Armoried to the Teeth: Reflections on the Armory Show 2012

If you don’t know, the Armory Show is a big, international art fair held in New York City every year. The title refers to the historic 1913 exhibition of avant-garde art in New York that really broke significant ground in bringing experimental and modern styles to American artists and audiences.  Next year will be their 100-year anniversary, and I’m sure the festivities then will be truly epic.

But enough of the history.

I attended the show on Thursday, March 8.  The exhibition was on for four days, but for financial reasons, I just went for one.  If you’ve never been, it really is more of an art fair than an exhibition.  Think of it like a meat-market, but instead of stall after stall of pigs and other assorted animal parts, it’s row after row of delicious contemporary art.  It’s a market, and almost everything to be seen is on sale.  For a few thousand dollars I could have picked up a Damien Hirst print*, or a Cindy Sherman photograph, or decorated my dining room with a small Tomory Dodge painting.  But I wasn’t there to buy, I was there to see.

The whole experience is a little chaotic: noisy, crowded with collectors, students, artists, gallery owners and gawkers, like myself, undulating through ultra-mod “lounges,” the live performances and installations scattered through the labyrinthine hall.  I saw things I had seen in books and taught about in classes, and things I have never seen before by artists I’d never hear of.  In short, I was in heaven.

Being an art fair, there was no real theme or unifying thread to hold onto in making an overall judgment of the show, so I’ll make some comments about specific things and works I noticed while I was there.

Cindy Sherman

First of all, there were a lot of Cindy Sherman photos scattered about the hall.  Multiple gallery stalls had prints of hers in plain view.  That is no doubt because she simultaneously had a retrospective show up at the MoMA.  While Sherman is certainly not lacking in critical support and recognition, I did enjoy seeing people make a big deal out of her work, which I’ve admired for a long time.  I was at the Armory Show a few years ago and don’t recall her being such a presence then.   The most prominent artist I remember from that visit was Paul McCarthy, who had a monster wall of photos which left me stunned (and a little nauseous).  Most of what I saw this time of Sherman’s were her newer series, from about the past 10 years.  She was positioned, in many cases, like a hook to get people into the gallery’s cubicle to see the rest of their works.  I found it interesting that Sherman seems so well collected by such a diversity of galleries.  Drawn in by one of her full-color photos from about four years ago, I looked around the walls of a gallery set up to see a variety of small prints and paintings, each interesting in their own right, but not in the same category as the Sherman work.   And so Sherman was, her face peering around unexpected corners, across spaces intersected with pop art prints and Neo-Expressionist splatter in her anonymous disguises, familiar but distant, and a bit out of place.

Perhaps it was the displaced feeling of her works that made me notice them.  Art fairs like this tend to feel rather random, just given the immense diversity of what they have to offer; but the number of Sherman prints peppered throughout just seemed to drive home the arbitrariness of the whole arrangement for me.  No doubt, too, I felt a connection to the sometimes dramatic, but familiar face of Sherman’s performed identities, feeling a bit disconnected myself from this utterly hip, urbane art-community that shuffled past me with their iPads while I scribbled notes and names in my little red notebook.  I was performing, too.  I love this community, I love this atmosphere, but I’ve never really felt a part of it, like a member of it.  I dress the part, and try to say the right things, but underneath I know I’m play-acting.  I felt an odd, little kinship with the women in Sherman’s photos, they were acting, too, and in many instances looked as out of place as I sometimes felt.

Andreas Serrano

The photographer Andreas Serrano was represented at the Show with his Anarchy series.  It’s a very visually powerful series, and you can see images from it HERE along with an interview from Serrano.  This series uses carefully framed and staged shots of children’s toys to undermine ideas of innocence and to open up the world of make-believe to some rather sinister overtones, to paraphrase Serrano.  The photos are rich, huge and impressive.  They are deceptively simplistic, and at first glance I was a bit disappointed.  Given his past associations with controversy (this is the guy who gave us Piss Christ after all), I at first didn’t understand how to take the Anarchy pictures.  Challenging, but not (in my view, anyway) overtly offensive, they seemed too obvious and blunt in their statements for the usually provocative Serrano.  I had to give myself some time with the images, coming back to them later in the night for another look, before I really started to appreciate what they were.

Using children’s playthings to enact scenes of war, murder and sacrifice and photographing them in silhouette, Serrano gives them an odd character.  The objects are universalized but also made monumental.  Some of the images had many figures in them, but I found the most poignant ones had the least going on compositionally.  For me the most powerful image was The Hanging (it can be seen in the above link).  Reminiscent, simultaneously, of both innocent child’s play of stringing up toys to be battered by the breeze and of the most horrific photos of lynching, the suturing of these feelings and of the viewer’s immediate identification of both is disturbing and powerful.  While I still find his Morgue series to be the most emotionally immediate and moving work he’s done, I did (eventually) enjoy the power and surprising subtly on display in Anarchy.

Bill Viola

I’ll be honest, one of the major reasons I wanted to go to the Armory Show this year was because the last time I went I had a really profound experience with a Bill Viola piece.  It had been totally unexpected.  I knew who Viola was, I had seen an exhibition of his work in Chicago in 1996, but I wasn’t specifically looking for him at the Armory when, while walking down the hall I noticed several people stopped and looking at glossy photo print on the wall.  Or, that is to say, I thought they were looking at a photo.  It was actually a video.  In true Viola fashion, it moved so slowly, the surface of the monitor was so smooth, and the resolution so crisp that anyone at first glance would have assumed it was a still photo.  I stood, transfixed, by that image for about twenty minutes.  At that point, pretty sure it was then looped back to where I had started watching it, I moved on.  It was beautiful.  I thought it was a remarkable piece of art and use of technology.  And when I decided to go to New York this year, I was looking forward to seeing what Viola was going to have there.

Alas, I have to say I was disappointed.  This is not a reflection on Viola, just my random bad luck that the galleries there were not displaying much of his work this year.  I saw a small installation of two pieces, Adele and Helena, which were connected to his Ocean Without a Shore installation.  (A great piece you can learn about from the Tate Modern video HERE.)  To say that many of Viola’s works are abut life, death and transcendence is like saying that water is wet, so I’ll spare you the over-wrought interpretation.  This particular paring featured two screens with a woman on one and a young girl on the other approaching the “wall” used in the Ocean Without a Shore installation.  The intriguing part was the way the little girl quickly approached the barrier (or quick for a Bill Viola video) but then hesitated, before turning away, while the woman approached more slowly, but without hesitation passed through.  Poignant, but I feel still obvious in its meaning and limited in potential alternate readings given the source material.  As much as I love the aesthetic of his works and the subtlety of his messages, I’m wondering when and if Viola will break new ground in his repertoire.  I have no idea what he’s currently working on, but I do hope we can see him branch out a bit more into some different themes and even different looking images.  I can’t help but feel like I’m seeing the same stories replayed again and again.

Others

Okay, this is a cop-out, and each of these artists deserves their own, separate review.  But I’m already over 1,500 words on this post and there are other museums I want to discuss.  These are artists whose works I noticed and was impressed by and deserve mention, but unfortunately will just get my random notes.

Kahinde WileyI was thrilled to see several galleries with Kahinde Wiley works.  He’s an amazing artist and I love his images, it’s fantastic to see his works bumping shoulders with the big names of the art world, exactly where he should be.  I see him becoming one of the preeminent artists of my generation (we’re the same age).

Isaac Julien:  His True North series from 2004 was very good and had an eerie quality to them.  They reminded me a bit of Berni Searle’s video Mute.  

May Stevens:  Does anyone else think the faces in her drawings look a little bit like William Kentridge, or is it just me?

Christoph Steinmeyer:  His paintings immediately reminded me of a cross between Yinka Shonibare and Kathy Grove.  Perhaps that’s not a fair assessment, but I’d need to know more about Steinmeyer’s influences before I comment further.

Laura Lancaster:  is a fantastic painter.  That sums it up.

Marina Abrahamovic:  There was a performance installation in her gallery’s stall.  The piece was called Bed for Human Use and consisted of a large wooden table, about a meter off the ground, with a shelf attached over the head.  A person (not Abrahomovic) was laying on the table, perfectly still, where on the underside of the shelf was a large cluster of crystals which came down to a sharp-looking point that just touched the performer’s forehead.  I watched the performance for quite some time, but there was no further action.  I wanted to mention it because it startled me.  I was just rounding the corner, and boom, I nearly walked into this table with a person on it.  Excellent piece.

Leandro Erlich:  A very interested 3D clouds on acrylic.  Nice, and I have no idea how he did it.

Tomory Dodge: I love his smaller paintings, they’re so textural.  If I could I’d have about a dozen of them in my house.

Tomory Dodge, Cloud Cover, 2008

So that’s my take on the Armory 2012.  It was overwhelming but rewarding.  I probably won’t have the chance to go to the 100 year anniversary party next year, but I know I’d love to.

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*I’ll discuss Hirst more when I write about my trip to the MoMA.

Some thoughts on New York City, or the Tragic Unfairness of Life

So now that I’ve had about a week to process my trip to NYC (by “process”, of course I mean catching up on all the work I didn’t do while I was gone) I thought I should probably start posting some things on Arts Undone.  So on tap for the very near future will be my take on the Armory Show, the Yinka Shonibare show at the James Cohen Gallery, some thoughts on the Met and the John Chamberlain exhibit at the Guggenheim.

But first, something completely random.

So I was at the Guggenheim last week, admiring the aforementioned Chamberlain show.  In the museum that day were a large group of small school children.  I’m not good at guessing ages, but these were little kids, I’d say second grade mostly, with a few groups of older but still elementary-school-aged kids.  They were well behaved, so this isn’t a rant about screaming kids in museums, it is rather a self-pitying lament over how kids today (in certain locations) don’t know how good they got it.

Ya know where I got to go when I was a school kid on a field trip?  The Will Rogers Museum.

The Will.  Rogers.  Museum.

The highlight of the trip, EVERY YEAR, was a trip to the museum shop to buy a RABBIT PELT.

Seriously.  That was the fun we had in northeast Oklahoma.

Now I’m not saying anything against Will Rogers, or the fine volunteers and staff of his museum.  I’m just sayin’ when I, as an adult, weigh my childhood experiences looking at dusty dioramas in a dark wood paneled exhibition space, only to be rewarded with the privilege of spending my allowance on a dead animal skin, against these children’s experiences sitting cross-legged on the floor of one the world’s premiere modern art museums surrounded by contemporary and historic, priceless masterpieces*…. Well, I get a little jealous, that’s all.

As I stood at the top of the Guggenheim’s ramp walkway, looking down into the center of the building, seeing those small children, who would probably never fully appreciate the extraordinary privilege they were experiencing, I thought to myself for not the first time that I had grown up in the wrong place(s).

I blame my parents. **

But now, on to the art-talk…

* A group of them were admiring Wassily Kandinsky’s Komposition I and having a very thoughtful conversation about form and meaning that I only long to hear from my freshman college students.  That is so not an exaggeration.

**  Please read with all intended sarcasm.

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“It’s great to be great, but it’s greater to be human.”—Will Rogers.

Image from http://www.guggenheim.org.

Becoming Undone

So this is the very first post of this blog.  Somehow I thought the mood would be….grander.  Or at least more thoughtful.  At any rate, let me open this blog by just trying to summarize what it is I want to do here.

I’m an art lover.  And frankly, the more abstract, odd, performance-based or esoteric it is, the more I love it.  That’s not to say, though, that I love everything.  I think there is a lot of bad art masquerading as intellectual art, and I hate that.

I teach art history at the college level, and my career often has me at odds trying to explain to college students (both art and non-art majors) what all this modern and contemporary art is, why it is, and why it matters to them.  It seems if I point them in the direction of books or articles, they’re so over-written with big, obtuse words and needless critical jargon as to be un-readable, or they’re such intensely personal reflections as to be beyond objective consideration.  There has to be something in between.  There has to be a way to discuss, intelligently, contemporary art and to describe why it matters, because I believe, it does matter.

There’s a quote about being a theorist that says a theorist is one who is undone by theory.

In my graduate student career I learned what it was to be undone by theory, to have my ideas and certainty shaken (or at least challenged).  Although I don’t subscribe completely to the notion of art as theory or theory as art, I do think that art, when it works, works in the same way.  Art can undo you.  Looking at, experiencing, well done art is to be undone, even if just a little.  It gets in your head or in your heart and it unravels you just enough to experience something greater.  Bad art can mimic this effect or imply it, but good art, real art, just does it, and it’s magic.

What I want to do in this blog is to try to explain and to share this feeling with others.  This blog is for people who love contemporary art, for those who hate it, for those who are well learned in art history, for those who have no concept what I’m talking about.   This is a place for me to try to articulate what it is I think and feel when I look at good art.  If in so doing I can encourage, teach or entertain, all the better.

Ultimately, this blog is a journal about being undone by art.