54 inches, is also one of the best.  Comprised almost entirely of punctuated pencil marks, the resulting image can "be" many things.  Initially, I understood the drawing to be an aerial view of crop circles but, within moments, I dismissed that association.  This landscape is ambivalent, at once exploited and in some state of repair; are we looking at the beginnings of resource extraction or delicate sutures on some undefined organ?  It doesn't matter.  Such interpretive vacillations are accurately described by Reisenfeld as "conflating the microscopic with the telescopic" and "explor[ing] the confluence of shifting realities and multiple levels of spatial and temporal stratums."  (Note: Unfortunately, the works described were not available for reproduction.  I've pictured another of Zeller's works above. Due to their detail, the web is unable to do them justice. It's a shame.)

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Sarah Trigg
"Unintended Sculptures with Natural Disasters"
Acrylic on Panel
30 x 40 inches

Less ambiguous, but no less preoccupied with the connection of interior to exterior, are the paintings of Sarah Trigg.  I was most drawn to "Unintended Sculptures with Natural Disasters," a medium-sized picture that depicts an active, tectonic landscape.  Trigg describes her work as "a biopsy," and this recent painting, a combination of aerial survey and traditional, "window" perspective, is bioptic, indeed. Like scientific figures published in a research journal, Trigg's paintings represent the support or data of an ongoing investigation.  In fact, I think of her work as geologic dermatology.  Standing in front of "Unintended Sculptures with Natural Disasters," I admire the pores and pustules of a vast and violent panorama.  Viewing geology in this light effectively humanizes, or at least anthropomorphizes, that which otherwise remains difficult to fathom. Aiding this proportional shift is the combination of formations (and deformations) that Trigg corrals.  By depicting so much dynamism in a relatively small area, she presents the viewer with a condensed time frame, millions of years of seismic activity caught in a frozen time lapse, a blink of the geologic eye rather than the human.  That Trigg achieves this push-pull dynamic without painting more ambiguous imagery is unusual, and laudable.

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Cristi Rinklin
Acrylic and Oil on Dibond
36 x 30 inches

Cristi Rinklin's paintings belong to a related, but distinct genealogy. Rather than chart or map her subject matter, Rinklin aestheticizes it. Although her imagery could belong to the "without" - some of her densely layered, colorful forms recall Hubble telescope photographs of distant celestial bodies and events - it feels more inspired by worlds "within." Occasionally, Rinklin even includes a red curtain or some heavy fabric, leading viewers to believe we are looking behind or under - in other words, inward - to discover further mystery and wonder. Rinklin's structures - ornate and organic - are almost Gothic in nature, but also indebted to graffiti and cartooning. I get the feeling she admires these out-lying genres from a critical distance, though, and I'm tempted to describe Rinklin as a younger, more current sibling of Phillip Taaffe and Ross Bleckner. (Note: The two paintings Rinklin included in the the NYCAMS exhibition, one of which is pictured above, were promising, but I wasn't really sold until I visited her website.)


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Fernanda Brunet
Acrylic on linen
39.37 x 31.5 inches

Galeria Ramis Barquet:  The work of Fernanda Brunet is undistinguished.  Her paintings belong to the now ubiquitous and often sexy super-flat aesthetic, but her floral explosions are so imminently digestable that, like fast food, viewers are apt to consume and forget.  Perhaps aware of this, Brunet has expanded her studio practice.  For her most recent solo effort at Galeria Ramis Barquet, "Happymania," she has included a number of bulbous fiberglass sculptures.  Occupying the gallery's main space, these forms resemble melting mushrooms and are covered with flowers of varying sizes and colors.  "Off the wall" they may be, but they suffer the same fate as Brunet's paintings.  (That said, it occurred to me that the sculptures would make great props in an uber-hip clothing store...for a month or so, anyway.  To sell to hipsters, you've got to "keep it fresh.")

Brunet's artwork aside, however, a line in the gallery's press release caught my eye.  "The artist has also incorporated typical Mexican kitsch decorative elements, such as pastel flowers made out of bread filling."  Reading the sentence, I stumbled over the writer's use of "Mexican kitsch."  In 2006, assigning specific examples of kitsch to one or another culture approaches meaninglessness.  Those rare holdouts not already absorbed into the global pastiche - and pastel flowers made of filling do not qualify - will soon be discovered by the All-Seeing Eye.  As a result, identifying the provenance of a kitsch element is a matter of cultural anthropology, useful only if the artist's intent is reclamation.


The Arsenal Gallery In Central Park: Somehow, I didn't know about this "gallery." (It's more of an open, institutional common room, crowded with cafeteria-like tables and surrounded by offices.) Given my love of all things natural history, I'm thrilled to learn of it, even belatedly. As the press release for "Rare Specimen: The Natural History Museum Show" explains, "the historic Arsenal building...was the first home of the American Museum of Natural History, from 1869 to 1877, before it moved to its current home on Manhattan's Upper West Side." (Happily, after poking about the Internets, I've learned that the NYC Department of Parks & Recreation accepts exhibition proposals. To that, I can only say, "WaWa WeWa!")

"Rare Specimen," curated by Clare Weiss, is an odd, almost arbitrary mix of nine artists, linked by a very general interest in natural history. For example, Mark Dion's "Cabinet of Curiosity" studies and Nicole Tschampel's brontosaurus project offer commentary on scientific subjectivity and the human desire to classify, while Karin Weiner's prosaic collages and Steve Mumford's oil painting of sleeping bears are more straightforward odes to the natural world. Eclectic exhibitions are fun, though, and this one coasts along well enough. "Rare Specimen" does, however, suffer for want of better examples of each artist's work; the show is filled with second-class citizens. "Bears," for example. is a good-looking painting, but alongside many of Mumford's other works, it leaves something to be desired. Other lesser works by established artists are on hand. Walton Ford's "Bangalore" etching is fine, but not outstanding - for the record, I still covet Ford's work, etching or otherwise, but barring an introduction and trade, this ain't in the cards - and Alexis Rockman's large "Hudson River" oil painting has outgrown the brush stroke - it falls apart at any distance. As a result, two of the lesser known artists steal the show.

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Emilie Clark
"untitled (MT-P37)"
Watercolor on paper
15 x 11 inches

Emilie Clark's work first appeared on my radar about a year ago. I wasn't sure what I thought of it, but after spending time with her small watercolors at the Arsenal, I'm sold. Individually, the pieces are hit-or-miss, but Clark's delicate touch is captivating; looking at the paintings, one senses her admiration for the plants she depicts. This is true even when her limnings flow into abstraction, a function, perhaps, of the medium, but also, seemingly, of her uncommon sincerity. Three works, in particular, are outstanding: "untitled (MT-P2)," "untitled (MT-P30)," and "untitled (MT-P37)," the last of which is pictured above.

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Jeff Hoppa
"Captain Olson I"
Graphite on paper
9 x 12.5 inches

Perhaps the most straightforward work included in the show, Jeff Hoppa's impressive graphite drawings of fossils are based on preliminary sketches he does at the American Museum of Natural History. After he has completed a number of these preparatory renderings, he returns to his studio to create finished drawings. Hoppa names the works after "the specimen's discoverer," but because he uses only his sketches as source material, filling in gaps "creatively," the end product is a mix of careful observation and invention, recalling the early days of natural history. The work - and Hoppa's process - reminds us of how interpretive our knowledge of the world is. Looking at the drawings, I think not just of specimen rooms, anthropology, and paleontology, but also of Albrecht Durer, unicorns, and mermaids. Hoppa's craft is well-honed and the results are beautiful.  I'm happy to have made the works' acquaintance.

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Jeff Hoppa
"C. H. Sternberg I"
Graphite on paper
12.5 x 9 inches


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Simen Johan
"untitled #136"

Yossi Milo Gallery: I make a habit of filling small, hardcover sketchbooks with notes, cut-out images, and selected writings.  Every year or so, I exhaust the available space in one of these "commonplace books" and begin another.  Because so much tape and glue is used, the finished books sometimes burst at the seams.  I often return to swollen, earlier collections when I feel like taking a "thinking ramble."  One two-page spread might feature several quotations from an article about politics, more from an article on conservation, and the closing paragraph of a novel, along with random images from art magazines and a graffiti scribble of my own.  These apparently arbitrary arrangements lead to unexpected, curious associations (good grist for the mill), but they also offer a trip down memory lane.  What was I reading or preoccupied by six years ago?  What themes recur year after year?

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Simen Johan
"untitled #86"
44 x 44 inches

One of these sketchbooks features a stunning photograph on the inside cover, positioned just beneath a lovely Edward Hoagland quotation about the miracle of decomposition.  In the picture, a young boy, bicep bandaged as though he has just been immunized, inquisitively pokes at a pile of compost that is teeming with maggots, centipedes, and, strangely enough, Madagascar hissing cockroaches (Gromphadorhina portentosa).  I was immediately drawn to the photo when I came across it in the pages of Harper's Magazine.  It captures an essential part of my own early experience; time spent around the compost pile behind my dad's boat garage, contemplating the innumerable invertebrates that made their living there with a mixture of revulsion and fascination.  Carelessly, when I cut out the photograph and pasted it in the journal, I failed to note the photographer's name.  At the time, the image was important to me, but not the artist.

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Simen Johan
"untitled #90"
44 x 44 inches

But that's not the end of the story.  A year later, another image of a child, this one of a young, wild haired girl playing in the mud, was added to a different journal.  At the time, I didn't connect the two images, but I was drawn to them for the same reason.  I felt they were pieces of my past, representative of a late 20th century rural upbringing in which death and dirt are as formative as birthday cake and Nintendo.  Looking at the images, I felt the variety of melancholy joy that I described recently, the joy found in acceptance "of our inevitable decomposition."

Just last week, I learned that both photographs belong to a series entitled "Evidence of Things Unseen," by the young, Norwegian photographer, Simen Johan.  Only four or five years older than me, Johan has produced an impressive number of powerful, digitally-manipulated photographs.  His most recent body of work, "Until The Kingdom Comes," is uneven, but includes some work that I respond to viscerally.  This series of photographs foregrounds animals rather than children and childhood, appealing to our human longing for connections vanquished or ignored.  I spent a long while with the large prints at Yossi Milo Gallery.  Although the pictures work better with my glasses off - a function of my being too aware of the digital manipulation otherwise - the images are more emotionally resonant than most of what is on offer in Chelsea these days.  Johan is one step ahead of the digital photography pack.

Photo credit: Candiru line drawing via Queensland Department of Primary Industries website (uncredited); Daniel Zeller/Cristi Rinklin images, courtesy the respective artists and Robin Reisenfeld; Sarah Trigg image, courtesy the artist; Emilie Clark image, courtesy; Jeff Hoopa images via the artist's website; all Simen Johan images via the artist's website

Saturday, March 25, 2006

"Fabula" Opening Just Fabulous

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A big thank you to everyone who attended the opening of "Fabula" on Thursday. The turnout was terrific and the evening most enjoyable. I was particularly grateful to the Mushroom Arts gallery staff for providing me with "artist-sized" glasses of red wine.

If you missed the opening but will be in town during the next month, stop in to see the show. It hangs through April 22nd. (Note: The gallery is closed Sunday - Tuesday, so keep that in mind.)

Photo credit: shot of the opening, Frank Castaneda

Thursday, March 23, 2006

Do You Feel Lucky, Pan sapiens?

There are a lot of reasons to be baffled by the renewed attacks on the theory of evolution(1), but I'm particularly bemused by the denialists' contention that the theory is a dangerous dogma. It's true that there's no shortage of dull-witted biologists who can be too stubborn in their pronouncements, as unwilling to consider a dissenting perspective as the loudest denialist(2), but any scientist worth her salt - or, for that matter, any informed, reasonable individual - realizes that the theory of evolution is, itself, evolving. Sure, some scientists can be dogmatic, but the theory in question is not a dogma. It is adaptable.

When most of us hear the word, evolution, crude caricatures of chimpanzees, Neanderthals, and walking fish-reptiles come to mind. Sometimes, we may even think of diagrammed cell division or an eukaryote propelling itself by means of rudimentary flagella. Yet rarely, if ever, do we consider change at the molecular level. Biophysicists Harold Morowitz, of George Mason University, and Eric Smith, of the Santa Fe Institute, do exactly that, suggesting that a "central set of chemical reactions has been in place since life's earliest moments about four billion years ago." Journalist Joel Achenbach explains the Morowitz/Smith hypothesis in a recent National Geographic piece, "The Origin of Life...Through Chemistry."
"These reactions involve just 11 small carbon molecules, such as citric and acetic acids, very ordinary stuff that would have been abundant on the young Earth. Those 11 molecules could have played a role in other chemical reactions that led to the development of such biomolecules as amino acids, lipids, sugars, and eventually some kind of genetic molecule such as RNA."
What makes the hypothesis so fascinating, though, is the suggestion that survival of the fittest or, more accurately, natural selection, occurs at the molecular level. Acenbach clarifies: "Some types of molecular chains outcompeted other molecular chains for the planet's resources, and gradually they led to the type of molecules that life depends upon - all this before the first living thing oozed forth." Wow! It seems obvious, really. Of course molecules compete in the same way genes do.

Unmentioned in the Geographic article is the divide between Millerites, evolutionary biologists who stand by Stanley Miller's mid-twentieth century hypothesis that life began at surface level, when electricity, atmospheric gases, and water interacted in such a way as to form the oft-mentioned biotic soup, and ventists, the scientists who feel such a soup was more likely arrived at on the ocean's floor, a by-product of interactions involving pressure and heat near hydrothermal vents. (I prefer to think of the two perspectives as the Frankenstein approach (electricity) and the oven hypothesis (hydrothermal) and, although I remain uncertain of which I "support," when the two camps duke it out the Frankenstein approach always seems to be forced back against the ropes.) Morowitz and Smith are ventists. Will their molecular metabolism hypothesis, viable both on the surface and under the sea, come under fire from Millerites because they are "the enemy"?

Such language - "duke it out," "the enemy" - is hyperbolic, but most folks would be shocked by how nasty the debates in the halls of evolutionary biology can become. Whatever impression the more extreme denialists seek to convey (e.g., Darwin was a blasphemer who today inspires countless secularists, marching in lockstep, to carry on his unholy work), the theory of evolution is anything but settled. Darwin's theories provide a spring board, an introduction, but are not fast. As with most revolutionary science, Darwin's ideas raise a host of questions.

One of these questions, in particular, has plagued biologists ever since Darwin's theory was first published. Commonly referred to as the "paradox of evolution," it asks, how can we reconcile evolutionary variation - all the shapes, colors, sizes, etc. - with the limited number of structures and systems all species share? The two readily observable realities seem contradictory: unlimited diversity produced by a limited system. Marc Kirschner, chair of the Systems Biology Department at Harvard Medical School, recently proposed a novel answer, facilitated variation. I turn to Robin Marantz Henig's article, "Resolving Evolution's Greatest Paradox," in the March/April 2006 issue of New York Academy of Sciences Update.
"Kirschner used an analogy borrowed from the kindergarten classroom to explain how his and Gerhart's theory differs from evolutionary theory up to this point. Traditionally, he said, biologists have compared life to a lump of modeling clay, 'incredibly plastic, and able—due to the accrual of many small changes—to go in any direction.' But this is the wrong metaphor, he said. In truth, life is more like a bunch of Lego blocks. As with Legos, the basic building blocks of biology are rigid and quite similar to one another, but 'there is a large variety of structures that can be assembled from similar parts.'

Another way of looking at it, Kirschner said, is to try to imagine trying to get a monkey to write the word 'MONKEY.' You could do so by giving the monkey a pen and paper, but that would never work—all you'd get would be 'random lines and scratches.' But if you gave him a typewriter, then you might be getting somewhere. It would take a very long time (Kirschner calculated about ten years, typing at the rate of one keystroke per second round-the-clock), but the monkey would eventually produce all six letters in the right order, because the typewriter restricts the results of his physical actions—always letters instead of scribble-scrabble. 'Letters have at least a chance to be useful,' Kirschner said. 'Most pen scratches do not.'

If, instead of a typewriter, the monkey was pounding on a computer keyboard programmed with an automatic spelling corrector, the time it would take for him to type out the word 'MONKEY' would be reduced dramatically, from ten years to probably less than a single day. 'More constraint equals more useful outcomes,' Kirschner said."
OK. That's clear, but how can the spell checker analogy account for so much complexity and variation?
"Complexity in multicellular organisms—changes and refinements in beak shape, pigmentation, jaw structure, limb formation—can be explained, he said, by forces involved in 'changing the time and extent of a process rather than creating a new process.'...[This] helps account for the surprising fact that the human genome isn't much bigger than the genome of a frog or a fruit fly. The vast differences among these organisms are accounted for not by number of genes, he said, but by how the genes are expressed...In other words, the gene itself doesn't have to be different; what changes is the timing or location of the gene's expression."
Beautiful! One need look no further than the gestation of a human embryo to get a sense of how facilitated variation works, each step recalled and repeated, generation after generation, the species' genome receiving new information all the while. The same "program" is "running" inside frog eggs or the squirrel's womb.

Still, it's important to note that facilitated variation is but a piece of the ever-changing puzzle, no more or less important than punctuated equilibrium or the notion of spandrels. Moreover, though a lovely marriage of genetics and natural selection, Kirschner's theory is less applicable when considering a restricted time line.

"Global Warming Fuels Speedy Evolution," a piece by Larrry O'Hanlon (Discovery News), provides readers with a number of recent, documented cases of dramatic changes in animal phylogeny. Within the past seven years, the cane toad (Bufo marinus) population in Australia - an introduced, destructive species - has evolved longer legs, an adaptation that has made the species considerably more mobile, enabling them to more quickly expand away from the introduction point. Longer legs equals more ground covered which, in turn, means access to virgin territory and plentiful food. In short, further colonization. Not surprisingly, some native Australian snake species viewed the new arrivals as prey. After swallowing the amphibians, however, these reptiles would ingest the toad's toxin and - pardon the pun - croak. Amazingly, in the same seven-year window, these snake species have, via natural selection, developed smaller jaws, thereby preventing them from eating the toads and ingesting the toxin. All this change in seven years and across several unrelated species!

Invasive species aren't the only reason for accelerated, or rapid evolution, as it is officially called. Global warming (better termed climate change) is a prime mover, too.
"Research on toads, frogs, salamanders, fish, lizards, squirrels, and plants are all showing evidence that some species are attempting to adapt to new conditions in a time frame of decades, not eons, say biologists. What's more, one of the biggest reasons for all this evolution right now may be that human-induced changes to climate and landscapes give species few other options....The first known case of a mammal responding genetically to warmer climate warming is the red squirrel of the Yukon Territory. Canadian scientists have discovered that red squirrels are giving birth about 18 days earlier than their great-grandmothers. It's the early squirrel that gets the nut, after all: natural selection in action. 'Climate change is going to be a massive agent of evolution,' said ecologist and rapid evolution researcher David Skelly of Yale University."
Rapid evolution provides more evidence for the punctuated equilibrium hypothesis, suggesting that, when need be, species have the ability to adapt much more quickly than paleontologists, geneticists, and evolutionary biologists originally believed possible. The gaps in the fossil record, so often highlighted by denialists as proof of evil-ution's failings, are easily accounted for when we observe, in the space of just one decade, significant phylogenetic changes within a given population.

All of these observations and new hypotheses are very exciting to me, but I realize a portion of the folks reading Hungry Hyaena, maybe even the majority, find this round-up rather esoteric. I thought it only sensible, then, to wrap up by bringing evolution closer to home or, in this case, closer to man. Biologist Soojin Yi (Georgia Institute of Technology, Atlanta) recently confirmed that both species of chimpanzee (Pan troglodytes and Pan paniscus) are more closely related to humans than previously assumed. In fact, as I've argued often, it looks as though the taxonomy will have to be changed. Homo sapiens will no longer be alone in the genus; Homo troglodytes and Homo paniscus will soon be joining our private party!

I hope this announcement will provide a reality check for our unfathomable human hubris, but, as incredibly happy as I am about it, I'm not altogether satisfied about where it will lead. As I see it, humans should move genus, not chimpanzees. Our species should be dubbed Pan sapiens. In other words, we should willingly discard our crown and step down to join the great unwashed, honest at last when regarding our reflection. I'm not alone in feeling this way. Andrew Rambaut, an evolutionary biologist at Oxford University, says, "It seems a bit human-centric to want to put chimps into the 'Homo' genus and not reclassify humans as 'Pan.'" Jared Diamond, the acclaimed author of Guns, Germs, and Steel and, more recently, Collapse, wrote an excellent, lesser known book in 1991, titled, The Third Chimpanzee, in which, among innumerable salient points, he suggested we do away with the arbitrary Homo delineation. After all, every ape relies on the same damned spell checker.

(1) Some folks refer to intelligent design as "the fourth wave" of resistance. The first wave of opposition dates back to the 1860s, when the theory was nascent and controversial. The second wave, during the 1920s, culminated with the Scopes Trial. Then, in 1987, the Supreme Court ruled against mandatory teaching of creation science - Edwards v. Aguillard - effectively putting an end to the third wave.

(2) Reading "Evolution In Action" (Sid Perkins, Science News, Feb. 25, 2006), I was struck by the us-versus-them tone prevalent throughout the article. The reactionary posturing of some scientists - and, in this case, a science journalist - can take on a disturbing tone: "From 2001 through 2003, anti-evolution activity was reported in 40 states." Anti-evolution activity? Reported? The witch-hunt has begun!

Photo credit: Ripped from

Tuesday, March 21, 2006


Christopher Reiger
"and the saints..."
Watercolor, gouache, graphite and marker on Arches paper
32 x 32 inches

If you're in the city, please check out my upcoming show.
Six Emerging Artists Group Exhibition: Marni Gellman, Faten Kanaan, Lai-Chung Poon, Douglas Ra, Christopher Reiger, Alexander Reyna (Curated by Ji-yaang Kim)

March 23 - April 22, 2006
Opening Reception: Thursday, March 23, 6:00 - 9:00 PM

Mushroom Arts
19 West 26th St., 5th Floor
New York, NY 10010
Gallery Hours: Wednesday - Saturday, 12:00 - 6:00 PM
(212) 679-2055
Photo credit: copyright, Christopher Reiger

Thursday, March 16, 2006

The Human Face: Ambivalence As Objectivity

"Gaiety and glee are usually twinned with misery, however, which sneaks up on you like an ocean wave, filling your mouth with seawater, and can almost take you under, like a nether beast risen from below."
-Edward Hoagland, Compass Points

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Woody Allen and the Voyager 1 disc

In moments of profound sorrow, my chest collapses, as if compressed by some exterior force. Air escapes my lungs and a temporal vertigo consumes me. Such absolute heartache is, thankfully, extremely rare. In my twenty-eight years, it has been summoned twice by women and, on several occasions, by the realization that, though all existence is fleeting, humanity must continue to strive. Contemplation of this proposition has, in the extreme, led to sobbing, but the tears are ambivalent, like the sentiment itself, simultaneously borne of intense joy and pathos.

Most recently, I was thus overcome while contemplating an image of the Voyager 1 disc in the pages of National Geographic. The gold-plated, copper record, placed on board the interstellar bound spacecraft in 1977, is, to my mind, the culmination of modern art. NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory describes the record as follows:
"...a phonograph record...containing sounds and images selected to portray the diversity of life and culture on Earth. The contents of the record were selected for NASA by a committee chaired by Carl Sagan of Cornell University. Dr. Sagan and his associates assembled 115 images and a variety of natural sounds, such as those made by surf, wind and thunder, birds, whales, and other animals. To this they added musical selections from different cultures and eras, and spoken greetings from Earth-people in fifty-five languages, and printed messages from President Carter and U.N. Secretary General Waldheim.

Each record is encased in a protective aluminum jacket, together with a cartridge and a needle. Instructions, in symbolic language, explain the origin of the spacecraft and indicate how the record is to be played. The 115 images are encoded in analog form. The remainder of the record is in audio, designed to be played at 16-2/3 revolutions per minute. It contains the spoken greetings, beginning with Akkadian, which was spoken in Sumer about six thousand years ago, and ending with Wu, a modern Chinese dialect. Following the section on the sounds of Earth, there is an eclectic 90-minute selection of music, including both Eastern and Western classics and a variety of ethnic music.

Once...Voyager...leave[s] the solar system (by 1990, [it] will be beyond the orbit of Pluto), [it] will find [itself] in empty space. It will be forty thousand years before [it] makes a close approach to any other planetary system. As Carl Sagan has noted, 'The spacecraft will be encountered and the record played only if there are advanced spacefaring civilizations in interstellar space. But the launching of this bottle into the cosmic ocean says something very hopeful about life on this planet.'"
If aliens should happen upon the Voyager 1 spacecraft and discover the disc, they are expected to play the record and learn something of our species' history. In this sense, the engraved disc is a tool and, as such, it will one day be considered an artifact, if it isn't already. (A reproduction will more likely find a home at the Smithsonian Institution than the Metropolitan Museum of Art.) But the disc is an object of abstract utility, a symbol representative of modern philosophy's crest. It was manufactured moments before the Enlightenment wave began to break: part Scientific Revolution, part postmodern doubt. Given this transitional moment of conception, the record is an embodiment of contradiction. It is a leap of faith taken by the faithless - the late twentieth century being the pinnacle of secularism - and a tool, crafted with aesthetics in mind, that is unlikely to be put to use. But, above all, the contradictory power of the Voyager 1 disc resides in the recorded content. An attempt to limn a collective portrait of humanity, the disc is at once a gesture of hopeful optimism and naive hubris.

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The Necker Cube

I'm preoccupied by such ambivalence. Most people think of the word, ambivalent, as a pejorative. Without question, it can be used in a disparaging way, especially when interpreted only to mean indecision, but what of the word's other meaning, "the coexistence of opposing attitudes or feelings"? This latter usage accurately describes the balance sought by yogis, the Chinese yin-yang symbol, and the quantitative and qualitative possibilities figured in E=MC2. Contradiction, in this sense, is an altogether natural, even positive, phenomenon.

From my late teens on, I've been obsessed with another symbol of contradiction and ambivalence, the Necker Cube. The drawing figured prominently in the margins of my undergrad notebooks and throughout old sketchbooks; it was of particular interest to me during the peak of my drug experimentation. Flipping through an old "trip journal," I came across the hallucinogen-inspired rant below, proof that, if you keep pen and paper handy, not everything flashing through a chemically-addled mind is worthless (even if poor motor control makes it nearly illegible).
"A good idea will always contradict itself or, at least, the person exploring this idea will accept the reverse to be true as well. There are always multiple truths (2 symbolically, many more literally). It is the impossible middle-ground that is important. This is the yearning chasm, the heart, the Meadowlands. The yearning chasm must never be achievable, but does provide something to aim for. This target is our quaquaversal. At the peak of this quaquaversal - at the point of slope's origin - is the ylem. We can never reach the ylem; we can not even claim to know of it's existence, except on faith. Therefore, I have already arrived at a prime contradiction, making my logic sublimely impotent."
Unfortunately, when sober, humans are not programmed to readily accept such ambivalence; we prefer "empirical" truth, assigning meaning, often moral in nature, to our observations. Our data gathering can be objective, but our interpretation and the resulting intellectual constructs are rarely so. As a species, we are reluctant to give ourselves over to ambivalence. When faced with doing so, our bodies react in unusual, sometimes surprising ways; hence, my involuntary sobbing while contemplating the Voyager 1 disc. To contemplate the ambivalent universe is to be simultaneously overcome by wonder and mired in tragedy.
"...the idiosyncratic surfaces of the other orbs floating serenely in space; the pristine interstellar vacuum; the inscrutable emptiness of intergalactic space, that immense, echoing, absolutely featureless void enveloping the spinning galaxies: it all serves as a perfect philosophical mirror image, reflecting back the quandry of the species, the limitations of human knowledge. The frail architecture defined by our distant tools, which places the human race at the center of 'what's known,' is actually our own map of ourselves - a chart that we'll hand down to successive generations, who one day may see a charming primitivism, or even an prescience, in our view of all that."

-Michael Benson, "A Space In Time" (Atlantic Monthly, July/August 2002)
Many artists vacillate between the poles of glee and misery, of joy and sorrow, but one of my favorites, Woody Allen, is firmly entrenched in the tragic camp. In a recent Manchester Guardian profile ("Master of Neurosis," Guardian Weekly, Jan. 6-12, 2006), Allen tells Emma Brockes that, although he wouldn't trade his sense of humor for physical beauty, he "would've exchanged being funny for being a tragedian." He continues, "I always would've done that, from day one, to now, I mean, I always would have preferred that. [...] I wish my career could have been one in which film after film has not been comedies, but been dramas and tragedies." Reading the profile, one gets a sense of Allen's general melancholy; as he describes it, "I'm almost burning on a low flame of depression." I used to associate such a temperament with keen intelligence - and there is no denying Allen's brilliance, whether or not you like his films - but, lately, I feel depressives, like Allen, are denying the opposing pull, choosing the one-directional shrug of apathy over the contradiction of ambivalence.

Near the end of the piece, Brockes asks Allen, after having listened to him bemoan the pointlessness of it all, "Isn't having children a consolation of some sort?"
"No. There's no sense of continuity. No sense of, no sense of...I always used to think that art is the intellectual's Catholicism. You think that because your work may be seen after your death, or read, after your death, that it's compensation. But it's not. Not kids, or art or anything. There is nothing compensating about your own death."
Allen's bleak world view reminds me of a character I created for a screenplay I never completed, an angst-ridden twenty-something with a penchant for drug-fueled conversation and navel gazing - a thinly veiled reflection of myself at twenty-one. At one point, early on in the action, this character stands in a salt marsh with a friend and delivers a rambling monologue. Near the end of it, he says,
"I don't know...I think our answers - if you can call them that - are no more sensible than...I don't know...a mole. I mean, sometimes I like to think know....'future man,' like, poking his fingers around in a human skull, my skull. But then I realize how far fetched that is. I mean, I won't be lucky enough to be a fossil. I've never even won at Bingo."
Presumably, this character would share Allen's feeling about children and art. With good reason: the idea that immortality may be achieved via lineage or the leavings of a creative career is short-sighted, as both, eventually, will be buried and forgotten, long before humanity vanishes. But Allen and my unfinished proxy are wrong to believe death offers nothing in the way of compensation. As our bodies rot, the contained energy - your concentrated mass - is released into the humus and the ether. Again, E=MC2 or, as Galway Kinnell, my favorite contemporary poet, puts it in "The Quick and the Dead," "the crawling of new life out of the old, which is what we have for eternity on earth." In this sense, even after our species is gone and other lifeforms populate the planet, each of us remains an essential piece of the weave, recycled and reconstituted.

Contrary to Woody, I feel there is much joy in accepting our inevitable decomposition, even if our conscious minds yearn for permanence, making eulogistic joy rather wistful. Meanwhile, Voyager 1 continues it's interstellar journey to boldly go where no man has gone before.

Photo credits: images ripped from Nature Publishing Group,, and The Focusing Institute website

Tuesday, March 14, 2006

A Quick Note

Alright. I'm guilty. I didn't attend any of the New York art fairs this past weekend.

My absence was not a self-conscious, superior gesture, although I do know a few idealistic artists who rage against the machine by boycotting the fairs, getting uncommonly drunk, and spewing expletives in the general direction of Manhattan's western piers, the site of The Armory Show.

So what's my excuse? No profundity or rage here; I'm just a little burnt out on the trappings of the art world. I felt my time would be better spent in the studio, particularly since I needed to break the back of a painting which had been throttling me.

If you're looking for art fair coverage, however, there is no shortage of it to be had. A good place to start is Art Fag City. Art Soldier provides a nice counterpoint, along with a listing of numerous art blogs offering critique and reaction. For my part, I haven't yet felt compelled to read much of it. Even the hard-edged realist in me, all too aware of just how beholden the system is to the dollar, doesn't respond well to these events. They're usually boring, crowded, and filled with inane conversation, more artsy-fartsy fun house than navigable exhibition.

Wednesday, March 08, 2006

Thomas Kinkade, Painter of...Bears?

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Just when my estimation of Thomas Kinkade, America's most beloved, bestselling artist, hit what I assumed was rock bottom, this LA Times article crosses my desk. Though Kincade denies the numerous allegations being made against him in various courts, judges usually disagree. Legal battles aside for the moment, the highlight of the article bears - bad pun - quotation.
"And then there is Kinkade's proclivity for 'ritual territory marking,' as he called it, which allegedly manifested itself in the late 1990s outside the Disneyland Hotel in Anaheim.

'This one's for you, Walt,' the artist quipped late one night as he urinated on a Winnie-the-Pooh figure, said Terry Sheppard, a former vice president for Kinkade's company, in an interview."
Years ago, my father, an ardent Disneyphobe, stood up in a movie theater after viewing "Bambi" and proclaimed, "Thank God Walt Disney's dead!" Not surprisingly, many fellow movie goers were horrified. Fortunately, now that I know Kinkade, God's #1 brush man, waves his wand over Walt's creations, I feel a little better about my pops' chances of getting past St. Peter at the pearly gates.

Anyway, the article is fascinating if you are at all interested in a contemporary American icon. For my part, as someone who grew up on a Virginia farm, I admire Kinkade's Pooh defense.
"In a deposition, the artist alluded to his practice of urinating outdoors, saying he 'grew up in the country' where it was common. When pressed about allegedly relieving himself in a hotel elevator in Las Vegas, Kinkade said it might have happened.

'There may have been some ritual territory marking going on, but I don't recall it,' he said."
Let's call it the Rural Reagan Defense. I'll use it next time the fuzz catches me pissing in the subway.

Photo credit: lifted from

Monday, March 06, 2006

Playing House In The Global Village

Thoughts Following An Art World Night

Thursday night, I attended Alois Kronschlaeger's opening at Plus Ultra Gallery, now located in Chelsea. (Because Alois is a good friend of mine, I won't write much about his work, but his large wall piece was outstanding and I covet several of the smaller works.) Alois' opening was a veritable who's who of art bloggers, a function, in part, of Edward Winkleman being both an esteemed blogger and co-director of the gallery. Happily, all the art bloggers I've met so far are all intelligent, forthright folks, and I enjoy some of them a great deal.

Still, all the meeting and greeting gets to me. I hang close to those people I know and trust, drinking defensively. Many interactions with folks I'm less familiar with, be they dealers, artists, curators, or collectors, are short and awkward. "Hey, it's good to see you. How's your work coming? Life is treating you well otherwise? Great...well, I need to refill my wine." They further strengthen my conviction that I'm a social incompetent. As a result, I'm drawn to the more off-beat conversations. My chat with artist, Trever Wentworth, about his Jackson, Mississippi, upbringing was more stimulating - and comfortable - than any of the artcentric conversations I found myself involved in over the course of the evening, particularly now that the business of art seems to dominate these exchanges, a subject that I'm realistic about, but not very interested in.

As usual, I ended the night feeling slightly agitated; how does someone of my temperament connect himself to the art world without going mad? Unfortunately, the prospects for a painter who flees the big city (e.g., community center shows and the admiration of the county book club) are none too thrilling, either. In the end, I'll only be happy if I can make a living painting and writing, so whatever approach works, works. Like most artists, I'll deal with a little stilted conversation and palm sweat if it means I can continue doing what I must.

Next door to Plus Ultra, Schroeder Romero Gallery was also celebrating the inauguration of their new Chelsea digs. The work on display was - and there really is no other way to put this - awful. Appropriately enough, the show is titled, "Royally Fucked!" According to the press release, Ken Weaver's large pastel drawings are based on "theatrical photo-sessions of models and friends." If the "friend" part of that description is true, Weaver's is an open-minded circle; his works depict Bacchanalia-like orgies with plenty of penetration and no shortage of masked girls on their knees. Even my more, um, liberated friends would pass on that photo shoot. Already skeptical, I became convinced of the falsity of the press release's claim when I overheard a group of young men, presumably friends of the artist, laughing and animatedly discussing the work. "Dude...if he's shooting pics of this first, I never knew about it. I've been missing out on something." Of course, I could be a big prude, but I'm willing to put money on Weaver's having ripped most of the explicit source material from online porn sites. Not that there's anything wrong with that. It makes sense, if for no other reason than it's a hell of a lot cheaper than paying models and less difficult than asking friends to fuck for the camera. Whatever the case, Weaver is selling frivolous titillation. Again, I've got no problem with that - I'm a single guy, after all, who freely admits to using the Internet for it's God-given purpose - but I stopped thinking it was intelligent or cool to take pictures of my dick when I was twenty. Apparently, Weaver still likes to give the finger to convention by adopting a conventionally reactionary pose. "Fuck you, bro, we're all a bunch of filthy animals fucking under chandeliers, man! Hells, yeah!" Yeah, but what's your point?

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John Isaacs
"Let's dance"
bronze, steel, tape, paper
23 3/4 x 23 3/4 x 35 1/2 inches
edition of 3

Already on the topic of dicks and middle fingers, now seems as good a time as any to elaborate on the Feigen Contemporary exhibition, "Blessed Are The Merciful," which received passing mention in the preceding post. This uneven, aggressive group show, curated by Jerome Jacobs, is definitely worth a visit; it is on display through the end of April. Given my reaction to Ken Weaver's puerile content, you won't be surprised to learn that many of the included works, such as John Isaacs's bronze sculpture, "Let's dance," fail to provoke a thoughtful response - "Yeah, well, fuck you, too, buddy." - but "Merciful" includes twenty-four artists, offering viewers a range of styles, mediums and approaches.

Jacobs believes the participating artists are divining rods, responding to our shared, contemporary anxiety and pointing us to healthy alternatives. "The world today revolves around a few key elements," he writes, "Money, power and religion." (One might ask, in response, when has it not revolved around the latter two?) In this milieu, he continues, "it's impossible to know where to turn, given the indifference of friends and the hostility of enemies."
"Science is evolving, explaining, frightening and dehumanising. Money is building, accumulating and dividing. The human dimension is becoming lost in the globalisation of its being which is diluting and isolating it. The media are underpinning this abuse of the spirit in favor of the material. Consumption of television programs is replacing citizenship, freedom is being stifled and democracy is turning into autocratic populism. Lies are invading the public arena."
Jacobs's assessment is awkwardly phrased, but not inaccurate. Frustrated by our bleak prospect, Jacobs assembles a group of artists he feels are "sensitive to the misery and misfortune of others"; hence, the title of the exhibition, a reference to Matthew 5:7. ("Blessed are the merciful, for they shall obtain mercy.") These artists, he contends, "inculcate a sense of conscience" and "bring us back to the roots of our Western faith." For his aspirations, Jacobs should be commended, but his curation is questionable. The bulk of the included artists rely heavily on irony and cynicism, evoking less sensitivity than apathy and defeatism. Does Isaac's middle finger really inspire soul searching or provide a lighted path for the lost?

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Michael van den Besselaar
oil on linen
3 of 7 works, each: 12 5/8 x 12 5/8 inches framed

Michael van den Besselaar's delicately painted series, "Interiors," presents the viewer with excess in the form of posh limousine and private jet interiors. Conspicuously absent from the paintings are the beautiful people who typically occupy such spaces. The atmosphere is lonely, cold, and clean. These small paintings are not appealing wall decorations. Is this Besselaar's intent? Is the artist turning the critique, initially focused on the conspicuous consumption of the very wealthy, onto the viewer? We are, after all, a privileged lot, even if our sins are less colorful than those of P-Diddy or Brangelina.

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Eric White
"The Truth Yet Again Asserts Itself in Obdurate Reprisal, and in So Doing Belies
the Fact That You, No Longer Besieged by Doubt, Have Come to the Conclusion
That Maybe Things Aren't Really All That Bad After All"
Oil on canvas
60 x 36 inches

Bookending "Interiors" are oil paintings by Eric White and David Nicholson. Both artists use loaded images and bold colors; the paintings are not as subtle as Besselaar's monochromatic works, but subtlety doesn't interest White or Nicholson. White's painting - the title is a monster itself, at once intelligent and pretentious - features three cropped, duplicated news anchors, all smiles, tight skin, and pin stripes, who share one body - in fact, one arm - that extends into an opulent netherworld. In the background, commercial airliners pass over a lush mountain landscape in a tight, opposing flight path. White is a skilled painter, but "The Truth..." is a shrill work, every bit as angry as Isaac's middle finger. The artist highlights the negative, a common practice today, but one thoroughly concerned with wrongs of "the other." It offers little in the way of moral guidance. The same critique can be applied to David Nicholson's oversized "Reason and Fury." The piece is immediate, visceral and angry, but ultimately borne of fear. Conscience is not inculcated, as Jacobs intends. Instead, the pervading sense is one of helplessness, of impotence, when faced with our own base beast, made manifest, in Nicholson's painting, in the form of raging wolves.

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David Nicholson
"Reason and Fury"
Oil on canvas
90 x 130 inches

After leaving the Plus Ultra opening on Thursday night, I headed to the nearby after party. On the way, one of my artist friends decided to strike up a tired chorus: "Painting is dead!" Painting is not only dead, she continued, it's become immoral and unethical in today's world. (I later realized she was likely inspired by Jerry Saltz's thoughtful, but easily misconstrued "Idol Thoughts," a recent piece in The Village Voice.) The details of our exchange are unimportant. Her claim is too ridiculous to merit much response; as long as the human animal remains a visual, social creature, paintings and novels are here to matter how much the self-proclaimed avant-garde may howl. My friend's brief rant set the gears turning, though, and after drinking too much too fast, laughing a lot, and gorging myself on cheese, I headed home, feeling a little melancholy. I thought again of "Blessed Are The Merciful." With a few exceptions - Charley Case, Petroc Dragon Sesti and, maybe, one or two others - the included artists fail to meet Jacobs' standards or, rather, he fails to select a group who can. In the press release, Jacobs writes, "It is vital to give back to collective life a decency that it has completely lost, and to private life a substance that it never really acquired."

I've been giving a lot of thought, lately, to the social obligations of the contemporary artist. In the recent Scrawled interview, I rambled on about this topic.
"Increasingly, [...] artists will engage their communities in more intimate and immediate ways. It's long overdue, this turning away from the modernist, colonialist myth of linear development. Frankly, I have some related reservations about my own painting that are yet to be worked out. For me, engagement may take the form of local activism and community involvement wherever I land after New York. Ours is a time that demands that we think like citizens rather than individuals, less about ourselves and more about the whole, even though this runs contrary to the iCulture/Bush Administration philosophy of the day."
Based on that quotation, one might assume I think the social turn in contemporary art - note the growing number of anonymous collectives and activist collaborations - agreeable, but this is not always so. In fact, I find art world social collaboration as inadequate as the jaded, sardonic commentary it claims to respond to. The increasing focus on anonymity and benevolent enterprise is an improvement over the artist-as-hero, profit margin model, but this sea change is as much a function of the zeitgeist as it is an ethical gesture on the part of the artist(s) involved. As Claire Bishop points out in her article, "The Social Turn: Collaboration and Its Discontents" (ARTFORUM, Feb. 2006), the judging of an artwork on moral grounds shifts emphasis away from the art and onto "a generalized set of moral precepts," an activist checklist, of sorts. Given the narrow confines of the art world, then, the critics are offering moral judgments inside a vacuum. Furthermore, if "authorial renunciation" is a vital requirement - the topmost item on the checklist - then the truly "successful" collaborations should remain unknown even to art world insiders. By Bishop's standard, every collective and project highlighted in the pages of art journals is something of a failure. Once attached to art world institutions, these artists are celebrating their actions, even if they legally change their names or don animal masks.

Do-gooding is often a vain enterprise and the superior tone exhibited by the cynical finger pointers (and finger givers) is, unfortunately, also associated with contemporary collectives; they're the flip side of the coin. After all, why should Oda Projesi or SuperFlex, both collectives I admire, be celebrated by the art world when hundreds of thousands of other people work just as hard (or much harder!) and expect nothing more than the satisfaction of a good day's work and a sense of community? No grand statement need be made. No commentary need be generated. Is this not, clearly, the more moral approach? If moral art must, as Bishop contends, involve "self-sacrifice" and "extract itself from the 'useless' domain of the aesthetic and be fused with social praxis," why do so many activist artists name their respective collectives or document their efforts on websites and in catalogs? To truly succeed, they should operate outside of the art world.

Bishop concludes her excellent piece by reminding us that "Dogville," Lars von Trier's underrated, but terribly cruel film, critiques the notion of the helping hand. "[Grace's] desire to serve the local community is inseparable from her guilty position of privilege, and her exemplary gestures perturbingly provoke an evil eradicable only by further terrifying implication of the self-sacrificed position."

So, then, where are we left? That I have time enough to reflect on these questions proves I am, like von Trier's Grace, a privileged member of society, even if not of the same means as she. Instead of turning over these ideas, I should be in the soup kitchen! I should be in the field, pulling invasive species from the soil! I should be teaching blind children to swim! Seven years ago, a Portuguese judge visiting the United States told me that he found me "typically American" because, despite being an atheist, I'm "consumed by Christian guilt." Taking stock of contemporary art, it seems we've all become, in at least this respect, "typically American." What remains to be seen, though, is whether the majority will choose social involvement or defiantly hold up their middle fingers. Discouragingly, the fucking, fuck yous, and renewed modernist cries in Chelsea point to the latter.

Photo credit: all images, courtesy Feigen Contemporary