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Art Review: Gordon Cheung, Wreck of Hope

25 Apr



Cheung paints the images of destruction–as we can see in his work Wreck of Hope.  It’s interesting really, thinking about such things, in the past we’ve been worried about the bomb, global warming, terrorism for sure, but really one big contender for the end of civilization as we know it might just be economics.   Meditating on these images of destruction, with stock numbers in the background (the wall behind the front images show stock quotes) and a big rip as if the sky tore open, and ghosts of buildings.  I can see the end looking like this.

It’s sort of like going into a really bad section of a city where half the buildings are empty, and you sort of stand and wonder why on earth would such a thing be, who owns these buidings?  Who lets them just sit and rot?  Are they abandoned or just unused?  I suppose somebody (or some bank) must own them, but wouldn’t it be better for these places to have something going on, however little, rather than nothing?

That’s the problem with economics.  Somehow, in our development as a people, we came to the place where we have learned to abstract things into money, and then to abstract things further, into simple numbers.  The thing I see happen though as we turn more and more things into numbers, is that turning things into abstractions is only useful if you can turn them back into concrete objects.

There’s a dark side of capitalism–one that we don’t talk about so much because capitalism has gotten so deep into American culture that it’s easy to forget that democracy and capitalism aren’t the same things at all.  Capitalism is all about production, but it produces things like sweat-shops, pollution, neglect, illness, addiction.   In fact for some reason once things get turned into columns of numbers stored in some computer a lot of things we would never dream of doing in real life suddenly become tenable.  I mean would you pay somebody across the world, in terrible conditions, not nearly enough money to live off of, to have them make you a shirt?  Of course not.  But we don’t mind paying corporations to do just that.

The other part of the dark side is that there are no stock values in capitalism.  If you think about your life, as an individual, you have a series of subjective worth for things that remain reasonably consistent.  You always like chicken, you always hate broccoli, that sort of thing.  Capitalism can get all excited about something that is unnecessary (Like an iphone) and spend a good amount of money developing that, while ignoring necessities (like affordable medication) because they’re less lucrative.

That’s what I see in these paintings, where everything just kind of rots into rubbish filled with random cultural markers that have lost all meaning.


Art Review Matthew Ronay, is the shadow

18 Apr

Matthew ROnay


I really love Matthew Ronay for his ability to make ordinary objects have a totem-like power about them, it’s really hard to describe out of context, and even some image of them doesn’t really pass on that quality.    There’s a carefulness about his pieces–for instance, is the shadow, at first glance just looks like a collection of things, but you really see the care involved in putting them together.  For instance it is not just a bundle of sticks, they’re (probably hand carved) dowels, bunched together on a rug with thin rug, and above it a platter of half circles of wood arranged like some strange housewife appetizer.

That’s the key word here, arranged, in the middle of the floor, looking so susceptible to being disturbed, they remind me of something so easily trampled on by accident, so set against the movements of inertia, there’s a subtle power here, it almost doesn’t matter why these things are assembled in this manner, it’s that they were done so on purpose by some hand and breaking them apart would be like spitting on an altar.

Sometimes the art isn’t about what it’s about–actually it usually isn’t, but it’s about the craft of the piece, sort of like if you were watching dancing and even if you didn’t know the moves, just knowing that they had to work really hard just to stand on their toes like that brings a certain amount of awe.

I didn’t expect to like Matthew Ronay–I didn’t expect to see the human nature drawn out in little piles on tiny rugs, but I did.  I highly recommend his works.

Art Review, Benny Andrews, NY Cafe

14 Apr

ANDREWS Benny b1930 NY Cafe1986.



I just love me some Benny Andrews.  I know that this print doesn’t show it, but is works are just absolutely brim filled with color and vivid imagery.  Here, Andrews captured a random moment in one of those slice-of-life images that always resound with me.

So we’ve got three tables in a cafe (though the front of the store says Restaurant.)  The first thing that catches the eye is the floor pattern vs. the wallpattern, it’s all incredibly busy for the eye.  Actually the big white square meant to be the window keeps the room from feeling like the inside of a pattern box.  Another item to notice is how the floor seems slightly warped.  I don’t know why, but the warpedness fits the feel of a city cafe exactly.  Notice how the chairs and tables are not made for comfort–they’re made to serve basic needs and encourage people to come and go.  There’s something about these public spaces, ones where people don’t stay for too long, that’s a little strange and unanchored.

So we’ve got the three tables.  On the left is the out-of-towner.  He looks wealthy, and he also looks like he’s waiting.  He’s the sort who might have taken his family to New York, but not being well suited to walking (note the cane), found a cafe to rest in while the rest of his folks run about.  Very often those people, the tourist sitters, just kind of zone out and wait, just like this man.  Perhaps he has been to New York many times already–in any case he’s looking off to the left, mind stuck in his own thoughts.

The second table is a working class looking man–maybe a taxi-driver or something like that.  The expression on his face is worry, or perhaps care.  Look how his hands are folded as well, that’s a protective position.  He’s waiting as well, but not quite so happily–anxiously, his coffee is pushed away from him  untouched.   He also could be listening to the people at table three.

Table three has three people at it, unlike the past two tables, these three are actively drinking their coffee and seem to be in the middle of a conversation. The conversation seems to be a deep one–the man at the left has his hand clenched in a fist like he’s making a point.  The other two look intent on the speaker,  one man chewing on his finger, and the other leaning forward and sipping coffee.  Why I think this is an active conversation rather than an argument is how close the three men are sitting together and how intent they are looking.  Clearly the three know each other very well.

What this print made me think of is how these public spaces often become containers for other stuff.   Nobody goes into a coffee shop just to get coffee (or very few do) most have something else they want or need.  In fact, the very reason humans are anywhere in public is because they need something.   It’s an interesting thing to do when you’re in public, look at people and ask, why are they here, what do they need?  If you pay attention you can always find out.

Art Review, Robert Motherwell, At Five in the Afternoon

11 Feb

Robert Motherwell’s painting At Five in the Afternoon makes me argue with myself.  The Motherwall black lines and blotches are iconic, and there is considerable detail here–when you look closely you see the blotches and lines have a wooden texture, and that in the background is an open window.  The window in the background is important, because it tells us we’re not looking at true non-representation, but an abstraction of something.  Are we looking through a fence?  Through the eyes of a digital clock that we can hardly read?   Are we looking up?

And here’s where I think the painting loses me just a little bit, rather than having everything we need to see right in the painting, the title makes us run over and read a poem by Lorca.  Now I love poetry, but having to understand a painting by knowing some obscure poem takes a point away from it for me, because it takes away from the experience of the art in front of us in making connections.  Part of what I want art to do is to express something with images that words can’t do, however, what we have here is an artistic representation of a poem which is itself a representation of grief.  So that takes us two steps away from any actual experience, which might be why I find this painting to be a little academic.

That being said, the style and the artistry here is in full evidence.  Get close to the black and you see that it contains all sorts of colors.  The window looks blocked, something high up that we cannot reach.  Also with paint, Motherwell gives a hand hewed impression, everyshape looks like it was cut out of something, the surfaces even look scratched up.  And yes, there’s the relation to grief–the blacks and whites, starkness, but also shapelessness.  A world where everything is just a little too sharp and hard.  Even the lack of any personal element could connect to grieving, because that sort of loss makes the world look pretty empty.  The hint of perspective gives us only enough to not look at this image like a flat object, but it’s really hard to find the ground in it, again, pointing towards grief.

However, I’m not so sure I would have gotten to those conclusions on my own.  Most people thinking about Five in the Afternoon aren’t going to think about someone’s death, but of things like getting off work, rush hour, the end of the day, dinnertime.  I could just see some of them making connections to the images that mean that.  Not that there’s anything wrong with that, it’s just that I think that it’s clear that Motherwell had a specific emotion he was going for, and the resulting image is so abstracted that the emotion gets lost.  This painting could just as easily be showcased in a bank or a corporate penthouse, and I think that any true painting about grief would be totally inappropriate in those places.   The painting is simply not that evocative, and while I don’t think all art is required to be evocative, I find it to be a big failing in a painting about grief.

So do we read the poem and get drawn into the story or not read the poem and see a dream image obscured by abstraction?  Could this be the sort of painting someone would make to be different, but also be able to sell it to someone who needed a different painting to match their Jasper Johns?  I don’t know.  It could just as easily be a painting by a sort of man who isn’t that emotionally expressive trying to use an emotionally expressive medium.  Because the painting is about emptiness, it’s really difficult to tell whether this painting is expressing emotional emptiness, or really contains nothing at all.

Because this painting brings me to this level of discussion, and because it’s impeccably designed, I think it’s a worthwhile project. I just find it a bit cold.


Painting Review, Dialogue at Five, Herman Maril

4 Feb

What we see in Dialogue at Five is a group of people at cocktail hour, overlooking the sea.  Food and drinks are set out, and everybody seems to be on some sort of pier.

None of them have faces.  They all are just elongated bodies in different positions, like artist dummies.  A group of three are on the right side, having what looks like, party conversation.  A couple sits at one of the tables, a woman with a hunched over posture, and a man, looking at her.  His posture is somewhat inscrutable, but might be a little tense.  Another woman stands to the side watching them.

We don’t know what they’re talking about, perhaps the normal ups and downs of human living.  Two things add to this painting, the shadows, which follow all the people into the bottom of the pier, clearer than clear, sort of pinning them down in their respective spots, like this was some sort of snapshot, forever frozen in time.  Also, beyond them, the waterline rising beyond the pier.  Far from being a cozy party, the group is set in outside space, where water goes beyond the horizon.  This makes the space between their poses seem almost infinite.  Nobody touches.

Added to that the light pink sky behind them, the cocktail hour at sunset, one wonders why they have it there, as beautiful as the area seems, nobody is appreciating it, they all seem stuck in their poses, unable to see with their eyeless heads, caught up in conversation and idle chitchat.

The weight the central woman holds, so definite in her unhappiness, this dialogue at five might be a simple recitation, she might be the one who unloads her miseries at these parties, hoping for a sympathetic ear, but it’s her body that holds the full message, curled up, tired, hunched, weary.  So different than the other skinny figures in the background.

Perhaps that’s why this otherwise pretty picture holds a touch of melancholy in it.    All the figures seem lighter than air but this woman and she clearly does not fit in, though nobody seems put off by her, perhaps curious, that’s about it.  In the party that chatters away next door to the sea.

Art Review, Philip Guston, Painting Smoking Eating

28 Jan

I love Philip Guston.  Well, I don’t know so much about the man, but I sure love his art.  He has a large sense of playfulness, and much of his work looks more like illustration (in the best way) than painting.  He reminds me of those New Yorker cartoons, except his are really funny and are a hoot.

Painting Smoking Eating seems to be a favorite things painting.  We have a man in bed smoking a cigarette, with a plate of sandwiches on his chest, and a pile of shoes and some paints in the background as well as a lightbulb.  The whole thing is done mostly in roses and reds giving it a soft air.   (Keep in mind one thing Philip Guston loved painting was shoes, which when you look at his art you’ll be why of COURSE he would love shoes, he loves anything odd, and shoes are definitely odd if you think about them.)

There’s a definite coziness in this painting, as if he’s shut himself off from the world and as long as these things continue he would happily go on forever.  Naturally this won’t last for awhile, but I wonder if he was a forager, the sort of person who hides away as long as he has his needs met and goes out when he needs to get something.  Nothing wrong with that, I have the same thing.  In fact I can see this as an homage to interverted happiness, which is not the same thing at all as extroverted happiness.

Introverted happiness has to do with a pile of books on a rainy day spent in pajamas, or listening to music and drawing for hours, or watching documentaries.  Introverts don’t seek out others because they like their own company well enough.  Projects.  Just thinking.  Walks.  That sort of thing.  Introversion is a lovely state of experience that is small and quiet and perceptive.  Drinking things in.

That’s why I think this painting is lovely, it perfectly shows that sort of peaceful state where everything is provided and you don’t need the world today.  I love those days.

Art Review Dumitro Gorzo, Reality’s Nostalgia

24 Jan

I find this painting interesting in looks and in name.  To me nostalgia and reality are opposites, but then again because they are both just concepts in the first place, I guess they could be defined in any way.

This painting has a row of boys wearing bishop’s hats, blindfolded, with exaggerated boot-like legs.  Instead of hands they all have red blobs.  They’re in a row like so many old photographs have people.    If the image hadn’t been altered, it certainly would be a nostalgic photo.  However, the alterations distance the viewer.  Instead of nostalgia we see things that remind us of it, the blindfolds, the hats, the sort of mental altering of past events that constitute nostalgia.

And isn’t post-modernism the same?  A sort of ironic nostalgia, purposely altering things from the past to distance them?  For instance in emphasizing the big awkward feet of the children, indicating the sort of awkwardness that everyone has in older childhood, the blindfolds, the hats, like a photo that’s been purposely vandalized.  After all, even if we’re looking ironically, we’re still looking backward.

That’s the nostalgia trap, the trap that none of us completely escape, yearning for an unavailable mythical past.  After all, we only deface things we have some sort of connection to, and a painting like this just strengthens that connection.  Is there any way to truly look at the past with clear eyes as it was, once it has been relegated to photos and stories?  Aren’t we all blind?