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.

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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.

Perceptive Touches

Prior to my collegiate art history studies, I held the misguided perception that all art must be aesthetically pleasing. I ardently believed that the conglomeration of colors must be evocative, that the sinuous line must remove all artifice, and that the primed canvas must hide its materiality. Art, I thought, was the perfection of humanity, the crystallization of human genius. It evidenced that man subsumed the state of nature. I clearly delineated between fine art and expressive human creation, deeming certain objects worthy of spectatorship and reverence, while others unsatisfactory, musing of humans rather than works of masters.

However, with increased exposure to modern and contemporary modes, I have come to deconstruct my subjective dichotomy. Subsequently, I have come to understand “art” as any form of human expression which appeals to the spectator’s senses, whether that be smell, touch, sight, hearing or taste. The later sense, taste, is the least applicable to the current discussion. Nevertheless, all of the aforementioned senses produce subjective opinions. Formulating unique human experiences, “art” employs known modes of experience to craft new environments of discovery.

Embracing the multifaceted portrayals of the senses, the Museum Tinguely in Basel, Switzerland presents ‘Priére de Toucher’ (The Touch of Art), the second installment of a five-pronged exhibition series that appeals to the spectator’s ream of senses. The diverse group of film, painting, sculpture, and performance art currently on display stimulates visceral reactions. Differing from a customary museum show, the Tingley’s exhibit rather than appealing to the spectator’s perception of visual beauty, directly confronts such spectator with conceptual, grotesque, and, at times, pornographic works.

One may certainly question the aesthetic appeal of such works presented; however, the communicative nature of the works displayed is undisputed. The spectator physically responds to the works, shielding his eyes, grasping his own extremities, quickening his pace, slowing to peer into or at tactically confusing creations, and even participating in interactive ball rooms and tree houses. While employing one’s eyes to comprehend such works, the spectator relies primarily on his sense of touch. Abstract representations of the physicality of existence, the handsome and grotesque creations flanking the Tingley’s walls reflect on the fungibility of flesh .

Envisioning Ink

Upon entering Belgium’s Royal Museums of Fine Arts, I briskly walked towards the Old Masters Museum. Anticipating David’s riveting ‘Death of Marat,’ Rubens’ reverential altarpieces, and Bruegel the Elder’s meticulous cityscapes, I nearly bypassed by Gao Xingjian’s “Awakenings of Consciousness.” Encompassing one rectangular room, six monumental works by Gao Xingjian create a quasi-spiritual environment. Bridging the oriental and occidental, Xingjian’s canvases contemplate the complex issues of modernity and individual identity. Acting as a gateway, Xingjian’s canvases absorb the spectator, instilling an eerie sense of calm. Oscillating between canvases, the spectator is confronted images that are comprehensible, but, upon second view, deeply wrought. Physical representations of the intangible life forces, Xingjian’s canvases awake the spectator’s consciousness, prompting reflection on one’s relative position in the greater cosmos.

Dwarfed in relation to the canvas, the spectator must stand at a distance to observe the entire picture plane. Each image has a photographic quality; the meticulous details and individual gestures merge to form cohesive images. The subtle gradations of black Indian ink can only be observed when the spectator approaches the canvas. A cunning optical illusion, Xingjian’s monolithic eye fools the human eye. While abstracted, Xingjian’s eye appears a more faithful image of reality than an image taken from reality. The loose gestural tear trailing off the canvas seems to capture the essence of sadness; it records the fleeting nature of human emotion for posterity. Further, the flecked cornea seems to allude to the canvas’ cognitive ability. Unblinking, such eye unflinchingly records reality, cataloguing the beautiful triumphs and follies of humanity. An image of us, the painted eye is greater than us. It is objective whereas we, the spectators, are subjective. It acknowledges the truth whereas we close our eyes to the harshness of reality. It exists for posterity, processing years of human progress whereas we have a finite timeframe. Mimicking Xingjian’s eye, we must open ourselves to the entirety of human experience.

Enduring Ethereal Beauty

Humans have crafted artistic creations since the origins of mankind. During the prehistoric age, cavemen scratched archaic scenes of the hunt onto earthen walls; an early example of such can be seen on the cave walls at Lascaux. As mankind progressively evolved, methods of art making increased in number and in specialization. Artists flocked to the craft, and soon art became a profession, rather than a communicative necessity. In this long lineage of artists, how does a painter acquire international fame? What makes an artist an icon, or an embodiment of his times? One must consider whether a set of criteria that explains the fame of Botticelli, Michelangelo, Pollock, Koons, to name a sampling of acclaimed artists, can even be established. Take Van Gogh, contemporary viewers revere his work, but his canvases garnered appreciation only after his untimely passing. Therefore, should it be a prerequisite for such artist to achieve acclaim in his lifetime in order to be considered a true master of his time?

Considering these questions alongside a multitude of others, curators from the Gemäldegalerie organized the comprehensive exhibition, The Botticelli Renaissance. Sandro Botticelli (1445-1510), a Florentine Old Master painter, has inspired generations of subsequent artists who have embraced his ethereal Venus figures and beneficent virgins. A resurgence in all things Botticelli occurred again in the 18th century upon his rediscovery by the English Pre-Raphaelite painters. His iconic female nudes have inspired modern and contemporary interpretations by artists such as: Edgar Degas, Dante Gabriel Rossetti, Andy Warhol, Cindy Sherman, among countless others.

Stressing the muse-like quality of Botticelli’s women, the exhibition traces interpretations of Botticelli’s works from the contemporary present backwards to his original 15th century panels. The audio guide, which traced back in time as the viewer traversed the gallery space, greatly facilitated the viewing experience; it  clearly and constantly reinforced the thematic thread woven through the decades. Viewing a myriad of interpretations—panting, drawing, sculpture, photography, video, and costume design—the viewer grasped the scope of Botticelli’s influence of current creators. Captivating the imagination of artists and encouraging adaptions that valorized the woman body, Botticelli gained a legacy that extends much beyond the 16 or so works officially attributed to his hand. Botticelli’s own iterations of this life-size Venus bookend the exhibition; first contemporary portraits flank Venus (1490) whereas in the final room, among the 50 panels widely attributed to Botticelli, the second Venus stoically stands. The timelessness of Botticelli’s Venus resonates. Still 500 years later, her contraposto form beckons, her eyes confidently engage with each onlooker, and her windblown blond locks reinforce the illusion of ease.

A Reactionary Viewing Experience

The absurd and the appealing comingle on a monumental scale at Frieze Art Fairs. Housing works by classical, modern, and contemporary artists, the two pop-up tents, separated by a fifteen-minute walk, provide temporary shelter to this season’s most sought after works.

Between the two tents, just under 300 galleries were featured. Chosen to showcase the breath and diversity of the current art market, these galleries exhibit a cross-section of work marked for sale. However, the exact price is often unmarked; a white blank typically follows the title, artist’s name, and date of creation. With price tags removed, viewers can observe Frieze without any burden of buying. Yet, unlike a museum exhibition, the purpose of Frieze is to sell. Serious private collectors and museum directors attend preview day to pursue the galleries, marking bidding prospects. Major galleries, such as Gagoisian, White Cube, and Hauser and Wirth, reported large ticket sales in the opening hours of the first public day. Curious parties, like myself, can access the exact sale prices of each work via an Internet search. Thus, Frieze is a thrilling event for the determined collector and the amateur student.

Sharing Regents Park for a span of five days, Frieze Art Fair and Frieze Masters attract strikingly separate clienteles. The former is highly trafficked, visited by trendy private collectors, young art connoisseurs, well-off professionals, and prestigious institutions form locales across the world. The tent is interactive, featuring a diverse array of performance pieces and installations. These commissioned spectacles spark discourse amongst those visiting. Many of the galleries showcased within its walls are visually perplexing. The works are often confrontational, sexually explicit, and epic in scale.

Differing drastically in style, Frieze Masters features more palatable and refined works. While revolutionary during their contexts of creation, the works, which grace the walls of Frieze Masters, are often easier to comprehend as we, the viewers, can investigate each work in relation past and present trends. Frieze Masters caters towards a more-seasoned selection of collectors. The work showcased is less visually confrontational. Even the design of the Masters tent is tailored to its target audience; it appears less like pop-up tent and more like a series of established galleries under one roof. The noise level is lower, with collectors quietly conversing, rather than loudly proclaiming the mastery of a work.

I would conjecture that students and academics constituted the small cross section of attendees who chose to attend both Frieze Art Fair and Frieze Masters. Yet, I believe that a dual-attendance is integral to achieving a complete understanding of the fast-selling contemporary phenomena exhibited in the former. While Frieze London can be enjoyed in its absolute form, it is most certainly complemented by the display of Master works that directly influence the present modes of depiction.