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September 7, 2015

Not a Rose: Photographs by Heide Hatry

by Jim Welke

Not a Rose: Photographs by Heide Hatry” on show at Galerie Camille, Detroit 8-May-2015 to 6-June-2015 brings more than photography to the gallery. This show brings raw meat–photographs of raw meat, that is. Not so enigmatic in itself, but remember the title of the show: “Not A Rose.” The photographs show us flowers; flowers Heide Hatry concocted from raw, unpreserved abattoir detritus.

Spicula linguarum anitum, New York, NY 2011

Spicula linguarum anitum, New York, NY 2011

For shear, unblinking courage, she ranks with war photographers. But war photographers tramp through jungles, deserts, and broken cities. And they photograph war. Hatry tramps through slaughterhouses, past dolorous animals waiting to be terminated, and on past prime cuts waiting for the masses to consume with delight. In between the living and the filets, there exists a grim, blood spattered production line that summarily stops hearts and then trims out the unwanted fat, bones, and offal. What the butchers toss aside here, Hatry takes in hand, hauls home, sorts, refrigerates, and selects for her palette.

Before we move on, take a moment to ponder that. Form images in your mind: grim slaughterhouse, discarded animal parts, Hatry’s studio brimming with discarded animal parts.

OK, now picture Hatry in her studio, scalpel in hand, as she minutely dissects those parts. And then at look one of her photographs, either on the gallery wall or in her book of essays and photos, “Not A Rose,” (Charta, 2012) which accompanies the show and presents myriad points of view of her work.

The points of view expressed in her book will likely mimic a bit of your own perceptual evolution vis-à-vis her images. At first you see beauty, then you see cold merciless truth, then you see truth and beauty; or, at least, Hatry’s version of those diffuse and elusive qualities. In the introduction to “Not A Rose,” she writes:

For some years I have been working with biological materials–animal skin, flesh, and organs–to create art that addresses issues of personal identity, gender roles, appearance and reality, subject and object, the moral, ethical and political dimensions of meat production and consumption, and a wide range of other topics. …I want to subtly remind the viewer that his or her every act of mindless consumption is abdication of our moral and ethical substance…

Linguae saeta cervorum, sanguis coagulatus, Dallas, TX 2011

Linguae saeta cervorum, sanguis coagulatus, Dallas, TX 2011

Technology extends human reach to encompass the globe in milliseconds, minutes, or hours (depending whether your point of view extends to a packet of information; data received via satellite; or a corporeal travel via aircraft). Now, we see and know more than ever before, yet exercise denial or become transfixed with horrible fascination as horror spills from the orifices of our information age machines. We freeze up and deny proven science-supported truth when it fails to fit our personal or cultural perspectives. Technology affords us greater power to share information than ever before–with real-time awareness of ongoing glory and tragedy–yet it also affords us the capacity to wreak irreparable havoc on a scale and at velocities never before witnessed. If our intellectual capacity to recognize and face truth does not catch up with our ability to alter it, to alter our natural world and our place in the ecosystem, then we face peril on a scale equivalent to our ignorance and apathy. Never before have we had the capacity to destroy so much, so fast, and with such pervasive permanence. When he saw the atomic bomb detonated, Robert Oppenheimer, one of the scientist who created it quoted the Bhagavad Gita, “I am become death, destroyer of worlds.” With the technology we wield, either personally or via proxies, the term applies to all of us.

In her way, Hatry exposes the fragility of our filtered perception. What we see does not always conform with what we think. Leonardo da Vinci had the same progressive thought back in the late 15th century. Alastair Sooke, in a story in The Telegraph describing a show of da Vinci’s anatomy drawings, “Leonardo da Vinci: Anatomy of an artist,” recounts that when he witnessed the death of a 100-year-old man, da Vinci wrote, “without any movement or sign of any mishap, he passed from this life. And I dissected him to see the cause of so sweet a death.” The article goes on to mention, according to librarian Martin Clayton at the Royal Library at Windsor Castle who curated the drawings in the show, that contrary to popular belief, dissection of humans was not proscribed by the church:

“There was an explosion in investigative anatomy at the end of the 15th century, and as long as it was done in a respectful way, and the bits were buried together afterwards, then the Church had no problem with it at all.”

Art and science merge or form alliances on occasion, especially when savvy artists point out the absurdity of our social customs in the face of irrefutable evidence dropped on our doorsteps by science. Da Vinci pursued science all his life and almost to the exclusion of art toward the end of his life, and his efforts helped put western civilization on the path toward the Age of Enlightenment, a time when, they hoped, reason would trump dogma and blind faith. (It didn’t work out that way, but hope spring eternal.)

With her work using animal entrails, Hatry takes on a similar role here, the application of art to correct, or at least reveal the shortcomings of our 21st global collective society. She forces us to see what we otherwise, through conscious and unconscious denial, would not see. To her credit, she presents her case without preachy diatribes and offers no solution. She simply asks us to look.

Spisulae solidissimae, cilia cervorum, oesophagus capreae, Cervi, Dallas, TX 2011

Spisulae solidissimae, cilia cervorum, oesophagus capreae, Cervi, Dallas, TX 2011

So far, so good. Unfortunately, while she refers to her art as Neo-Conceptualist, a movement that includes such notables as Damien Hirst and Tracy Emin, her work will likely be construed by some critics as sensationalist Shock Art. Such observations might be made in a non-pejorative way, but these days often they are not. This amounts to killing the messenger, and falls within a greater tendency we have to diminish those who criticize our lifestyles, or the means to that end, with questions that malign the motives of the critic. We view such artists as threats and mischaracterize their work so as to dismiss them as shrill malcontents, much as we did so-called “Communist sympathizers” back in the 1950’s. Except now we use an even broader brush to paint our bogeymen black: we call them hippies, or anarchists, or… heaven forefend… contemporary artists.

Hatry presents herself as neither shrill, nor malcontented. She asks us to see the world as it is, and she does it quietly with images that offer beauty, or at least intrigue us with hideous contradiction (as is especially the case with her previous series, “Head and Tails” and “SKIN.”) It is not the images that repel us, but the knowledge of what they represent. When we gain that knowledge, when we become clued-in, we confront what we assume are primal taboos. Yet social taboos persist not because they protect us–simple fact-based scientific evidence would do that better–but because we are afraid to confront and question taboos. Or, too lazy to confront and question them. That’s where art comes in, it makes a fetching first impression, we drop our guard at the sight of it, and then it reveals truth. Beauty is the sugar that coats bitter truth.

from Hatry's series, "Heads & Tails" with pigskin

from Hatry’s series, “Heads & Tails” with pigskin

Yet beauty remains subjective, and to be sure, not all of the images in “Not A Rose” meet conventional standards for such. But all of them compel you to look, and to look close. The faux Latin nomenclature attached to these images to give the imposter flowers names will provoke consternation and amusement as you puzzle out the source material for the strange things on the menu. As you gaze and think deeper, you will no doubt be struck by the consummate craft Hatry cultivated to execute these works. She works with dead animal tissue–rotting meat–so she must work quickly. And meat is not plastic like paint or clay; if you cut wrong, you start over. The work demands a fertile imagination: what flower do you see in a pile of organs? These works are not merely found objects or the self-congratulatory tossing around of media accompanied by insistence that it is art because the artist says it is. The photos of her creations, masterfully shot, can and do attract buyers who hang them on walls. Her books offer a multi-disciplined and philosophical view of Hatry’s work well worth the read. The shock may wear off, but the attraction will not. And that, in this writer’s opinion, forms the essence of good art: persistent attraction.

Becci gallinarum inferiores, fibrae pinnarum ceti, Hong Kong, China 2011

Becci gallinarum inferiores, fibrae pinnarum ceti, Hong Kong, China 2011

Hatry does on occasion project the air of the ambitious self-promoter. But if one does not promote one’s self, then who else will do it. Art in the age of the Internet requires it as an antidote to anonymity. If artists do not continuously talk their own book, regardless of how good or bad others think the art is, they drift into obscurity and self-loathing. She produces books of essays by disinterested commentators, and organizes panel discussions populated by some who seek to eviscerate her. Self-promotion is not the same as self-inflation. Hatry shows up, does real work, and shares the stage with other artists. So, you can view Hatry’s choice of meat as medium as an attention getting scheme, but if you do then praise her for her courage. She is not the first to make art from meat, in fact, Hatry curated a show of artists doing similar things: Meat After Meat Joy (Daneyal Mahmood Gallery, 2008). Many got in on the act much earlier, as this survey of MoMA indicates: search “Meat.”

Meat occupies a strange and under-analyzed place in our consciousness. Meat eaters often view vegetarians with contempt, almost as heretics, especially if they criticize the wasteful, destructive, and cruel practices of factory farming. Let no one illuminate the veiled source of our sustenance, they seem to say, as though it were sacrosanct. And our mouths do come equipped with sharp incisors, whether vestigial or not.

So spare the messenger. Be not afraid. Stand up straight and look into the maelstroms of horror we humans create. Go where the wild things are and maybe we will begin to get things right in this world instead of horribly and forever wrong.

 

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September 30, 2014

Elene Usdin–Awake While I Am Dreaming

by Jim Welke

Elene Usdin–Awake While I Am Dreaming

The Museum of New Art brings the work of a new photographer to Detroit, Elene Usdin–denizen of the Paris Rive Gauche and 15th Arrondissement. Her photos will be up through 25-October at the MONA Photography and New Media annex in Troy, Michigan.

Elene Usdin--Awake While I Am Dreaming

Elene Usdin–Awake While I Am Dreaming
Museum of New Art Photography & New Media

 

Usdin began to practice photography only eleven years ago, yet her efforts yield prodigious output.

Most of her work, and nearly all of the photos in the MONA exhibit consist of portraits: self, group, and otherwise. While Usdin’s portraits of others demonstrate a keen eye for color, composition, and lighting, as well as personality, her self-portraits press hardest on the viewer’s psyche.

Portraits challenge a photographer in way that goes beyond color, composition, and lighting. In addition to those readily manageable demands of image creation, the photographic portraitist deals with a volatile primary subject as well. Just as the landscape photographer (or painter for that matter) reacts to and adjusts for ever-changing light and shadow, the portraitist must deal with the ever-changing visage of their subject. And unlike passing sunshine, clouds, and shadow, human subjects bring instantaneous mood changes and morphing attitudes.

Unless the portrait subject is fleeting–as in street photography like that shot by Cartier-Bresson, Doisneau, or Robert Frank–the expression on the subject’s face becomes a plastic element of composition; unconscious body language does too. But a posed subject yields to mood and fatigue and will not maintain the desired countenance and position indefinitely. One wrong word spoken by the photographer, one gesture too many insisted on, and the subject will turn rigid and non-compliant, if not outright hostile. In that case, the photographer might end up with an image more like a mug shot than a personality-steeped representation of a singular human.

 

Elene Usdin--Awake While I Am Dreaming

Elene Usdin–Awake While I Am Dreaming
Museum of New Art Photography & New Media

Elene Usdin--Awake While I Am Dreaming

Elene Usdin–Awake While I Am Dreaming
Museum of New Art Photography & New Media

 

These are the perils of portraiture. The rewards undoubtedly justify the risk. Humans remain social animals to the last. As such, we gravitate toward others, even others who inhabit pictures. And we remember photos populated with humans more distinctly than we remember images packed with buildings, trees, animals, etc. Probably the most memorable photos capture victims trapped in the cauldron of war. Images of anguish provoke reactions in the empathetic nearly as intense, unforgettable, and scarring as the event itself might. Perhaps more so: in the real-time shock of the event such an avalanche of input engages our senses that subtle details get lost, leaving imprinted a simple blur of horror.

Portraits attract universal interest and touch us at visceral level. Elene Usdin’s images, with their dramatic affectations, amplify the inherent archetypal attraction of the portrait. Many, if not the majority of Usdin’s images are self-portraits, but she often adds a magical twist to these shots with the addition of masks. She also uses props out of context: an ironic lampshade on her head, her nude body sandwiched between two tattered mattresses; wearing a crocheted strap-on dildo; lying on her back across a series of coin-operated washing machines.

The masks obviate the need for a prescribed expression–or no expression–and supply instead the intensity of a fabricated and exaggerated projection of emotion: the garish scowl of a red-faced demon, for example. These potent distortions of the human form inject added visual piquancy to the deliberate repetition of a series of self-portraits shown in the MONA exhibition, but they also cut through the ambiguity of a natural human expression–you don’t wonder what a scowling demon thinks, you simply register the unambiguous radiated malevolence that the demon symbolizes.

 

Elene Usdin--Awake While I Am Dreaming

Elene Usdin–Awake While I Am Dreaming
Museum of New Art Photography & New Media

Elene Usdin--Awake While I Am Dreaming

Elene Usdin–Awake While I Am Dreaming
Museum of New Art Photography & New Media

 

On the other hand, there is a magical component in a portrait complemented by a mask similar to the effects of magical realism in literature. The mask elevates the scene from the realm of the banal. In Usdin’s work, the effect is less surreal than theatrical. The props, rather than embed the subject in an otherworldly realm, instead alienate the subject within their own realm–and ours. This detachment of the subject in relief from their recognizable context forces the viewer to consciously scrutinize them more intensely as they would a single word uttered in absence of context.

While the masks distill the emotional subtext of her portraits into a potent elixir with an unmistakable flavor, she and her subjects gravitationally alter their surroundings too, pushing them out of the ordinary, imbuing them with import like elements of theatrical stage sets. This is not an impromptu effect. Usdin designs her scenes much as a stage designer might: she works out the details with notes and sketches. When the time comes to shoot, she leaves little to chance. From facial expression to furnishings, she is the deus ex machina, and her efforts pay off with diminished ambiguity and clutter; like an optical shout, her images grab hold of your imagination in a jarring instant.

 

Elene Usdin--Awake While I Am Dreaming

Elene Usdin–Awake While I Am Dreaming
Museum of New Art Photography & New Media

 

Elene Usdin--Awake While I Am Dreaming

Elene Usdin–Awake While I Am Dreaming
Museum of New Art Photography & New Media

 

Her photos appear to tackle serious topics: isolation; fear; purposelessness; our prescribed, and proscribed, roles in society; feminism. Not every image carries the burden of dourness, though. On the contrary, many of Usdin’s works expose the playful, whimsical facets of her artistic persona.

The risk of such carefully orchestrated theatrical imagery is that the pictures sometimes feel aloof just as a stage play can deftly address universal human struggles while at the same time feel distant from personal predicament. Eliciting an empathetic response might be a tough thing for art to achieve, but when achieved it propels art out of the closet of academic exercise and into the daylight of broad accessibility; it extends an ineffable force on the human mind like a magnet on iron filings. Usdin’s work does not always achieve this transcendent state, but often does. Her journey continues with promise.

 

Please have a look at our site, artifizz.org, and check out our other reviews.

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Elene Usdin--Awake While I Am Dreaming

Elene Usdin–Awake While I Am Dreaming
Museum of New Art Photography & New Media

 

Elene Usdin--Awake While I Am Dreaming

Elene Usdin–Awake While I Am Dreaming
Museum of New Art Photography & New Media

Elene Usdin--Awake While I Am Dreaming

Elene Usdin–Awake While I Am Dreaming
Museum of New Art Photography & New Media

Elene Usdin--Awake While I Am Dreaming

Elene Usdin–Awake While I Am Dreaming
Museum of New Art Photography & New Media

Elene Usdin--Awake While I Am Dreaming

Elene Usdin–Awake While I Am Dreaming
Museum of New Art Photography & New Media

 

Elene Usdin--Awake While I Am Dreaming

Elene Usdin–Awake While I Am Dreaming
Museum of New Art Photography & New Media

Elene Usdin--Awake While I Am Dreaming

Elene Usdin–Awake While I Am Dreaming
Museum of New Art Photography & New Media

 

Elene Usdin--Awake While I Am Dreaming

Elene Usdin–Awake While I Am Dreaming
Museum of New Art Photography & New Media

Elene Usdin--Awake While I Am Dreaming

Elene Usdin–Awake While I Am Dreaming
Museum of New Art Photography & New Media

September 4, 2014

Gao Brothers DISSIDENTS ABROAD at Detroit MONA

By Jim Welke

Gao Brothers DISSIDENTS ABROAD at Detroit MONA
Opens: 13-September-2014
Reception with the artists: 6-10pm
Midtown MONA, Suite C
4130 Cass Avenue Detroit MI 48201

MONA FUNDRAISER, Friday, September 12
Meet the Artists @ Fundraising Reception: 6-9pm
$50 Donation – Support MONA programming for the coming year… meet the Gao Brothers… with wine and hors d’oeuvres… and a  chance at a signed exhibition catalog.

 

For those of us who witnessed the Tiananmen Square protests of 1989 from a dozen time zones away–give or take–and with information incoming via the fledgling cable news service, CNN, the scenes at hand compelled interest and enervated at the same time. Beginning in April 1989, the events un-spooled in slow motion, with commercial interruptions and misinformation forwarded and corrected as reporters fed us raw data followed up by fact checking. At first, the motivation for the mass protests at the heart of the Chinese power center eluded reporters, and with facts out of reach, they offered on-air speculation–a new concept suggestive of Hunter S. Thompson’s Gonzo Journalism. Reporters lived the story they reported; myopia and biases induced by the flow of real-time impressions colored it. Such coverage violated every code of broadcast journalism nurtured by guys like Edward R Murrow, Walter Cronkite, and during the Tiananmen Uprising, Bernard Shaw at CNN. Tiananmen revealed not only the depth of opposition to oppression by the Chinese government, but revealed too the fallibility of that government; that any government could be shaken off balance. According to a story on CNN’s site by Mike Chinoy, the Beijing bureau chief at the time, “How covering June 4 Tiananmen Square crackdown kicked off ‘CNN Effect’,” the students and activists in Beijing tore away the veil of diplomatic subterfuge that once sheltered every government from direct exposure to daylight:

The protests generated unparalleled international coverage, and became a defining moment in the Information Age. It was the first time a popular uprising in an authoritarian state was broadcast live across the globe.

According to Bernard Shaw, who anchored CNN’s live round-the-clock coverage from Beijing for much of the crisis: “You could say that that was the beginning of the ‘CNN effect’” — the idea, which became widespread after Tiananmen Square, that the immediacy of live TV news available 24 hours a day played a crucial role in influencing the behavior of key players during major crises.

Prior to the birth of the Tiananmen protest in April 1989, and its sudden demise at the hands of troops on 4 June, the Gao Brothers, Zhen and Qiang, born 1956 and 1962, began their ongoing critique of government-induced social injustice with their debut in a group show at the National Art Museum of China (NAMOC) called “China/Avante-Garde.” The show opened on 5 February 1989 after “three months of intense preparation” and meticulous vetting by Communist Party apparatchiks. A wiki page on the ArtSpeakChina.org site describes it:

The historical import of the event, clearly perceived by the participants, did not just derive from the nature of the works on display but also from the association of such extreme art with that museum. The China Art Gallery–a Sinified socialist-style building managed by the Chinese Artists Association and, at the time, only a few steps from the Ministry of Culture–functions as China’s national museum of modern art. For the first time ever, authorities were allowing a prominent exhibition that openly broke with the fundamental principles of artistic creation laid down since the beginning of the People’s Republic.

The exhibition assembled many of the artists who had been a significant driving force behind art in China since 1985. By allowing the artists and their works to cross the threshold of the most important official art hall in the country, the exhibition conferred on these artists a kind of officialdom. The show’s alternate title, “No U-Turn” was reflected by the “No U-Turn” traffic signs hung as banners and emblazoned on floor mats.

 

85 movement-uturn

 photo: artzinechina.com

Three hours after “No U-Turn” (as the artists called it) opened, government bureaucrats shut it down. And then it re-opened. And then it was shut down again. And re-opened. And shut down.

Needless to say, the conversation between party functionaries and bilious, long-stifled artists percolates with vigorous intensity at times. But the show marked the culmination of the “85 New Wave Movement” and offered an alternative to the ubiquitous Social Realism fostered and infused with propaganda by the Communist Party. According to ArtSpeakChina.org:

Between 1985 and 1990, a group of over one thousand young Chinese artists living in an environment without galleries, museums, or any systematic support for art and with unprecedented enthusiasm and passion, led a globally influential artistic movement. It marked the end of a monolithic artistic model in China, achieving unprecedented individualism and opening a path for Chinese art to march toward internationalization and contemporaneity.

Most groups from the urban areas were in favour of a conceptual approach, regardless of the kind of media employed. The two major conceptual approaches adopted were Rationalistic Painting, represented by the artworks and writings of the Northern Artists Group from Harbin, the Red Brigade from Nanjing, and the Pond Society from Hangzhou; and the Zen-Dada-like conceptual art, epitomized by the Xiamen Dada Group from Fujian and the Red Humour from Hangzhou. On the contrary, art groups located in the northwest and southwest–areas still overwhelmingly based on traditional peasant lifestyle and home of most of the ethnic minorities–were interested in a frank expression of their intuitive feelings and favoured “primitive” themes. The term “currents of life” was used to define their approach. Among these groups, the most influential was the Southwest Art Research Group, consisting of artists mostly from Yunnan and Sichuan provinces.

Raised in Jinan in Shandong province, Zhen attended the Shandong Academy of Fine Arts. Qiang attended Qufu Normal University. Geographically the brothers originated near the midpoint between Hangzhou to the south and Beijing to the north, between the focal points of prevailing art philosophies. During their formative years perhaps their position at this fulcrum alleviated pressure on them to blend in with either end of the geographic and philosophical spectrum. Wherever their coordinates on the sketch of the Chinese art milieu, their debut in Beijing propelled their careers and further affixed these men in collaborative symbiosis. Now, they live and work in Beijing, with studios in the retired military industrial center, the 798 Art Zone, part of the larger Dashanzi Art District.

Their art suggests a worldly, outward sensibility as opposed to inward self-regard. Often they address social injustice. They seem troubled by the inevitable alienation that infects swarms of naïve migrants from small towns and farms to swelling urban metropolises in China and elsewhere. But their work also suggests a wry, ironic view of human existential angst and ennui. The gentle humor in their work often seems overlooked. Their work might be wisely circumspect, but witty all the same. They seem to say that laughter follows inevitable tears like moon and stars follow a thunderstorm.

The brothers also venture into the unknown with exploration of nearly every available medium. They turn out fiberglass and bronze sculpture with equally deft precision. Their reflective chrome sculptures pull the viewer in with self-made reflections, while bronze suggests solemnity and gravity. They do printing and photography. Their photographs often affix human forms in unforgiving, even merciless un-human surroundings. Their map of China comprised of clippings of a beehive populated with humans scaled to fit the cells of the honeycomb invites uncomfortable insights and comparisons. They paint. And they write books.

Frequently, the brothers bring nude human forms into their work. This challenges established law as well as established sensibilities. The nudes do not recline demurely. They drop into landscapes that would naturally proscribe nudity. Subjects find themselves naked in concrete clefts or cavernous halls or shoehorned into wooden compartments. These images shake us up; shatter our complacency. They force us to ponder our imponderable insignificance in a universe if not infinite in time and dimension, then close enough to provoke acute angst. And that’s our lot, our reason for being with our opposable thumbs, self-awareness, and free will: to create in the face of engulfing nothingness and laugh at the spectacle of it. The brothers do this.

Compare the spirit and philosophy that leads the Gao Brothers to such varied art-making to the spirit and philosophy of early adventurers who set out it in fragile sailing ships on journeys of discovery motivated by far more worthy goals than material gain: they sought knowledge, enlightenment, and the opportunity to change the world for the better. Usually none of those things resulted, but the inspiration the rest of us derive from these efforts are reward and justification enough for at least tempered admiration. The difference is that artists set out on adventures that generally do no permanent damage like that done by men in sailing ships. Admiration for artists need not be tempered by guilt. They toss gifts at our feet. How we profit from art is up to us.

GaoBrothers--Midnight Mass

Midnight Mass, 1989

(from debut group show, China/Avante-Garde)

photo: artworldnow.com

Gao-Brothers-Road-to-Dawn-n°1-2001-93x150cm-ed.5-sur-10

Gao Brothers, Road to Dawn n°1, 2001, 93x150cm, ed.5 of 10

photo: Galerie Albert Benamou

Gao-Brothers-Beyond-Zebra-Crassing-2000-83x100-5-sur-10

Gao Brothers, Beyond Zebra Crassing, 2000, 83×100, ed.5 of 10

photo: Galerie Albert Benamou

GaoBrothers_Ghost-Image-The-Raft-of-the-Medusa-Tiananmen-Square-Protests-of-1989.-oil-on-canvas.-300x400cm-560x420

Ghost Image – The Raft of the Medusa & Tiananmen Square Protests of 1989. Oil on canvas, 300x400cm, 2011

photo: guernicamag.com

For a while, the brothers embraced Mao Zedong as muse. Their father died while briefly detained by Mao’s party apparatus during the Cultural Revolution. Undoubtedly this, along with the awareness that millions of others suffered similar humiliation, torture, impoverishment, and death at the hands of double-speaking minions of Mao Zedong affected their worldview. Art offered the Gao Brothers an eloquent voice; a means to comment, even criticize, while maintaining plausible deniability–as American government fixers call it–of outright dissent. Their images and sculptures of Mao depict him either in maudlin caricature, or straight on in compromising positions. In either case, the figures speak of a fragile man with an iron will who saw the world in only two shades, and fellow citizens as either acolyte or enemy. They imply a warning of caution when choosing leaders since no matter their charisma, they remain troubled humans subject to petty human appetites.

GaoBrothers--Miss-Mao-No.2--570x420

Miss Mao No.2. Painted fiberglass sculpture, 210x128x125cm, 2006

photo: guernicamag.com

GaoBrothers--The-Execution-of-Christ-.2009-594x420

The Execution of Christ. Bronze sculpture, life-size, 2009

photo: guernicamag.com

The “Execution of Christ,” in bronze, a departure from previous fiberglass, was originally intended to feature Lin Zhao (b.1932-d.1968), a persistent and persecuted Chinese activist who converted to Christianity and was later executed after repeated refusals to disavow her dissent. The Gao Brothers chose instead to portray Christ. They did so to make the sculpture more accessible, or as they put it in an interview (http://kcur.org/post/interview-artists-gao-brothers-part-2), “If we used Lin Zhao, people would be more puzzled, and the work would require more explanation.” This implies a certain savvy, not necessarily commercial, but an awareness of their audience both in China and over the border China. The sculpture also reveals the brothers’ art historical roots: the poses closely parallel Edouard Manet’s “The Execution of Emperor Maximilian.” That painting depicts Maximilian, a puppet installed as emperor of Mexico by Napoleon III, as he is executed in 1867 by forces loyal to the deposed president who presided over an incipient democratic republic. In a way, the painting is the inverse of the Gao Brothers’ sculpture in that it depicts the meek taking control of the establishment, not the other way around. Similar to the single abstaining sergeant off to the side in Manet’s picture, one of the seven Mao figures in the sculpture installation holds his rifle in abeyance–he does not fire at Christ (yet nor does he prevent his other manifestations from firing).

Manet--800px-Edouard_Manet_022

The Execution of Emperor Maximilian, Edouard Manet, 1867-1869

Numerous exhibitions have honored the Gao Brothers since 1989, most recently at the Kemper Museum in Kansas City Missouri, and at the Hua Gallery in London. The Hua Gallery show presented new work by the brothers, almost exclusively photography. With one exception: a bit of their memorable performance art. The tradition of such performances began with a group embrace in their hometown of Jinan:

On 10th September 2000 we brought more than 150 volunteers, mostly strangers, to the suburbs of Jinan. Getting them to embrace was really difficult; in China, hugging is not a common habit, it is generally considered as a western custom or an intimate action between lovers.

At midnight in the square some policemen started to suspect us and came over to investigate, but we explained what we were doing and we invited them to get involved and eventually they took part in it. Fortunately they understood us clearly, in Beijing this would be unimaginable. It seems that regardless of one’s profession everybody can communicate with each other. As long as one does not consider himself a machine or a tool, art is open to people. …

Their performance work evokes the indisputable intention to shatter artificial boundaries, and evaporate the sense of alienation that plagues modern humans detached from former tight familial kinship and clans. The performances also appear to be fun, warm, enlightening moments for the participants. They literally embrace their audience, and become happenings in the truest sense. That’s a bonus of art we so often forget. It’s not all blood and guts. Sometimes art just wants to be happy. The brothers work hard to bring the happy along with enlightenment and we passive observers should be grateful–and less passive.

 

Read our interview with the Gao Brothers here.

Please have a look at our site, artifizz.org, and check out our other reviews.

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Gao Brothers Interview

By Jim Welke
Gao Brothers Interview: An interview via email with Beijing contemporary artists, the Gao Brothers in August 2014
Gao Brothers / Mao's Guilt

The Gao Brothers and Mao’s Guilt (2009)

Q: At what point did your interest in art develop? At what point did you commit yourselves to art-making as your primary life endeavor?
A: Our interest in art has developed since our boyhood. But we began to commit ourselves to art-making as our primary life endeavor when our students days were over.
Q: At art school, did you focus mainly on theory or craft? What were your primary media?
A: At art school, Gao Zhen focus mainly on craft,his primary media was ink and wash painting. Gao Qiang focused mainly on theory at university.
Q: Government policy aside, are artists honored and admired in China, or are they compelled to live on the margins of society? Is there a strong urban/rural divide between popular perceptions of artists?
A: Usually artists are honored and admired in China if they are successful, if they are not successful, they are compelled to live on the margins of society. There is not a strong urban/rural divide between popular perceptions of artists. but usually artists are urban.
Q: The government in your country appears to (to an outsider from a society oppressed by class divisions and despair) impose many constraints on the goals and aspirations of its citizens. If that is true, do you think those constraints might inspire more thoughtful, more expressive art with broader appeal than might be the case in less restricted but possibly more complacent and individualistic societies? A poet whose name I forget once said that the restrictions of writing in rhyme and meter force a more thoughtful and precise use of artistry. Could the pressures of a society have the same effect?
A: We don’t think those constraints might inspire more thoughtful, more expressive art with broader appeal.The government of Mao’s times in China imposed much more constraints on the goals and aspirations of its citizens,but those constraints never inspire more thoughtful, more expressive art, actually,those constraits killed any thoughtful and expressive art. We prefer a society with less pressures and restrictions.
Q: As political ideals in China become diluted by the inevitable materialism that follows consumerist aspirations, do you fear that people will forget past tragedies and let the spiritual aspects of their existence atrophy? Do you fear political apathy more than political oppression? Do you think art can be be the primary antidote for spiritual and political apathy?
A: Yes, it is terrible to forget past tragedies…  We think political apathy is from political oppression, it is as terrible as political oppression.  You can say art can be be the primary antidote for spiritual and political apathy.we agree.
Q: Do you think that the generation of artists that follow will continue to look outward for inspiration, as you seem to have done, or will they become more introspective, solipsistic, and selfish?
A: We are not sure. it depends on what an artist wants to do, to be.
Q: As your commercial success grows, do you worry that you may feel compelled to soften or blur the messages in your work to insure continued appeal amongst collectors? Are most of your collectors in China, or abroad? Have you ever encountered collectors who turn away from your art out of fear that they might be somehow punished for their support of you?
A: As our commercial success grows, we can do bigger work, we have never feel compelled to soften or blur the messages in our work to insure continued appeal amongst collectors. we seldom think of collectors when we are working on art. Most of our collectors are abroad. Many of our works are not able to be exhibited in China because of censorship. Many collectors and curators turn away from our art out of fear in China.
Q: Which do you think is worse, imprisonment for expression of your views, as might happen under a totalitarian regime, or the utter invisibility and obscurity talented artists and activists often find themselves condemned to in other societies? Is the disinterest in politically motivated art and activism that ensues as byproduct of materialism a more dangerous form of oppression (i.e. the bread and circuses of Rome)?
A: It is hard to say. all forms of oppression are absolutely terrible. If we say one of them is more terrible,it will make others seem less terrible.But actually they may be same terrible.
Q: You have said (http://kcur.org/post/interview-artists-gao-brothers-part-2) that you originally intended Lin Zhao, the political activist executed for her persistent pursuit of her goals to the point of writing in her own blood in prison, to be the subject of your “Execution of Christ.” You said, “If we used Lin Zhao, people would be more puzzled, and the work would require more explanation.” Did you mean Chinese people would be more puzzled, or people abroad? Did changing the subject to Christ also change the message, or simply broaden it? Do you often find yourself choosing subjects for your work that might be too obscure, and subsequently make changes to make the work more accessible?
A: When we said people would be more puzzled,we meaned all of people, Chinese people and people abroad. Considering Lin Zhao is a Christian, we think changing the subject to Christ didn’t change the message,but simply broaden it.
Actually,we don’t often find ourself choosing subjects for our work that might be too obscure, and subsequently make changes to make the work more accessible.
Q: In in interview for an IFA Gallery exhibition at Art Basel (http://www.ifa-gallery.com/exhibitions/artbaselhk13/interviews/gaobrothers.html), you said, “If a a system is bereft of a legitimate foundation, and is marred by countless misdeeds, it doesn’t matter if the system dreams of Communism, or Reform, or anything else, it can only become a nightmare of the people. …the artist has a responsibility to express it, dream or nightmare.” This could apply to many political systems around the globe. Do you think art is the best hope everywhere for replacing dishonest political systems with more fair systems? Or are violent revolutions inevitable in some places?
A: We don’t know if art is the best hope…  We believe revolutions are inevitable in some places, but revolutions don’t have to be violent. We prefer the Colour Revolutions.
Q: As you grow older, do you ever find that cynicism battles your better angel idealism and wins? What do you do to preserve a hopeful tone, or at least avoid a despairing tone in your work?
A: Cynicism has been battling our better angel idealism, but seldom wins. We don’t try to preserve a hopeful tone, or avoid a despairing tone in our work. We just try to be honest, follow our heart to be ourselves.
Q: Do you brothers ever argue to the point of turning your backs on one another for a time, or do you remain consistently warm, even empathetic, to one another? Has either one of you ever destroyed one of your works of art?
A: We never argue to the point of turning our backs on one another. Yes,we remain consistently warm and empathetic to one another. Neither of us ever destroyed one of our works of art.

Catch the Gao Brothers in Detroit, and visit their exhibition:

Gao Brothers DISSIDENTS ABROAD at Detroit MONA
Opens: 13-September-2014
Reception with the artists: 6-10pm
Midtown MONA, Suite C
4130 Cass Avenue Detroit MI 48201

MONA FUNDRAISER, Friday, September 12
Meet the Artists @ Fundraising Reception: 6-9pm
$50 Donation – Support MONA programming for the coming year… meet the Gao Brothers… with wine and hors d’oeuvres… and a  chance at a signed exhibition catalog.

 

Please have a look at our site, artifizz.org, and check out our other reviews.

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March 4, 2014

‘Do The Yale Thing’ at N’Namdi Center for Contemporary Art Detroit

by Jim Welke

IMG_4916

Do The Yale Thing: An Exhibition of Exceptional Artwork by Recent Yale MFA Graduates, Curated by Dexter Wimberly, at N’Namdi Center for Contemporary Art, Detroit

Do The Yale Thing shows the work of eighteen artists with one thing in common: they did “the Yale thing.” That is, they managed — with no shortage of blood, sweat, and tears — to be accepted and ultimately graduated from the famed Master of Fine Arts program at Yale in New Haven Connecticut.

Dexter Wimberly curated the group show to offer an engaging mix of art where the whole exceeds the sum of the parts — no small feat when you consider the deep pool of artists and work he drew from. Narrowing the selection to these eighteen artists with about forty works in the show surely did not come without a struggle. The art he chose rambles through an eclectic range of topics and styles that manage to find among themselves something to talk about, a reflection of disparate life experience, but glued together by, if not common, then parallel perceptions of the world. These artists, it seems, felt the same forces emanating from the zeitgeist, yet produced widely divergent commentary on it through their artwork. Through this divergence and the bright contrasts of individuality it engenders you appreciate more what each artist achieves as they bend to common external forces yet snap back with a unique expression of those forces. You leave the room feeling the effects of a singular, cohesive experience like it were a voyage through a strange land that turns out in the end to be your own land seen through new eyes.

Caroline Wells Chandler

Bear Culture (top), Power Lines (bottom) / hand-crocheted assorted wool, polyfil / 2012-2013 / Caroline Wells Chandler

Bear Culture  and Power Lines might be the first works you encounter. Crocheted sculptures from Caroline Wells Chandler, they recline on the floor and against the wall in two clusters. A stack long of tubes with dendritic fingers at one end comprises Power Lines. Beyond, a group of crocheted bears recline against the wall. You notice some of the bears have “tubes with dendritic fingers” for legs, If we associate the works, do we witness a stylized act of violence? The crocheted bears embody sweetness and light: they smile and clutch one another. Yet those same bears might have assembled this heap of limbs nearby; the aftermath of a savage massacre. Bear culture, perhaps, shares aspects of our own. Or, not. You need to contemplate this scenario for yourself–therein lies the fun.

Lucia Hierro

YOLO: In Memoriam / digital on jacquard tricot fabric, felt, industrial felt / Lucia Hierro

YOLO: In Memoriam, by Lucia Hierro, offers a quirky but arresting assemblage of objects, imagery, and text that evidently pay homage to the expression “you only live once” — the meaning of the acronym in the title. The centerpiece, a page from a New Yorker short story with selected words highlighted, presents in first person a description of the exploration of another woman’s apartment while the narrator suffers existential angst and regret for her “unlived” life. A cartoon captioned with the eponymous acronym “YOLO” presents the grim reaper knocking at an old man’s door. The artist pinned this page to a felt backing decorated on top with felt flowers, and on the bottom by a felt mockup of a Yankees cap — like a memorial to the dead. Despite the narrative elements, the work remains cryptic and unresolved, pressing us to embrace mystery and get on with life. YOLO.

Micah Ganske

Bethlehem Steel: The Yard / acrylic on muslin / Micah Ganske

Micah Ganske offers three paintings with outsized shadows looming across each. Somehow these shadows — of airplanes in one, the others less clearly defined — produce an ominous effect on these otherwise benign pictures of landscapes seen from above. One, a steel mill (Bethlehem Steel: The Yard), almost seems to celebrate its huffing monstrous achievement, except for that shadow that weighs on the celebration.

Mario Moore

Herstory / oil on copper / 2013 / Mario Moore

Three portraits by Mario Moore project moody introspection. Herstory he painted on copper, and used the metallic sheen to form a glowing frame for his subject, integrated into the room painted behind her. You might think that effect would feel forced, but somehow the artist lets the copper melt into the scene as though a perfectly natural component of a room. Another portrait comes set behind a translucent screen with clear text like bars, “I REALLY DO LIKE COPS I THINK THEY DO A GREAT JOB TEACHING ME HOW TO POLICE MYSELF” — a riff on the police state we find ourselves in, and the especially profound implications a police state has for black men.

Amy Rinaldi

Untitled #3 / rubber, wood, concrete, enamel, acrylic, plastic on panel / 2013 / Amy Rinaldi

Amy Rinaldi’s four wall sculptures with their raw, glossy, rumpled surfaces dare you to react with distaste, but before you know it you move closer and dig in to their varied forms and textures. You find yourself charmed by these warped and stretched rubbery sheets that suggest something precious within.

Thomas Gardiner

Untitled #1 / photo print on paper / Thomas Gardiner

Thomas Gardiner shows three large prints of photographs, each a portrait of decisively different circumstances, but each leaves you wondering how much he staged, and how much he chanced upon. Untitled #1 shows a young black man in a rundown neighborhood poised either to flee or dance. His neutral expression reveals little of his intention, but through sharp focus of the subject, magical lighting, and limited depth of field, the man seems to project from the surface of the image as though animated by the tension contained therein.

Nicole Maloof

The Woods / oil on canvas / 2013 / Nicole Maloof

Nicole Maloof’s three paintings make good use of lighting and feathery brush strokes to produce snapshot like imagery of unforeseen moments. One of her portraits, The Woods, seems at first lighthearted, but the radiant glow of sunlight behind the nude figure, and the figure’s slightly averted face, imbues the picture with a reverent, contemplative aura that grips you unexpectedly.

Gabriela Collins-Fernandez

YOU BOO / oil and glitter on crushed velvet and plastic / Gabriela Collins-Fernandez

Gabriela Collins-Fernandez shows two abstract paintings, each overlaid with assertive text, the third a mixed-media work titled YOU BOO — the letters of which peer out through a gap in some noisy orange crushed velvet. The effect feels playful, but also like an un-deciphered artifact.

Sol Sax

Masqueraders Are The Ancestors of Protestors, The Exclamation Print: From the Dog On Protestor series / digital print / 2013 / Sol Sax

Sol Sax shows a tall, composite photograph, Masqueraders Are The Ancestors of Protestors, The Exclamation Print: From the Dog On Protestor series. The image shows a cop setting a dog on a masquerader in a parade — this suggests the establishment attacking and oppressing “the other” as we so famously have and do in the United States to woeful effect.

Mark Thomas Gibson

Gluttony / acrylic, glitter, ink on paper / Mark Thomas Gibson

Mark Thomas Gibson’s Gluttony presents a mad collage assemblage of toothy maws dripping with purplish slop and spattered with bluish detritus. A funhouse feeling pervades this work, yet the message in the mayhem condemns with unsettling certainty our tendency toward boundless excess.

Rushern Baker IV

Indented Figure / mixed-media on canvas / 2013 / Rushern Baker IV

Rushern Baker IV offers three abstract works, one of which, Indented Figure implies a man merging with his background, sublimated into a hollow schematic of the original being. Seeing this, you can not help thinking of those ghostly profiles left on walls in Hiroshima.

Pao Houa Her

Mom shirtless in bedroom (Desire series) / digital inkjet print / 2012 / Pao Houa Her

Pao Houa Her’s three intimate photographic portraits from her Desire series dispense with flattery. Instead, Lucian Freud like, they invite a cringe; almost urge you to avert your eyes. But from either curiosity or schadenfreude, you stick with these images until you’ve knocked around in their complexity long enough to feel at home in the world therein; a world that offers comfort to the imperfect.

Kenny Rivero

Lady Dancing / oil, acrylic, enamel on canvas / 2012 / Kenny Rivero

The paintings of Kenny Rivero feel reductive, defined as much by what he leaves out as what he includes. But the pictures do not lack for visual interest. While The Water By My House feels vibrant, even (forgive the term) splashy, Lady Dancing induces a sense of stylistic vertigo with a faceless figure as the main subject. Your brain searches to resolve detail that will never appear, but the exercise feels refreshing.

Richard Lewis

Tracy Wearing A Hat / oil on canvas / 2011 / Richard Lewis

Richard Lewis brings two thoughtful portraits. Both present the subject straight on with seemingly objective clarity, but both — like good portraits do — induce an ineffable flash of emotion. Tracy Wearing A Hat, although diminutive, forces its way off the canvas and into your consciousness before you have time to react and get your defenses up.

Doron Langberg

Three Lovers / oil on linen / 2013 / Doron Langberg

Doron Langberg’s work feels ghostly. Figures distort and blend with their background, as though seen through a murky state of consciousness. Three Lovers might be the most extreme example of that deliberate haziness. Glance at the painting and you pick out a figure, but then you see that the shape represents a hole in layered canvas, a void. The effect plays with the contradiction between what you desire to see — three lovers — versus what you do see.

Wayde McIntosh

Hold / oil on canvas / 2012 / Wayde McIntosh

Wayde McIntosh shows three evocative portraits, two of which show a man’s face pressed against glass; violently one assumes. In the third a woman reclines inverted and half off a sofa, her head just touching the floor, feet up on cushions. Wrapped in a red sheet, she appears like an inverted classical Greek statue. In all of these, the state of the subject feels ambiguous: are they alive or dead?

Endia Beal

Ellen / pigment print / 2013 / Endia Beal

Endia Beal’s two photographic portraits feel — in this show — like two forgotten relatives. The pictures each show a precisely dressed and coiffed woman. They wear nearly identical clothes, and their hair follows similar patterns. They look directly at the viewer with mildly amused expressions. They seem like women that inhabit a rigid social structure with conservative restrictions on behavior — sort of what you might imagine for the British aristocracy, but applies equally (or did once) to the upper east side of Manhattan and other east coast bastions of affluence. These women project authority, and you might find yourself standing a bit straighter in front of them despite your will to the contrary.

video installation, Philip Seymour Hoffman clips

Same Voices, Different Rooms / video installation / Tommy Kha

Same Voices, Different Rooms by Tommy Kha occupies one wall (about eight feet wide, the title is a play on a Truman Capote book title). A video projected in a continuous loop shows Philip Seymour Hoffman in various scenes from the movie Capote (possibly other films too?). The scenes feel detached, as though hijacked from the feature film and waiting to go back where they belong. But like video anywhere, you feel yourself pulled toward the lively tension in this one, with Mr. Hoffman intoning in that squeaky, abrasive voice. The effect of the video seems to be to leave the viewer feeling as detached as the scenes, disengaged from the real world. The real world of the gallery, that is. The work picks up added poignancy after Mr. Hoffman’s sudden premature death.

Do The Yale Thing runs through 21-March-2014 — you would do well not to miss it. George N’Namdi brings exhibitions to his gallery with a precise eye toward Detroit sensibilities both past and present. His artists capture the zeitgeist and creative essence of Detroit with rare refinement. Visit N’Namdi Center for Contemporary Art often. You won’t be disappointed.

Worth a review in its own right was a show up during this writer’s visit of work by local high school students from a contest sponsored by Detroit-area McDonald’s owners called Black History Moments on Canvas. The show ran through Black History month. You can see the work here: BLACKMOMENTSONCANVAS.COM

Please have a look at our site, artifizz.org, and check out our other reviews.

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February 26, 2014

Lighting Fires at 555 Gallery and Studios in Detroit

by Jim Welke

Stefan Johnson

mural by Stefan Johnson

Lighting Fires at 555 Gallery and Studios in Detroit (2801 W Vernor Highway), an exhibition of work by First Nations artists Mike Bollerud (Blackfoot/Crow), Alexis Cahill (Odawa), and Candi Wesaw (Potawatomi) runs thru 1-March-2014. The show appears in collaboration with the Michigan Native Arts Collective.

The show description includes a cautionary note from the Prophecy of the Seven Fires related by Edward Benton-Banai, Grand Chief, Three Fires Midewiwin Lodge. It describes a series of “fires” that imply stages of enlightenment or awareness. With the seventh fire comes a big choice:

“… The seventh prophet that came to the people long ago was said to be different from the other prophets. He was young and had a strange light in his eyes. He said, “In the time of the Seventh Fire a Osh-ki-bi-ma-di-zeeg’ (New People) will emerge.  They will retrace their steps to find what was left by the trail. Their steps will take them to the elders who will have fallen asleep. They will awaken to this new time with nothing to offer. Some of the elders will be silent out of fear. Some of the elders will be silent because no one will ask anything of them. The New People will have to be careful in how they approach the elders. The task of the New People will not be easy. If the New People remain strong in their quest, the Waterdrum of the Midewiwin Lodge will again sound its voice. There will be a rebirth of the Anishinaabe Nation and a rekindling of old flames. The Sacred Fire will again be lit.

“It is at this time that the Light-Skinned Race will be given a choice between two roads. If they choose the right road, then the Seventh Fire will light the Eighth and Final Fire – an eternal Fire of peace, love, brotherhood and sisterhood. If the Light-Skinned Race makes the wrong choice of roads, then destruction which they brought with them in coming to this country will come back to them and cause much suffering and death to all the Earth’s people. …”

“If we natural people of the Earth could just wear the face of brotherhood, we might be able to deliver our society from the road to destruction.  Could we make the two roads that today represent two clashing world views come together to form that mighty nation?  Could a nation be formed that is guided by respect for all living things?”

Are we the New People of the Seventh Fire? (read more…)

Candi Wesaw

Ngotwatso Shkote / oil / 2014 / Candi Wesaw

A series of oil paintings painted this year by Candi Wesaw illustrate the above prophecy with warm, sunlight luminous images. These images, as a cohesive narrative, draw the viewer in. When you get close, two or three fill your field of view and they resolve like stills from a film. A sad film: sad for environmental and social injustice wrought by modern civilization. But the script need not end in tears. The notes that accompany the paintings state, “If enough people (of all colors and faiths) turn from materialism and choose the path of respect, wisdom, and spirituality, environmental and social catastrophes can be avoided.” Not empty rhetoric considering we find ourselves in the midst of the Sixth Mass Extinction, similar in scope to previous extinctions like the one that eradicated dinosaurs and nearly every other land creature. An asteroid induced that one; humans induced this one. More than 50% of species will likely be extinguished through our apparent indifference. The message here seems worth heeding, and it comes from a group that did a pretty good job as stewards of their resources for about twenty thousand years before Caucasians, capitalism, and a raft of infectious disease (think smallpox) hit the shores.

Candi Wesaw

Nish Shkote / oil / 2014 / Candi Wesaw

Candi Wesaw

Nyannen Shkote / oil / 2014 / Candi Wesaw

Alexis “Toast” Cahill

Enlightenment / photograph / 2014 / Alexis “Toast” Cahill

Alexis “Toast” Cahill offers a series of photographs all showing mushrooms. These pictures, after feeling a touch of melancholy induced by Ms. Wesaw’s work, bring a gentle antidote. (The reproductions shown here will not do them justice.) The titles include Enlightenment, Wisdom, and Acceptance. These fungi, in all their convoluted fragility and basset hound loveliness seem to represent metaphors for better-balanced, quieter states of mind. But they dovetail with Ms. Wesaw’s message, too. Mushrooms are delicate and fleeting, but vital members of the ecosystem. They hold court in Cahill’s photos in quiet testimony to their worthiness: the least among us deserve respect.

Alexis “Toast” Cahill

Acceptance / photograph / 2014 / Alexis “Toast” Cahill

Alexis “Toast” Cahill

Wisdom / photograph / 2014 / Alexis “Toast” Cahill

A series of delicate pencil drawings by Mike Bollerud offer inspirational imagery of men and women firmly planted in the landscape, imbued with an aura of fortitude, grace, and nobility. They also suggest wistfulness — at least to this writer — for a lost era when the subjects of these images might have felt an abiding confidence that their way of life would persist undisturbed; that they had mastered coexistence with the natural world; that the universe rendered itself, if not benign, then just — a world that would nurture if respected. A race of aliens shattered those notions.

But if you wonder, this writer does not view all aspects of First Nations culture with unadulterated admiration. That culture springs from humanity after all. Some of their former war practices warrant criticism. But people in glass houses should never throw stones, and this writer does not intend to. Many aspects of that culture merit honor and emulation, and modern civilization would do well to adopt some of their ancient practices related to social justice and environmental preservation.

Cheers to Stefan Johnson of the Michigan Native Arts Collective & 555 Gallery and Studios for curating Lighting Fires.

Mike Bollerud

One Winter’s Night / pencil on display board / 2012 / Mike Bollerud

Mike Bollerud

Faith / pencil on Yupo watercolor paper / 2014 / Mike Bollerud

Mike Bollerud

The Butterfly Maiden / pencil (print) / 2002 / Mike Bollerud

555 Gallery and Studios occupy an old police precinct. Inside you find a spacious gallery with expansive north facing windows. You also find a block of holding cells still decked out in steel bars. If these don’t send a chill down your spine, you should check your pulse. But now the cells function as micro studios and galleries. An eclectic array of artwork and craft adorns them.

Down another hall, you find an exhibition of photographs taken by children in the FOCUS: Hope Excel Photography Program sponsored by the Peck Foundation, Jenny Risher Photography, and the Detroit Institute of Arts. These pictures will knock you out. But first you might shed a tear or two. They’re worth the effort. See them.

555 Gallery and Studios do good things for art and the surrounding community (they just held a pop up used clothing sale). Swing by and show support.

Please have a look at our site, artifizz.org, and check out our other reviews.

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February 24, 2014

“Gilded” and “It’s All Relative” at Whitdel Arts

by Jim Welke

Gilded and It’s All Relative: concurrent shows at Whitdel Arts in southwest Detroit, 10-January through 22-February-2014

Self Portrait / acrylic / Gilda Snowden / 2004

Self Portrait / acrylic / Gilda Snowden / 2004

Gilded, the title of a show that closed 22-February at Whitdel Arts (1250 Hubbard St, Detroit) refers to Gilda Snowden, the focus. The works on view — excepting those contributed by Ms. Snowden herself — honor both her influence and her notable career; but more her abiding positive influence. One might surmise from the premise of the exhibition that those touched by Ms. Snowden discover themselves gilded, imbued with a delightful and durable sheen. That seems true enough. One might also hear the word Gilded spoken and hear instead: Gilda-ed, an implication of the mysterious magnetism she wields. As this writer understands her persona, she’s not one to be trifled with. Glide into her realm and she will perturb your orbit even if that shift renders imperceptible to the orbiter. Courage breeds courage, and cowardice begets cowardice. Our political leadership these days seems beset with the latter, and in times of upheaval we turn toward artists for moral clarity and social leadership. Gilda Snowden supplies that clarity, leadership, and courage. When it gets dark, the stars come out.

The scope of Ms. Snowden’s influence reaches deep into the artistic, social, and political fabric of Detroit and beyond. In fact, while this writer gained a sense of her persona gained over the years, an equivalent sense of her work remained unrealized. Such is the peril of celebrity and no fault of Ms. Snowden. Do good things and people know about you while knowing little of you. For readers in a similarly blinkered position, an abbreviated version of her resume, as posted on the College for Creative Studies site, follows:

Gilda Snowden is a Detroit-based artist, writer, lecturer and curator. She is a Professor of Fine Arts at CCS. As a writer, she has had art reviews published in Dialogue (Columbus, Ohio); Atlanta Artpapers; Ground Up (Detroit); Detroit Focus Quarterly; New Art Examiner; and The Griot, a publication of the National Conference of Artists Michigan Chapter.  In addition to numerous works in corporate and private collections, Snowden has five works in the permanent collection of the Detroit Institute of Arts. In the Liberal Arts department, Snowden teaches Contemporary Art History, and participates in team teaching in the Art as Propaganda and Women & Men/Men & Women interdisciplinary classes.

On Ms. Snowden’s site, one finds the unabridged version of her resume. It’s worth a look for those wondering how a person claws through the thicket of life’s complexity and adversity to arrive at a meaningful destination. Imagine that sequence reeling out it real time. Clearly, discipline and savvy decision-making propelled Ms. Snowden to the esteemed place she resides at. Equally clear stands the shear volume of her work. She “leaned in” as they say now. She took chances with many irons in the fire, sometimes simultaneously. One can assume she burned her fingers a few times. But she persisted, and judging by the affection directed toward her in this show, she resisted every inclination toward toxic cynicism. Those facets — discipline, savvy, productivity, and resistance to self-destructive impulses — appear like a distillation of the recipe for success; success combined with acclaim. A year in the making, Gilded landed squarely in Black History Month. That was a serendipitous twist of fate. Detroit features large in black history and we would do well to heed the lessons taught here by black activists as well as by mere residents. They are profound lessons of fortitude, tolerance, and generosity combined with relentless peaceful resistance to social injustice. That milieu includes Ms. Snowden — both as a much-admired member, and as an advocate for African American artists.

You might, as this writer did, want to know more of her work. A few pieces from her site follow:

From her series, Bright Stars At Night:

Gilda Snowden

untitled / Bright Stars At Night series / Gilda Snowden / 2010

From her series, Chairs:

Gilda Snowden

untitled / Chairs series / Gilda Snowden / 2010

From Works On Paper:

Gilda Snowden

Storm In Self / Works On Paper series / Gilda Snowden / 2011

From Constructions:

Gilda Snowden

Teaser/Tormentor / Constructions series / Gilda Snowden / 1983

From Flora Urbana:

Gilda Snowden

Garden / Flora Urbana series / Gilda Snowden

 

Lila Kadaj

Gilda / oil / Lila Kadaj / 1977

The portraits on view in Gilded present a woman engaged equally in thought and action. An early picture by Lila Kadaj, shows pensive determination, eyes shut to incoming aspersions.

Lila Kadaj

Gilda / oil / Lila Kadaj / 1984

Another portrait by Kadaj presents Ms. Snowden’s face behind outsized glasses that form a modern take on medieval armor. She confronts the world, daring us to challenge her with an argument.

Jean Smith

Gilda / oil / Jean Smith / (undated)

A work by Jean Smith presents a partial profile, almost hagiographic, that suggests a tranquil but affirmative spirit.

Alonso Del Arte

Faces of Detroit: Delvona & Gilda / photographic print / Alonso Del Arte

A photograph by Alonso Del Arte (a curator of this show), offers an image of Ms. Snowden mirroring an image painted by Delvona Rabione in a series titled Faces of Detroit. With the print pinned to a sheet of aluminum that cries bulletproof, Ms. Snowden gazes back with a radiant visage.

All of the portraits in this show combine to impress on us the range and complexity embodied by Ms. Snowden, as well as the deep impression she stamps on others. They offer testament to the courage manifested by an honorable, and rightfully honored Detroit artist.

 

Meanwhile, It’s All Relative appears downstairs in the gallery assigned to emerging artists. Work by two of Ms. Snowden’s undergraduate students at the College for Creative Studies, Fatima Sow & Austin Brady, comprise that show. One can imagine the professor at the top of the stairs crying out (half-serious, with a touch of admiration and pride), “Keep quiet down there, we’re trying to have a conversation up here.” Following a meditative idyll amidst the portraits upstairs, the work downstairs oscillates and shimmers at a different wavelength altogether, at a higher frequency. Where Ms. Snowden’s work, and the portraits that capture her personality feel all about depth and breadth of experience, this work seems to witness seeking.

Austin Brady

Some Sort Of Prize To Be Won / acrylic and pencil / Austin Brady

Some Sort Of Prize To Be Won, by Austin Brady, confronts us with the head of Medusa, endowed with snakes for hair and the power to turn men who gaze at her to stone. Presumably chopped loose by Perseus, the head tumbles wildly; the countenance suggests shock at this assault — she got the unruly hair from Athena who witnessed Medusa’s rape by Poseidon, an archetypal instance of “blame the victim.” The image provokes sympathy in the viewer, who wonders whether to side with the vanquished, or the victor who took the head and used it to turn the kingly suitor of his mother to stone.

Fatima Sow

Layered Ties / mixed-media on wood / Fatima Sow

A piece on the opposite wall by Ms. Sow, Layered Ties, complements the frenzy of Medusa. A mass of intricately tangled twine enveloping shards of stone, the piece suggests either the hazards or the security of confinement depending on the viewer’s state of mind. Either way, its complexity compels you to stare into it. As you peer at the simple and common elements of this piece, meaning coalesces as though the Gordian Knot untangles with a stroke of contemplation rather than a sword.

Fatima Sow

Piece by Piece / mixed-media on wood / Fatima Sow

Piece by Piece by Ms. Sow, constructed of geometric cuts of plywood painted and suffused with collage, implies to this observer the fractured view of reality we all perceive but piece to together via experience and context. Youth, this work might assert, experiences the world with greater clarity than does wisdom and thus perceives fragments. Wisdom brings cohesion through interpretation, but possibly the skew of insidious bias. Perhaps, youth and wisdom work best together?

Austin Brady

Sacrilege / mixed-media on board / Austin Brady

Sacrilege, a paint and collage work by Austin Brady presents what appears to be a beatific view of a shrouded nun with the face of a young woman, but with the wizened hands of an older entity. An ornate ring adorns the left hand, and both grip a triangular object. The sacrilege referred to in the title eludes this viewer. Is it the ornate detail or symbolic meaning of the ring? (Nuns typically wear a simple silver band to signify wedding to the Holy Spirit.) Or the triangular object she grips? Or does the youthful face imply vanity in contrast with those hands? Elusiveness not withstanding, the picture with its simple forms and abstract background possesses a mystical, ethereal quality that spellbinds the viewer.

The other works in It’s All Relative reflect an uncommon diversity of thought and devotion to art by these two artists. Some of them convey wry humor, others dark introspection, some both. Some loom large, others diminutive. The show indicates a prolific and effective effort by the artists. These students took their lessons from Ms. Snowden well.

 

Cheers to curators by Craig Paul Nowak & Alonso Del Arte, and Whitdel Arts for putting these shows together.

 

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January 24, 2014

Wayne State University MFA 1 Thesis Exhibition

by Jim Welke

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Raise your hand if you visited a student art exhibition in the last year. Well? Well, this writer might have kept his hands in his pockets, but for the MFA graduate show in the Wayne State Community Arts Art Department Gallery (Wayne State University MFA 1 Thesis Exhibition: part 1 of 2, part 2 opens 14-Feb).

The gallery extends long and narrow with a north-facing wall of glass that offers a first-class view of the McGregor Reflecting Pool (which appears as a scene from Dr. Zhivago this time of year). Most of the light in the gallery comes from that cool northern glow reflected off snow and flatters the work therein.

Clara W. DeGalan

Free Storm Hush in the Neighborhood II / Clara W. DeGalan

Clara W. DeGalan, a Detroit native, finesses large charcoal drawings with skill that astonishes. Charcoal can be messy, and to create large, detailed works that consist of more than a few broad sweeps must be a daunting task. But she does it over and over. Free Storm Hush in the Neighborhood II offers that sense of natural harmony and balance you might find in a pastoral landscape, but instead it shows a collection of buildings intersected by a chain link fence and overhead wires — it feels urban, but the buildings appear non-descript enough that they could be outbuildings on a farm. Snow covers the scene and no humans complicate the view with their tendency to obstruct serenity.

Passed This Way Before / Clara W. DeGalan

Passed This Way Before / Clara W. DeGalan

But there’s something else hovering in another dimension of Ms. DeGalan’s work. All her works here, at first glance, feel serene and the figurative pictures bring the warmth — or heat — you get from human close-ups. And then you sense an Edgar Allen Poe-esque, Gothic-novel, sinister presence. Her painting, Passed This Way Before, which appears to show a mirror standing in an sun-dappled alley way or street, surrounded by a lush growth of bushes and trees with a tall building in the distant background, and another building reflected in the mirror. The picture, executed in gentle, blurry brushstrokes and diluted colors, feels comforting. Yet, like a well-placed metaphor in a short story, that inexplicable reflection and the sharp angular washes of light and shadow somehow suggest either foreboding or a dark memory.

June 1982 (The Kiss) / Clara W. DeGalan

June 1982 (The Kiss) / Clara W. DeGalan

June 1982 (The Kiss) creates a similar baleful sense of mystery. Who kisses the girl in the pool? Why does the woman kissing the girl wear all white? What does she hold in her other hand, the one obscured by her uniform-like dress? Why does the girl have the pool all to herself? Aside from the girl and the woman, the scene fills with contrasting angles; a restrictive crosshatched wall behind them. The picture feels documentary, like a snapshot, a fleeting moment in time that leaves the viewer wondering about the prologue and epilogue. Or so this writer sees it. Maybe the dark is not there at all, but when you get up close to these works you sense complexity. That much is sure.

 

*******

Beard Triptych 2 / Alex Drummer

Beard Triptych 2 / Alex Drummer

Alex Drummer earned a Bachelor of Fine Arts in Metalworking. For his master’s thesis show, he presents a series of knitted beard triptychs that surely set a mind to wondering. The knit work appears well made, and one needs to be impressed that a man who pursued metalworking with such assiduous application might as easily take up knitting. So there’s that.

Alex Drummer

Beard Triptych 4 / Alex Drummer

But why knitted beards? Well we all wear costumes and disguises to get through our difficult lives, and we change those costumes and disguises as circumstance requires. Flanking each of the five knitted beards mounted on boards, Mr. Drummer presents photographs of men and women wearing the beards, hence triptychs. The unnaturally colored beards, almost like witty commentary on the fashion of such beards in some circles, conceal the faces of the wearers to the point of obscuring their identifying features, even their sex — women wearing beards? Perhaps Mr. Drummer suggests more than mere social disguises here, but something of general utility to hide us from the Orwellian eyes of our burgeoning surveillance state? Perhaps a comment on controlling religious codes that require beards for men, or head coverings for women? As a playful nod to the inevitable question: What would I look like in one of those? Mr. Drummer offers Portrait Beard 2, which allow the visitor to prop themselves before a suspended knit beard and view themselves in a mirror. These are fun works, but not so lightly dismissed if you ponder the underlying motivation for their making.

 

Alex Drummer

Portrait Beard 2 / Alex Drummer

*******

Emilee Arter offers big, sculptural works formed of various natural and synthetic fabrics along with tape and other fasteners. These pieces will likely mystify the viewer on first approach — the drapes and folds confront the viewer with seemingly chaotic turmoil. Yet as one gazes into them, you sense harmony, a balance created by non-random forces, a stasis that which naturally occurs in ecological niches with their hard won, long-evolved symbiotic relationships. And then there are the titles, which for certain were labored over for precise tonal affect like spare lines in a poem.

Emilee Arter

His Prediction was a Question, Not a Statement / Emilee Arter

His Prediction was a Question, Not a Statement is a title the visitor can sink their teeth into. And the work offers the least cohesive assembly of the collection from Ms. Arter, as though the work were something else once, and now represents the aftermath of the prediction misinterpreted, an explosion with woeful consequences of lost opportunity.

I’ll Never Forget Last September / Emilee Arter

I’ll Never Forget Last September / Emilee Arter

I’ll Never Forget Last September inevitably forces the visitor to contemplate their own Septembers. This writer immediately remembered a camping trip on the shore of Lake Superior and a night deluged by rain that left belongings floating in the old tent. One can see this work as that tent, dashed asunder. Or not. The plastics and dark, almost internal organ-like colors will elicit a multitude of reactions. But the September that it will most universally summons is that infamous September day, the eleventh of 2001.

Conquest / Emilee Arter

Conquest / Emilee Arter

Conquest, oddly, given its title, feels like the gentlest work presented by Ms. Arter. Burlap sacks with various printed source and content declarations fold and drape to reach an off-center pinnacle with a banner-like strand extending outward like those colorful banners atop medieval circus tents. Shredded and tumultuous toward the interior, the burlap at the boundaries forms flowing arcs that feel almost musical, thus perhaps that sensation of a caress rather than a slap. This works also seems to offer commentary on global consumerist trade and the piles of detritus it creates, detritus that often ends up floating on the surface of oceans, swirled and nudged into forms echoing those here. Find your own path into this work, but give it time. Abstraction provokes unique associations in every viewer. That’s the fun — and challenge — of it. Treat yourself. Go see these and the other works in the show.

Wayne State University MFA 1 Thesis Exhibition runs through 7 February. The second half opens 14-February.

 

Please have a look at our site, artifizz.org, and check out our other reviews.

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January 18, 2014

Photographer Flora Borsi Comes to the Museum of New Art

by Jim Welke

borsi_birdcage

The work of Hungarian photographer Flora Borsi comes to the Museum of New Art (MONA) Detroit, Museum of Contemporary Photography and New Media annex (2501 Rochester Court, Troy, MI 48083) on February 23, 2014. She will visit Detroit for the opening, her first trip to Motown.

Photography holds a unique position in the disciplines of art. Photographs confront us everywhere. They appear in advertising, news, science, medicine, snapshots, propaganda, pornography, and art. At one time, drawing and painting played the representational role photography does now. Before we mass-produced cameras, travelers on grand tours carried sketchbooks. Only the most momentous scenes warranted preservation on paper.

advertisement -- 1871

advertisement — 1871

Before industrialization and consumerism, advertising focused on the qualities of the product for sale. Ads did not seduce with appeals to self-image and ego, they announced the virtues of the product. Drawings and paintings supplemented the ad copy with relatively straight on representations of the merchandise. When industrialization came along and populations migrated from farms to cities, labor saving gadgets for harried urban inhabitants were soon ubiquitous. Deplorable though they were, sweatshops made fashionable attire accessible — necessary even — for urbanites clawing their way up the social ladder. At about the same time, photography came along. With the ease of image capture that photography offered, ad agencies were quick to adopt it. Ad makers took the opportunity of abundant imagery to sell more than the myriad, confusing details of competing products. They sold lifestyles, status. Photographs, with their implied realism, let buyers embed themselves in the pictures of ease and opulence before them. Carefully constructed still life images presented accessible, idealized worlds only attainable with the purchase of the product therein. Consumers bought it.

As film and cameras got cheaper and easier to use, everyone wanted one for keeping a visual, visceral log of their existence. Snapshots of weddings, baby pictures, graduations, religious milestones, and vacations overflowed from albums and scrapbooks.

Newspapers, magazines, and academic journals all adopted photography to document events and elucidate concepts. Government propagandists co-opted advertising technique to sell ideology with the same subtle seduction as wristwatch advertisers. Commercial photography and photojournalism offered solid careers.

And right alongside these fast-inflating realms of photography, artists worked in parallel to add universal messages and meaning to photographs. Photography branched into the art world — but not without resistance. Some viewed photographs as ephemeral kitsch — mainly those who painted and drew pictures. It was thought that photography with its rigid documentary qualities could not embody the vision and intention of an artist in the same way painting or drawing could. Yet fans soon realized photographs could present portraits, landscapes, still life, and abstraction with depth of interest and point of view comparable to other media. And as cameras improved, photographs froze moments in time to create art like no other medium.

The problem with photos, of course, is that they can be reproduced ad infinitum. For advertisers and journalists, that’s a virtue. But for artists, it’s a problem. How do you sell something that can not be an original, one of a kind work where the value comes at least in part from its scarcity of one. But this problem plagues print-makers, too. The same solution solves it: limited print runs, with numbered and signed prints. Still, in some precincts, photography seems to hold a less elevated position among the visual and plastic arts. Often in ads or the arts section of newspapers, the words “art and photography” will appear as description of the contents of a gallery or exhibition, as though you would see art, and alone in another room you would see the abused stepchild: photography. (This happens with music, too: art and music.)

borsi_time_warhol

And then along comes an artist like Flora Borsi who brings a unique eye and well-tuned technical craft to photographs that do more than document or seduce a consumer. Her images do seduce, but not your materialist impulse. They engage your soul and intellect equally, like a perfect lover; like art. She follows the footsteps of a long progression of fine art photographers, but happily carries the banner to new territory.

The show at MONA’s newest annex, the Museum of Contemporary Photography and New Media, will offer thirty-two large prints of Ms. Borsi’s photos from various thematic series spanning her career. She shot her first art photo in 2007, so her career to date is brief. Twenty years old, she lives in Budapest, Hungary where she attends classes at Moholy-Nagy University of Art and Design. She intends to earn a BA in Photography Studies.

Brief career or not, it continues, and the work of Ms. Borsi evolves. On her website, you will find seven series of works plus a section for recent work. The MONA show selects works from all of these, plus a few others. The series range from Des Monstres to Time Travel, which appears to have garnished the most attention and was selected by Yahoo as a 2013 favorite after a feature in Shine. Time Travel re-imagines historic photographs with the added superimposition of Ms. Borsi, costumed to fit the context, but she holds a camera as though she skipped back in time to document the notable occasion and stumbled into the original photographer’s viewfinder. The photos provoke that universal wonder and wistfulness we all feel about time travel. And they amuse with their fanciful premise. They set a mind to wondering what it might be like to dart back in time to witness, even alter, historic events that captivate or horrify us.

Des Monstres presents Ms. Borsi in deep contrast silhouette, draped in gauzy veils blown askew like reptilian appendages. She hurls herself to and fro as though in the grips of mythological gods to imbue these images with a sense of magical realism. The kinetic energy they project infects the viewer with an impression of buoyancy. These photos, despite their edgy darkness and stark hues feel like fun for the photographer and viewer alike.

The collection titled Lookbook suggests Houdini suspended from a coat hanger. Or perhaps the photos reveal a more existential crisis. The figure in the photos, Ms. Borsi, finds herself entangled in a garment suspended from the coat hanger. The garment, a tank top, wife-beater shirt, a little raggedy and threadbare like the one Brando wore in “Streetcar Named Desire,” envelops her face and torso. In the sequence of photos she seems to struggle for comfort within the shirt without ever donning it in the expected fashion. This feels like an interior struggle against angst projected outward, dramatized with props.

borsi_identity

Identity consists of six photos, three of which show Ms. Borsi modeling a blue turtleneck and black, bobbed wig. The images form pairs, with Ms. Borsi in the first, absent in the second One pair begins with her head, partly obscured by a vertical partition. The second shows a panel comprised of blocks of color taken from the wig, the turtleneck, and her flesh, as though a distillation of the model’s essence in the preceding scene; as though the exterior surfaces define her.

The second pair begins with her holding a white plate aloft to eclipse her head, with her face partly revealed. The second image shows the wig and turtleneck on a table beside the plate.

The third pair shows Ms. Borsi standing erect with a vacant doll-like expression. She stands in front of a clothing rack, one hand clasped over the rack, with the horizontal bar seeming to pass through her head. The second image shows the wig and the turtleneck suspended from the rack.

The intent might be a skeptical, ironic study of consumerist grasping for off-the-rack, corporation-vetted identity. As though identity can be browsed, tried-on, and bought rather than cultivated.

Asphyxia begins with a definition of the term:

asphyxiation (from Greek α- “without” and σφύξις sphyxis, “heartbeat”) is a condition of severely deficient supply of oxygen to the body that arises from abnormal breathing.

The photos capture Ms. Borsi underwater, face pressed against a glass surface. Her expression shows amused detachment, but provokes in the viewer a disquieting sense of dread. This can’t end well, one thinks while submerged in primal fear of asphyxiation by drowning.

borsi_woman_with_hat

The Real Life Models pose Ms. Borsi beside well-known paintings:  “Gelber Narrenhut (yellow fool’s hat),” Rudolf Hausner; “Portrait of a Polish Woman,” Amedeo Modigliani; “Woman with Green Hat,” Pablo Picasso; “Bust of Woman,” Kazimir Severinovich Malevich; “The Corn Poppy,” Kees van Dongen; and “the real life models” from “American Gothic.” Her photos in this series are precisely staged, with the real-life Ms. Borsi on the right, and the original painting behind her on the left. She wears the clothes, the hats, and expressions (except for the Malevich, where she shrouds her head in a red stocking). The effect startles, and testifies to Ms. Borsi’s chameleon-like persona as well as her deft use of image manipulation software. These images delight. The one “unstaged” photo, or so this writer believes, is the last, the “American Gothic,” which seems to represent the prototype for the series.

“Photoshop in real life” plunges Ms. Borsi’s altered countenance into the editor window of Photoshop image altering software. In each photo, she holds aloft in one hand a sketch of the software pull-down menu that pertains to the alteration therein. The series humorously pokes fun at our vain aspirations and eagerness to alter our own appearance, to normalize our distinguishing but imperfect aspects. You can laugh, but don’t frown. That causes wrinkles.

borsi_machine_gun_butterflies

Ms. Borsi’s “Recent Work” shows varied portraits, some playfully surreal like her head in a dome-shaped birdcage, door open, a bird resting on her upheld hand; some unsettling such as an image of her, shown twice, one figure machine-gunning the fleeing image of the other. Golden hair streams behind them both, but from the victim’s head, a cloud of butterflies emerges. Another image that seems to sting the viewer by just looking at it presents Ms. Borsi curled into a near ball on the floor, head tucked under her torso, one hand emerges tentatively grasping the string of balloon, while gruesome thorns grow from her back and sides. Suggesting a commercial fashion shot, another image shows her emerging from a gaudy seashell, all in washed out, artificial, almost sepia-toned hues of brownish gold.

While Ms. Borsi’s work appears tightly bounded by her target concepts, her photos always express creative tension; you sense the narrative playing in her mind and funneled into her work. One also senses ambivalence about the world around her, a desire to challenge viewers to think and act differently if for no other reason than the excitement of it. That ambivalence might spring from youthfulness, and one hopes it does not harden into cynicism, the bogeyman of truth and beauty. She may veer into more ponderous themes, or choose fanciful, magical angles on reality. Her images to date suggest a capacity for both. If she proves to be as astute as her work suggests, she will learn well at university what paths not to follow, and veer away from the pitfalls of early acclaim and well-intentioned but toxic advice.

borsi_self

Q: Your website bio states that you began shooting photos in 2007. Did you practice art in other media before that?

A: I drew a lot digitally, and manually as well. I’ve been interested in visual art since I was a little kid. I tried to develop my abilities — I’ve always wanted to become an artist and do what I love.

Q: Why photography now? Are there photographers whose work you admire; who inspired you to pursue photography?

A: My biggest inspiration is Tim Walker. I really like his dreamscapes, the atmosphere of his masterpieces.

Q: Do you have a favorite artwork, perhaps something in a museum or public-square, that captures for you what art is all about — the power of art?

A: Art is everywhere. Art is freedom. For me, all beauty symbolizes the power of art.

Q: What will your degree in Photography Studies from Moholy-Nagy University of Art and Design allow you to do that you can’t already do? In other words, what have you taught yourself that you will not learn at school, and vice versa? (Keep in mind that this writer urges you to continue your studies regardless of your answer!)

A: The field of art is wide, and my teachers explain only some of it, so I try many styles of photography on my own. I’m always curious and open minded.

Q: Do you have more ideas for photos to shoot than time to shoot them, or do you experience dry spells without inspiration?

A: I’ve been so many times without inspiration. Sometimes I need to refill myself with good experiences. These times are very hard for me. While it happens, I’m afraid it will never end. But it always does!

Q: Do you use different cameras for different work, or stick mostly with one model? Do you ever use film instead of a digital camera?

A: I use only one camera; I don’t need others. I don’t need the smartest camera, it’s only a tool to make an image. The moment I capture depends on me. Applying too much “technique” could go wrong. The most important aspect is what I hope to express.

Q: Given a plane ticket to anywhere in the Universe, where would you go and what would you photograph?

A: Definitely into a superhero’s mind. I’ve always wanted to try out levitation, or duplicate myself.

 

October 4, 2013

Stretch the Strangle Hold — Artists Against War

by Jim Welke

IMG_3785

Stretch the Strangle Hold - Artists Against War, on thru 5-October 2013 at 4731 Gallery (4731 Grand River) in Detroit begins with the following message of intent:

Inspired by my painting, Stretch the Strangle Hold, I sought out help to achieve the goal of bringing like-minded artists of all disciplines together to speak out against the lie of war. This group exhibit features many artists from around greater Detroit. Our goal for this show is to raise awareness at the local and national level to send a message that war is not the most effective solution.
- Joe Lovett, curator

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Stretch the Strangle Hold / Joe Lovett

The show includes works in various media by Catherine Peet, Madeline Barkey, Victor Pytko, Eric Mesko, David Mikesell, Sergio De Giusti, Lynn Galbreath, Marilyn Zimmerwoman, Jon Parlangeli, David Fischer, Jeanne Bieri, Donald Mendelson, Linda Allen, and Joe Lovett.

When you enter the room, this show immediately feels big like a cathedral. You slip into an awestruck contemplative mood, with a constant edge of pissed off. At least this writer did. If you despise war and the people who conspire to incite it you will likely feel the same. Yet, none of the imagery or sculpture in this show are gut wrenchingly graphic. That fact explains the power this show harnesses. You feel pissed off because so much of the form and imagery looms there with astonishing familiarity. Seeing it here, in an art gallery, stops you dead in your tracks. You wonder why the hell we put up with it. Why do we allow such grotesque brutality? One answer might lie in a quote pasted up beside David Mikesell’s Living In Trenches:

“I have not washed for a week, or had my boots off for a fortnight. …It just serves my …barbaric disposition and I have never enjoyed anything so much.” — Captain Julian Grenfell, letter to parents, 1914. He died of wounds in 1915, age 27.

Blinded by Gas Attack (top) / Living in Trenches (bottom) / David Mikesell

Blinded by Gas Attack (top) / Living in Trenches (bottom) / David Mikesell

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Walking Wounded / David Mikesell

There are those who greet war eagerly, who commit barbarity blithely, who relish the adrenalin buzz of combat. If you doubt, read some first hand accounts of war. Many more quotes like the one above linger like the smell of dog shit in our collective consciousness. And then there are those ostensible leaders who send others — reluctant participants — to war with the anticipation of glory and riches. To the instigators go glory and riches. Warriors get scant recompense. Most reluctant warriors bear scars from wounds they rarely mention. And their reticence to speak of nightmarish experiences impoverishes civilians. We should hear more from former warriors; they constitute the majority, and with sobering consistency advise avoidance of war.

Flower Gun Power / Linda Allen

Flower Gun Power / Linda Allen

But if we heard from them, would we heed them? The argument to urge us into war always comes down to “us against them” — hollow patriotism rallied by profiteering demagogues. You’re either with us, or you’re against us. You’re either one of us, or you’re one of them. You either defend our sacred national honor and fragile borders, or you tear both down and let the pagan hordes descend on our women and children, rape and enslave our tender innocents. Yet in the end, after the smoke clears — the infamous fog of war that obscures the barbarity — we discover it was about somebody else’s money and power; somebody other than the warriors compelled to fight; somebody other than the families compelled to consign their flesh and blood to horrible, needless death; somebody other than the citizens compelled to commit their treasure.

Same Story Same Game / Catherine Peet

Same Story Same Game / Catherine Peet

Story Teller / Catherine Peet

Story Teller / Catherine Peet

Here’s the original quote by Edmund Burke, the one apparently so often misquoted:

No man, who is not inflamed by vain-glory into enthusiasm, can flatter himself that his single, unsupported, desultory, unsystematic endeavours are of power to defeat the subtle designs and united Cabals of ambitious citizens. When bad men combine, the good must associate; else they will fall, one by one, an unpitied sacrifice in a contemptible struggle.

 

The Dove of Peace / Eric Mesko

The Dove of Peace / Eric Mesko

The Dove of Peace / Eric Mesko (detail)

The Dove of Peace / Eric Mesko (detail)

You’ll find at 4731 a phalanx of artwork combined against warwork: paintings, sculpture, photographs, mixed-media. Several pieces incorporate squadrons of those little plastic “army men” and other “toys” we drop into the hands of our children as prelude to merciless shredding of their innocence. Some works show scenes from our infamous past, matter-of-factly presented with that aforementioned unsettling sense of familiarity: Mr. Mikesell’s meticulously rendered World War One scenes, not frenetic battles but the walking wounded, men blinded by gas, in a line gripping the shoulder of the man in front as guide; or the inside of trenches where soldiers slept — all presented in soft hues and precise brushstrokes that remind one of Norman Rockwell’s gentle scenes of American domestic tranquility, except these show us horrors we never should have witnessed; and Jeanne Bieri, with a series of black and white photos, bleached from age. In one, a child wears a gas mask as a taller sister, outfitted with similar military fixtures stands aside, cut off at the shoulders as though ascending from the scene, leaving the child to suffocate alone in well-intentioned but likely ill-fitted, ineffective protective armor.

Hawaiian Child in a Gas Mask / Jeanne Bieri

Hawaiian Child in a Gas Mask / Jeanne Bieri

After Trayvon / Marilyn Zimmerwoman

After Trayvon / Marilyn Zimmerwoman

Other artists offer war imagery transposed as surreal pageantry; the familiar rendered strange, like David Fischer’s After the Bomb, an eerie glass bomb shell with grass growing inside. Marilyn Zimmerwoman offers “Time” magazine covers with Trayvon Martin’s empty hoodie superimposed over cryptic, mirrored text (“We spend a lot of time / On a few great things. / Until every idea we touch / Enhances each life it touches.”); or China’s imperial ascendance — “THE WORLD ACCORDING TO CHINA”; and a luxe wristwatch and reclining leopard; ghostly figures holding reversed signs that read, “Aids is going to lose,” all rendered translucent and exposed to lucid scrutiny like x-ray films. Perhaps a bit off topic, but then again given the pressure of commerce, geopolitics, and the warped apartheid culture Americans inhabit, perhaps these scenes represent inevitable precursors to war, the signs and symbols that provoke it.

Girls / Madeleine Barkey

Girls / Madeleine Barkey

Madeleine Barkey gives us Girls and Boy: nude schematics of children with target circles on their heads and torsos. Eric Mesko’s Dove of Peace, a collage of war clippings, including a New York Times roster of dead soldiers fronted by a diaphanous skull on a colonial pillar wearing a helmet wrapped in barbed wire, topped by a duck that grips an olive branch in its beak (a send up of that American eagle vainly clutching the ubiquitous olive branch). Catherine Peet brings ghostly dioramas embellished with mysterious icons alongside the Statue of Liberty; or a skeletal, lute-playing jester encircled by those tiny, ubiquitous army men painted in garish colors; or the exotic bird, Horned Plundious with blood seeming to issue from its beak. Linda Allen shows a 19th or early 20th century battle scene painting where lush faux flowers and hearts spontaneously pop from the barrels of guns and between the lurching soldiers’ feet. Sergio De Giusti’s sculpture Hanging Body Bags of Babylon (altarpiece) shows hanging, shrouded corpses and men lugging more to the scene in a creepy, almost biblical bas-relief. Donald Mendelson’s Dogs at Work depicts a desert battle scene, pyramid in the background, with gas-mask clad soldiers led by a colossal dog and followed by can-can dancers. Jon Parlangeli’s The Draft shows a negative image of men marched off at gunpoint as colored shards of confetti descend around them.

Mad Men / Victor Pytko

Mad Men / Victor Pytko

Mad Men / Victor Pytko (detail)

Mad Men / Victor Pytko (detail)

And Victor Pytko’s Mad Men, an installation placed in the center of the main gallery forms the shape of a bomb — conventional ordinance perhaps, or maybe an incendiary device designed to engulf in flames beings and buildings alike, or it could represent the ultimate destructive invention, an atomic bomb. There it sits in the middle of the room, plastered over with diminutive, surging, leaping army men, toy guns and grenades, and doll heads, all painted over in flat black spray. On the flattened, square tail end, Mr. Pytko added a diaphanous painting of a man convulsed in terror or pain (face reminiscent of General Nguyen Ngoc Loan Executing a Viet Cong Prisoner — that gruesome street execution in Saigon).

After the Bomb / David Fischer

After the Bomb / David Fischer

The Draft / Jon Parlangeli

The Draft / Jon Parlangeli

Soldier with Cat / Donald Mendelson

War With Peace / Jon Parlangeli

In abstract work by Donald Mendelson, Lynn Galbreath, Jon Parlangeli, and Joe Lovett toxic, gassy nebulae, and fracture figures in abrasive color or clinical grays ascend from canvases, sculpture, and mixed-media to assault our sleepy complacency. Joe Lovett’s eponymous Stretch the Strangle Hold suggests Picasso’s Guernica with nearly similar dimensions, gray tones, and tumbling images, but updated with modern war machinery and a shred of American flag painted in color. Overall, the scene feels less imbued with pure fury, but more of a diffuse, implacable sorrow. Yellow Brick Road, by Mr. Parlangeli, also suggests Guernica with cubist polygons, exaggerated features, and of course those bull horns, but Mr. Parlangeli used color to enforce the dramatic impact of the horrible human chaos he depicts with no shortage of pointless fury. Lynn Galbreath’s Hello Tokyo uses Godzilla, ensnared by a serpent, astride an all-terrain vehicle, and overrun by hordes of human attackers, painted in pallid green tones, and overlaid with block letters spelling out “FALSEHOODS, LIES, CONTRADICTIONS.” Indeed. It seems she presents an amalgam of propagandistic icons under assault here… or to another viewer something else, but clearly an indictment of human folly that ends with war.

The Hanging Body Bags of Babylon (altarpiece) / Sergio De Giusti

The Hanging Body Bags of Babylon (altarpiece) / Sergio De Giusti

Stretch the Strangle Hold - Artists Against War is timely and important, and populated with quality work well worth a look. Cheers to 4731 Gallery, the curator Joe Lovett, and the artists who used their prodigious talent to comment on a topic worthy of scathing commentary.

Drunk Tank Pink / Lynn Galbreath

Drunk Tank Pink / Lynn Galbreath

Just Ducky / Lynn Galbreath

Just Ducky / Lynn Galbreath

Hello Tokyo // Lynn Galbreath

Hello Tokyo / Lynn Galbreath

Dogs At Work / Donald Mendelson

Dogs At Work / Donald Mendelson

Dogs At Work / Donald Mendelson

Dogs At Work / Donald Mendelson (detail)

Yellow Brick Road / Jon Parlangeli

Yellow Brick Road / Jon Parlangeli

Jeanne Bieri

Jeanne Bieri

Boy / Madeleine Barkey

Boy / Madeleine Barkey

Stretch the Strangle Hold / Joe Lovett (detail)

Stretch the Strangle Hold / Joe Lovett (detail)

Stretch the Strangle Hold / Joe Lovett (detail)

Stretch the Strangle Hold / Joe Lovett (detail)

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