Penning Political Presumptions

Subjective entities and individuals publicly broadcast the objective truth—honest, altered, and falsified. Often accessed through the Internet, these bi-partisan accounts of global and domestic happenings shape public opinion. At times they promote political unity, empowering the masses, while at others they pedal hypocrisy, fueling dissenting factions.

In the quest to uncover the objectivity truth, one is faced with a myriad of conflicting, slanted accounts. Due to an oversaturation in media reporting, it has become increasingly difficult to discern the factuality of our modern reality. Yet, far from negative, this increase in reporting illuminates the body politics’ multifaceted manner of thinking. Accessible online and printed outlets of communication invite widespread participation in the political dialogue. Artists are instrumental in this dialogue, subjecting elected officials to an unprecedented level of scrutiny by rendering uncensored accounts of corruption and miscalculation. Pigment has the staying power of shrapnel; it indelibly marks the inflicted observer, searing into his consciousness.

Chronicling the vast cultural shifts in America, Raymond Pettibon (b. 1957), via means of pen and paintbrush, has captured the collapse of the American counterculture into the factious political present. A wordsmith, documentarian, artist, and satirist, Pettibon has achieved international recognition for rendering universal critiques in a deeply personal manner. His witty, widely disseminated attacks on political figures—Reagan, Bush, Kennedy, and more recently Trump—magnify the public’s murmured complaints. Juxtaposing borrowed text with both original and found drawing, Pettibon creates in response to the present geo-political landscape.

Complicating interpretation, Pettibon’s works are often oblique references; they demand the viewer’s complete engagement; they must be textually decoded. Yet, this process of decipherment may not lead to greater clarity. Alas, the greater intention, which the viewer ardently seeks to read into the work, may remain an enigma. However, it is the inherent contradictions, the gaps in concrete meaning, in Pettibon’s art that visually proclaim the absurdity of American culture and politics since 1960. The stylistic tropes and phrases Pettibon employs express the body politics’ confused, despairing response to the tribulations of America since 1960: America’s shifting values, elected politicians’ personal blunders, and military miscalculations.

Displaying over 800 of Pettibon’s zines, sketchbooks, self-portraits, political satires, and surf scenes, the New Museum has devoted three floors to an artist retrospective. The exhibition, “Raymond Pettibon: A Pen of All Work,” which, remarkably, is the artist’s first retrospective in New York, can be viewed until April 9, 2017.

Image: Raymond Pettibon, No Title, (I spent ayll…), 2016.

A Painterly Truth

Art can affect us to the point of obsession. Oil canvases, parchment drawings, bronze sculptures, and computer generated simulations, to name a few, have the potential to compel us—the human spectators—to physically react. With each human breath, the work in question is given renewed life. A representation of the lived past, it pulsates.

This fixed socio-political document unhinges us, disturbing our status quo. It confronts us with that which we cannot grasp. Yet, we do not run. Rather, we stay, seeking to absorb the knowledge of our beautiful and horrific predecessors. Much is left up to the wieldy human imagination. In the case of portraiture, we see real people. Caught in a moment of awe, we contemplate the places these people have gone, the sights they have taken in, and the quality of life they enjoyed. They are us—our ever so distant ancestors. We gain a privileged view into their world whereas they are not privy to enter ours. Viewing such portraits is more somber than joyful. From observing their likeness, will we internalize their follies? Will we gain the keys to their accomplishments? Will we ever be as great as our forefathers? As a single spectator, I have no concrete answers, only an unflinching curiosity to seek them out.

In the past weeks, I have been confronted with a litany of serious, gay, and enigmatic sitters. In Gallery 610 at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, I encountered seven of Diego Velázquez portraits that command consideration. The small one-room show entitled ‘Velázquez Portraits: Truth in Painting,’ which opened November 4, 2016 and runs until March 12, 2017, features the Metropolitan’s masterpiece, Juan de Pareja (1650), as well as two recently restored works from the Hispanic Society of America, Portrait of a Young Girl (1640) and Cardinal Camillo Astalli-Pamphili (1650-51).

Yet, it is Velázquez’s Portrait of a Man (1630-35) bequeathed by the Jules Bache Collection in 1949 that captivates my attention. The work is familiar. It is the cover piece of Laura Cumming’s critically acclaimed work ‘The Vanishing Velázquez,’ which I had finished the week prior. Swiftly, I approach the canvas, matching the unknown sitter’s gaze. I immediately feel the man’s presence. His identity—a witness to the Surrender of Breda or possibly the artist himself—bothers me not. His truthful demeanor compels me.

While conceived between 1630-35, the work is characterized by a striking freshness. The gestural strokes both blur and form, recording the sitter’s likeness while restricting him to the canvas, which is his physical being. Velázquez restricts his palate; he dabbles in grays, blues, and browns. With these subtle gradations, Velázquez captures the sitter’s singular human experience. However, in recording the singular, Velázquez transmits the universal. His honest emotions and mannerisms transcend time. When viewing the portrait almost 500 years after its conception, I identify with Velázquez’s unknown man. I too shift my weight, set my jaw, purse my lips, and make eye contact with the world around me.

Top Image: Velázquez’s Portrait of a Man (1630-35).

Chasing Nature

Nature seeps into the consciousness of the artist, taking hold of his imagination. It wrestles with his genius; every depiction created by the artist is an attempt to portray the nature of things, whether that is man, an inanimate object, or the intangible earthly forces. Finished works, being materials in their own right, are evidence that man has the capacity to add to, or even beautify, nature. The work of two artists, Willem de Kooning (1920-2013) and Zao Wou-ki (1904-1997), affirms the pervasiveness of nature, illustrating each artist’s struggle to aptly figure man, objects, and natural forces.

Holding court at 909 Madison Avenue, Lévy Gorvy occupies a newly expanded gallery space. To announce Dominique Lévy and Brett Gorvy’s international partnership, the gallery organized a museum worthy exhibition of Willem de Kooning and Zao Wou-Ki. The exhibition entitled ‘Willem de Kooning I Zao Wou-ki’ is the first pairing of abstract landscapes by the two Promethean post-war artists to date.

Highlighting a forty-year period of overlapped creation (late 1940-late 1980), the exhibition illuminates the stylistic similarities between the two abstract innovators. It certainly does not equate the work of de Kooning and Wou-ki. Rather, it opens a dialogue between the two artists by placing their works in conversation. Shared elements, such as rich coloration, gestural strokes, and tactile surfaces, can readily be observed.

While de Kooning and Wou-ki produce stylistically linked canvases, the artists diverge in their methodologies of creation. Whereas Wou-ki painted from an Eastern perspective, radically abandoning the subject of nature to bring out its truest form, de Kooning painted from a Western vantage point, crafting landscapes of the flesh to fully liberate the nude female form. Yet, as noted by the gallery text, both artists aspired “to surpass the division between the figural and the abstract.” Ironically, it is in seeking to faithfully represent worldly forms that de Kooning and Wou-ki colorfully blur the boundaries of reality.

Supported by the Willem de Kooning Foundation and the Foundation Zao Wou-ki, the exhibition illuminates a pivotal, yet under analyzed, artistic intersection. It delves into the East-West divide, noting the striking artistic parallels that arose in divergent contexts of creation. In such, large museum loans from the Walker Art Center and the Hirshhorn Museum complement works consigned to the gallery for sale. Opened in the Madison Avenue space on January 18, 2017, the exhibition will be on view until March 11, 2017. After, it will travel to China.

Image: Upper left de Kooning’s Untitled XVI. Upper right Wou-Ki’s 01-10-73.

Unassailable Forces of Nature

Standing mesmerized in front of J.M.W. Turner’s Field of Waterloo at the Tate spawned my passion to pursue a career in art. Transported into the battle’s aftermath, I felt the penetration of light searing across the canvas. Illuminating the uncharted darkness, Turner’s canvas speaks without a filter. Simply by being, it, like many great works, is courageous. I was drawn to the daring nature of Turner’s work, his uncensored representation of the carnage as well as his ability to make the grotesque seemingly beautiful.

So began my first cover letter.

From the age of 13, I have felt an uncanny affiliation with the pioneering British painter J.M.W Turner. Attracted to the unabashed manner in which Turner paints, I have spent the past 8 years processing his painterly genius. Artifacts of the past, his controversial works, while abstract, grasp the unassailable forces of nature that persist into today. Raw, unfiltered, and pathos-laden, Turner’s landscapes have a magnetic ability; spectators move ever closer to his canvases, hoping that proximity will lead to greater clarity. Yet, clarity is not to be found. Offering up a myriad of interpretations, Turner’s works thrust the spectator into the picture field, forcing him to comprehend an uncertain reality.

Thus, while hoards of spectators rushed to the Met’s “Manus X Machina,” I eased up the grand staircase making my way to “Turner’s Whaling Pictures,” an exhibit on view between May 10 and August 7, 2016. Organized 120 years after the Met acquired Turner’s Whalers ca. 1845, “Turner’s Whaling Pictures” reunited the artist’s quartet of Whaling pictures, which were shown in pairs at the Royal Academy in London between 1845-6. The three companions from Tate Britain along with relating whaling instruments accented the walls. Commanding the spectator’s gaze, the Met’s Whalers hung centered. The exhibit endeavored to link Turner’s whaling works to Melville’s epic novel, Moby Dick. While intrigued by the loose literary link, I found the canvases to stand-alone; their sheer presence required full attention.

Turner’s all-powerful whaling works capture nature in terms of the sublime. As stated by the exhibit’s cataloguer: “seascapes were a laboratory for the development of Turner’s style.” Nearly 1/3 of his extant works are classified as marines. In Turner’s whaling works, nature supersedes man. In the Met’s Whalers, man is rapacious, desiring to harness superior marine creatures. The water churns. The whale thrashes. The gale encircles the beast, boat, and man. Pirouetting across the canvas, the spectator’s eye finds no respite; there is no calm.

Rather than gravitating to contemporary revolutionaries, I am ever drawn back to my artistic beginnings: Turner. Harnessing the sublime power of nature while checking the power of mankind, Turner’s works are pioneering in content and execution. Far from dated, Turner’s bold perspective provides a lexicon for understanding radical contemporary creations.

The Compulsion to Collect

To be termed a keeper—a hoarder—one typically possesses obsessive tendencies. Often associated with mania, keepers are tied to objects of their affection, unable to let go. Struck by uncanny urges to collect, to document or, in the most extreme cases, to prophesize, keepers record their feelings in tangible forms. These artifacts—beautiful and strange—hold the tumultuous histories of their owners and/or creators. The New Museum’s most recent exhibition, “The Keeper” is dedicated to the peoples and products preserved. As stated by its curators, the exhibit records the human “impulse to save both the most precious and the apparently valueless.” It presents all ephemera as bonafide artistic creations.

On view at the New Museum until the 25th of September, the exhibition sets out to document the impulses behind artistic creation. Offering a full array of intriguing, absurd and spectacular objects, “The Keeper” challenges spectators to see each object for its artistic merit. Ranging from Ydessa Hendeles Partners, an extension of The Teddy Bear Project (2002), to Shinro Ohtake’s collaged scrapbooks to Ye Jinglu’s yearly formal portrait to Henrik Olesen’s Some Gay-Lesbian Artists and/ or Artists relevant to Homo-Social Culture Born between c. 1300-1870 (2007), “The Keeper” cannot be criticized for its diversity in representation. The show bridges many mediums, exhibiting works of photography, sculpture, painting, embroidery and collage, among others.

Aptly titled, “The Keeper” is a beautifully confusing experience. At times I was rendered quiet, enraptured by the universality of an individual object. While at others I was left lost, deciphering the Magnus Opus of Henrik Olesen with little supplementary text. The exhibition labels, well wrought and exceedingly thought provoking, provided little help for casual visitors. Steeped with highbrow vocabulary and complex methodological concepts, the labels were passed over altogether by many visitors.

Even with such failings, “The Keeper” deserves widespread praise for bringing to light the compulsion of collecting. The desire to keep elements of the past exists within all of us.  Sharing this human tendency, both laymen and creatives could relate to the seemingly un-relatable collection of oddities.

 

 

The Commingling of Color

Saturated with art, the city reflects our creative subconscious. While such art may not be a product of the beholder’s hand, the art influences his hand. The beholder is, essentially, an artifact of his environment. The colorful murals, collages of stickers, busy subway advertisements, scrawled sidewalk sandwich boards, finicky fire escapes, even the heavy medal melody of construction work, infuses the beholder with a sense of self. The self is emboldened by the city, each hour growing increasingly assured. Light refracts off of the city walls, entering the beholder, who in turn emotes energy back into the atmosphere. Take a minute to stop, to observe. Watch one individual, take note if he or she profits from or contributes to the artistic atmosphere of New York.

For the last three months, I hurried up 6th street to make a sharp turn on 2nd Ave. In transit to and from work, I passed Billy the Artist’s mural adorning the concrete wall of Lionsbeerstore. Iced coffee in hand, I instinctively glanced to my right, observing daily the crisp gestural strokes of BTA’s mural. Internalizing the artist’s motto, “create your own reality,” I took a sip of coffee, opened my eyes wider and set out to draw inspiration from my colorful short-term surroundings.

On my nine minute walk to the subway, I drew energy from many natural and artistic urban attributes; yet, I found BTA’s work particularly compelling. Why? The mural distills the key elements of our humanity into a handful of colors and forms. It stares back at its beholders, challenging them to first confront and later come to terms with its colorful absurdities.

The mural quite literally represents us, humans, through a meter of geometric black-lined shapes. Emphasis is placed on two physiological elements: eyes and mouths. Humans are physical beings who are seen, but also oral products of what is said about them. Each human is a unique, colorful product of his surroundings. As seen in BTA’s mural, humans are intrinsically linked. There is no singularity in humanity. Rather, we thrive when our eyes and mouths commingle.

Realms of Rubble

Art exists in the city as the city exists in art. The formal definition of art, any vehicle of aesthetic pleasure that communicates a chosen message, implicitly associates artistic creations with painted or sculptured works. Such works exist within a set context; framed by walls, these artistic creations beautify  their immediate surroundings. At the core, formalized or academic art is that which can be observed, critiqued, and questioned by human spectators. However, this overly narrow definition of art limits masterpieces to domestic or selectively public museum settings. Adopting instead a wider definition of art, the spectator must observe the greater context, the city, before dissecting the object of creation. A house for art, the city is the purest form of art. Thus, in discussing an overarching definition of art, one must evaluate architecture—the rubble, ruins, remains, and reconstructions.

While our lives concentrate around the hearths that house us, the buildings in which knowledge grows, science advances, government legislates and business operates, it is easy for the modern citizen to take for granted the aesthetic beauty of such basic foundations. Often termed concrete jungles, cities are viewed as technological and human hubs and championed for their concrete advances rather than for their concrete foundations. It takes an honest observation of the architecture of antiquity to fully realize the artistic soul of the city. As Socrates infamously stated, the city completes the individual; it is a place for realization and contemplation.

Standing on top of Filopappou Hill (Hill of the Muses) in Athens silently observing the sun crest the mountain, illuminating the Acropolis with natural light, I grasped the eternal truth of Socrates declaration. Ruined and rebuilt, the city of Athens is a place for realization. It forces the spectator to realize the finite nature of his existence—life rises and falls like the cresting sun. Yet, such realizations prompt contemplation on the beauty of such a finite existence. The Acropolis stands testament to the genius of man passed. However, it is also a symbol to the progress of man present. The stoic Doric columns and imposing geometric forms are weathered, but resilient. While fragmented, the structure stands. The Acropolis’ architecture retains the poignancy of a picture, affecting emotional musings within the spectator. Rather than a lesser form of art, architecture, as evidenced by the Acropolis, asserts the supremacy of materiality—the beauty of our classical beginnings. Turning an eye on our present state of architectural ingenuity, one can only revel at the sublimity of glass, scaffolding, and brick.