Nonnegotiable Time

Neko Case, a the vocalist in cult band “The New Pornographers,” is one of one hundred artists, entrepreneurs and writers interviewed for “In the Company of Women,” a surprisingly unsappy coffee table book. 

Pictured above is what she had to say about time and making it to make art. I agree. 

The Most Important Work at the 2016 London Frieze

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Wolfgang Tillsman takes a selfie

For some reason I wrote (most of) the post below over six months ago and never published it. For some other reason I thought about it today.

Perhaps it is because I finally went to get my moles checked by a scrubbed-clean dermatologist who reminded me of Oscar Wild’s Dorian Gray. And, the most important work (in my dumb-art view) at last year’s London Frieze is was taken at Reading Prison, where Oscar Wilde was incarcerated for homosexuality. The photograph hangs above; it is basically a selfie by artist Wolfgang Tillsman: “Separate System, Reading Prison.”

The image’s reference to both Dorian Gray and Francis Bacon is evident. This catapults a new association: perhaps Bacon was painting Gray all along. Insistently, fearlessly, longingly.

As with much of Bacon’s oeuvre, and the very particular picture of Dorian Gray, a distorted, forward-facing male figure intimidates the viewer with his unmade face. However, Tillsman’s piece is not a picture, it is a photograph. Here, the artist (as was the case with Bacon/Wilde)  is not the one dissembling what’s inside the frame, subjecting it with his brush. No. In Tillsman’s image, a piece of thick glass distorts the artist. Here, the artist is no longer the lens that is able to affect his surroundings. Here, the surroundings distort the artist.

The message Tillsman delivers is clear: things have changed. The world disfigures the subject while the artist is trapped, forced to stand there and watch.

Magical Thinking

For a few weeks this book has been on my mind. Didion, Didion, Didion. And her “Year of Magical Thinking,” written during the first year she mourned her husband’s sudden death. 

This for me has proven to be a year of magical thinking, a year of metamorphosing concrete barricades into trampolines via transformative thought. 

Magical thinking works. Didion said it first. I look forward to going through her words. 

Bon Voyage

I can think of few things I enjoy more than buying a new book at an airport. The thought of being trapped in the air inside a metal tube for hours with nothing to do but read or watch bad movies is thrilling. The more so with a brand new glossy book upon my lap. 

On my flight today I carry the story above. Garcia Marquez’s first formal forray into the novelesque: a literary rendition of a true-life shipwreck tale. The “actual” story took place here, in Colombia, where I often work and play. Marquez’s version was first published in installments in one of the main national newspapers. 

Which brings forth the question: why doesn’t installment writing happen anymore? Perhaps this blog will do something about that. 

But, for now, there is nothing but paper and plane. 

Break Point Break

British artist Fiona Banner turned the opening scenes of the cult classic Point Break into a huge canvas with red words. The point? Convey the break, the chiasm between what is experienced visually and mentally. Suspense is lost. Impact becomes flaccid. Scenes become silent. In the case of high-voltage action, Banner implies that sometimes the movie is better than the book. 

On view at the ever magnificent British Tate. 

The Difference between Coolness and Artness: What Turns Everyday Objects into Art

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The Frieze says “Hi!” via Martin Soto Climent’s Frenetic Gossamer (2016). Photo: Skye Arundhati Thomas.

Inevitably, many of the highlights at this year’s London Frieze are works that turn common objects into art. To enter the Fair, visitors must walk by a courtyard and  up a narrow hallway where Martin Soto’s pantyhose installation cuts the sky into the vaulted Gothic cathedral lines of a sacred place of worship.

The Gagosian is the first gallery one meets, featuring the works of Edmund de Waal: white and black porcelain vessels and small objects arranged onto shelves of the same color. The fragility of the exhibit is humbling. Here is a work of pure, selfless devotion to the things made by Man. Here is a work that, for a change, does not lessen but, rather, heightens the role of that being who is always lurking behind at art fairs: The Collector. But, more on this later, much later.

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Edmund de Waal, white sail (detail), 2016. Photo: Mike Bruce.

Immediately to the right of The Gagosian is London heavy-hitter Sadie Coles Gallery. Here hang several pieces by Scottish artist Jim Lambie. My favorite is Pin Code 3379 (2016), pictured below, which uses thousands of safety pins to hold together a torn navy blue canvas in lines that conjure a Scottish kilt. The scarred canvas belies the function of the safety pin, pointing a pricked finger at the past and present pains associated with Scotland’s national identity. It holds together, but at what cost.

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Around the corner from The Gagosian is Hong Kong’s Simon Lee Gallery. On display here are works by the Polish artist Paulina Olowska. Her installation includes paintings as well as a massive pile of cobalt-dyed cotton in the center of the space. Looking at it feels menacing: at any moment, the strands of cotton might turn into tentacles and drag you in.  It is a great feeling.

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But, then I saw the piece below by artist Haugeue Yang at Seoul’s Kukje Gallery. The S-shaped panel of small bells turns, making the piece jingle.  It was cool, sure, but I felt nothing. I began to wonder what makes a piece of art made from everyday objects successful? What is it that actually makes it art, and not just a cool thing to hang?

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I’ve come up with two words that sum it up: sanctity and uncanniness. In order for a piece built with everyday things to “do” it, to interfere with a viewer’s emotions, it must transgress the sanctity of the objects it uses.  The bells in the piece above fulfill their intended purpose: they chime. Edmund de Waal’s perfect white vessels, however, will never be sipped. No one will slip Soto’s pantyhose on.

It is this transgression, this violation of an object’s raison d’être, that provokes a sense of uncanniness in the viewer. Something is off, and it is creepy.  

“Uncanny” was one of Freud’s favorite words. I really like it, too, because it identifies a feeling that eschews description. Olowska’s pile of blue cotton is terrifying. Why? It is uncanny. Why? Something is not right. What? The object and our expectations of it. Why? Cotton exists to make underwear. But, what if it does not? Then, maybe, we must probe our surroundings.

And, it is in that private, silent rereading of life that our chest encounters art.

 

No to New Neon

fullsizerenderNeon art began in the 1960’s when an artist named Dan Flavin first displayed it in a New York gallery. Back then neon was street, current and controversial. Indeed, The New York Times compared it to Marcel Duchamp’s urinal: “When Dan Flavin first brought [neon] into art galleries during the 1960’s, he was, in effect, doing what Marcel Duchamp had done with his ready-mades nearly 50 years earlier.”

1960 was a long time ago: 56 solid years have passed.

But, somehow, someway, neon art keeps making it into the world’s most prestigious booths inside the planet’s most important art fairs. And, there are usually crowds of people gathered around taking selfies.

My problem isn’t with abstract neon art, but with the textural variety. Once, fifty years ago, when neon was used to light up offbeat words it challenged the way people thought and created meaning. Now, several decades later, when neon is used to say cute things, it is just cute. And cute things belong in a corner restaurant, not in prime wall space at the London Frieze, which is where the works pictured above and below made their debut.

Illuminating a romantic phrase or a catchy word with bright neon can certainly be regarded as a creative act, but it should no longer be considered top-shelf art.

Indeed, if it’s not happening already, Urban Outfitters should soon offer a selection of aptly priced neon signs, and place them right next to the stacks of t-shirts that read: “Keep Calm and Blah Blah Blah.”

(Note: This text should in no way be construed as a diss upon the house of neon. I happen to love neon and consider it a wonderful, decorative part of life.)

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