Drawing Day 2017

If you’ve been on social media today (May 16, 2017) you might have seen people posting drawings with the hashtag DrawingDay. It seems that we are required to have a day for everything, but in this case I’ll curb my cynicism because I love drawing. I’m not much good at it myself, but I can revel in the works of others.

We are tactile creatures. Despite the importance of conceptual art, which minimizes the individual artist’s technical skill, and the rise of computer-generated imagery, I cannot believe that drawing will ever lose its central place in art-making.

We try to capture the world in many ways, always cognizant that it slips past us in the bittersweet flow of time. Drawing allows us to capture impressions of the world in ways no other technique can. Artist and subject collaborate with medium(s); there is an argument to be made that drawing captures this collaboration even more than painting, but this is a post about drawing. I’ll elaborate on the argument some other time.

Van Gogh drew with paint as well as with pencil or pen. His painting style is a direct descendant of his drawing style. Nothing looks quite like a van Gogh, and as a result we enter a world no one else saw:

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Kathe Kollwitz tackles the classic self-portrait with precision and energy. Her arm appears to embody creative action. Outside of the photograph, only drawing is capable of this much immediacy:

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Kathe Kollwitz, Self-Portrait, 1933. Collection of the National Gallery of Art, Washington D.C.

Drawings not only illustrate stories, they become the medium through which the stories are told, as in the comic strip. (Below, the first episode of Lyonel Feininger‘s The Kin-der-Kids, May 6, 1906)

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Drawing continues to be our introduction to art, in children’s crayons and colored pencils, and even in computer drawing programs. It doesn’t matter if you have little talent; drawing trains your eye to see everything as art. And when you see the world that way, you become more aware of the beauty and fragility of the world, and your respect and love for all creation deepens. Don’t take just one day to celebrate drawing. Do it all the time.

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Vija Celmins, Big Sea II, 1969

Nominees, please

Cornelia Parker

Cornelia Parker

I was tickled by the news that sculptor and installation artist Cornelia Parker has been chosen as the official artist of the 2017 election in the UK. It’s a bold choice, even bolder from the American view, as Parker is an artist whose work often carries a political charge. The Speaker’s Advisory Committee on Works of Art, whose Parliamentary duties include selecting the official election artist, made a good choice. The Committee has been selecting artists for this purpose since 2001. Parker will watch the election closely, and produce a work that will enter Parliament’s collection.

I’m a fan of Parker’s work; her Hanging Fire (Suspected Arson), from 1999, had a big impact on me when I first saw it at the Institute of Contemporary Art, Boston. Debris from a burned-out building, hanging suspended in space, continues to evoke thoughts of loss and violent transformation. Here it is below:

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Cornelia Parker, Hanging Fire (Suspected Arson), 1999. Charcoal, wire, pins, and nails. Gift of Barbara Lee, The Barbara Lee Collection of Art by Women. Photo by Charles Mayer Photography. © Cornelia Parker

Parker will document her progress on the Instagram account Electionartist2017.

I can’t help but wonder what sort of artist a committee of American Senators or Representatives would have chosen for last year’s election. There are art collections connected with each branch of Congress – the Senate and the House – but never have they chosen to allow one artist to, in effect, speak for them. Considering the intermittent culture wars – fanned, if not started, by politicians – and the current assaults upon the National Endowment for the Arts, it seems unlikely such an position would be created, let alone filled. But who would it be? How daring (not a word normally associated with Congress) would they get?

There are plenty of unofficial election artists. Do we even need an official one? While debating that, think about whom you would choose. Be bold, because you know Congress wouldn’t be.

The Whitney Biennial 2017 catalog reviewed

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I had thought of reviewing the 2017 Whitney Biennial catalog in context with other recent examples, as though they had some linking material, but that turned out to be a frustrating and unrevealing task. The Biennial catalog is not like a scholarly journal; its findings are matters of opinion and can seem arbitrary, not to mention the function of a catalog to support the show. Bias is only natural. Besides, the ever-changing curatorships make each Biennial catalog the first issue of a one-off publication, rather than a true series. There are general similarities, but the changing nuances of each Biennial’s theme would only make comparisons harder.

I can, however, judge each contributor on their writing skills and the overall aspect of the catalog as a component of the show. Each Biennial catalog has a plethora of gamuts to run (in case you wondered what a group of gamuts was called), because the rules of good writing and the unwritten rules of art-speak are often at odds. I myself am biased, in that my favorite living writer, Rebecca Solnit, wrote an essay for the 2008 Biennial catalog, and I am still waiting for another writer to reach her standard. Ah well.

On the whole I am not fond of the interview format, but in this case it worked well, as curators Christopher Y. Lew and Mia Locks discussed the show with Scott Rothkopf, Deputy Director at the Whitney and head of the Biennial’s group of curatorial advisors. Their conversation was informative and informal, giving us a chance to peek into the workings of such a show. (Did you know that this is the first Biennial in which every artist received some sort of compensation for participating? I didn’t. It’s welcome news, and a precedent I hope is repeated.) The interview also made a welcome opening to the book, a way to ease into it. The Director’s introduction and acknowledgements are the real first parts of the book, but as they are required gestures, we know the game doesn’t start until they finish – the ceremonial first pitch of the catalog.

The essays by Lew and Locks do what curatorial essays are supposed to do: introduce the audience to the artists and placing them within the show’s contexts without going into detail. Both curators write reasonably well, with only occasional bits of jargon. My eyebrows did rise in reaction to Lew’s referring to Ralph Waldo Emerson as “Our New World Polonius.” He seems to mean that as a compliment, which might be the nicest thing anyone has said about Polonius in a while. Not sure Emerson would feel complimented, though.

Gean Moreno, a Biennial advisor and curator of Programs at the Institute of Contemporary Art in Miami, Florida, has the next essay, and comes dangerously close to derailing the book. He knows his stuff, and his enthusiasm is infectious, but it nearly carries him (and us) away on Brobdignagian sentences that are roller-coaster rides of clauses and often unsupported concepts. An example, from page 46: “We form constituencies that, while savvy in the calculus of social-status distribution, are delinquent in their duty to establish paths of disorganizing retreat from a dead center, and deaf to the simpler task of galvanizing disgust so as to endow it with operational capacity, even if only as a battering ram in lieu of being a line of reorientation.”
The catalog is important as the only surviving official record of the Biennial, save for press releases and related videos, which naturally only capture elements of the whole. But exhibitions like this are by nature complicated and time-consuming, and there is the risk of reaching publication date before all the necessary information is complete. Even contemporary history has its lacunae, I guess.

For example: Tala Madani’s animated video “Sex Ed by God” is not mentioned in the catalog, neither in the artist’s bio nor in the checklist at the back. It must have been a late addition to the show, but its absence is doubly frustrating as it was the only one of her works I found interesting. And I was not alone; when I visited, people walked by without giving Madani’s paintings a second glance, while the video had a small crowd around it. (Understandable, as her paintings were weak and drably executed, while the video was odd and amusing.)

The artist’s entries, written by a team of 16 writers, do their job efficiently. Each artist gets a page, which is to say a column, due to the page layout. The photographs, of work from the show where possible, or other notable work, are perfectly adequate. It’s now on the shelf with its antecedents, and a pretty row of books they make, too. If you go to the Biennial (which runs until June 11) I recommend the catalog. If you don’t see it, the book will have limited appeal, but it will remain important as the one work that carries the show in context.

You can buy the catalog from the museum here.

Barkley L. Hendricks, 1945-2017

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Barkley L. Hendricks, Lawdy Mama, 1969. Collection of the Studio Museum in Harlem, New York City.

I cannot let the passing of painter Barkley Hendricks go by without a few words. Hendricks was arguably the greatest portrait painter of African-Americans in the late 20th/early 21st centuries – among painters only Kehinde Wiley comes close. But although his subjects are black men and women, Hendricks is able to stand with portraitists regardless of the race, gender, or what-have-you of their subjects. Hendricks created portraits that are part of the great stream of art history. Look at the gold background in Lawdy Mama, above; it harkens back to the gold of icons and medieval manuscript illumination, while the subject is, even after 40+ years, as modern as the world around us. Great portrait painters are rare in this technological age, and so Hendricks will be particularly missed.

Sometimes you wonder what they were thinking

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The image above is the cover to George Saunders’ 2001 book, Pastoralia, as published in the UK by Bloomsbury. This image is a little on the yellow side, but it’ll do.

A little digging brought up the source of the artwork: art by Walter Popp for the June 1952 issue of Fantastic Adventures magazine. You can see how clumsily the magazine’s logo was adapted into the book title, and how removing the man and the woman’s firearm have left her with awkwardly positioned hands. I am sorry to see the bat-creatures vanish; perhaps someone could asked Mr. Saunders to rewrite the book a little. More books should have giant bat-creatures in them, don’t you think?:

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My question is: why? I suppose it’s cheaper than paying an artist for new work, and, as Popp was long dead, there may have been no royalties to pay. If imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, what about alteration?

(Thanks to my brother Robert for tipping me off to this.)

The Whitney Biennial 2017

After a three-year hiatus, in which to settle into the new building, the Whitney Museum of American Art resumes its Biennial exhibition. So, naturally, I had to go. Before I dive into the art, a few words about the building, which I haven’t reviewed to date. I was never enamored of the previous building, designed by Marcel Breuer and now on long-term lease to the Met, which is showing Modern and Contemporary works therein. The Breuer building interiors always seemed dark and slightly claustrophobic to me. The new building from the outside looks a bit of a hodegpodge, but the interior spaces are bright and tall, with enough windows to feel connected to the city, but not so many as to interfere with installing the art. Now, on with (and to) the show!

The ostensible goal of the Whitney Biennial is to somehow capture the state of American art in the last two years. This is close to impossible; for the audience, it is about how the curators try to achieve or even acknowledge that goal. In all, 2017 curators Christopher Y. Lew and Mia Locks (read about them here) have done a good job. The state of art today is too amorphous and polymorphous to be captured – let’s set that aside and consider it instead as a series of snapshots: bits and pieces from the artistic life of the last two years, with context left up to the catalog (I bought it, and will be reviewing it later).

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As a painter, I found the painting selection to be tepid, and disappointing. Although I have already blogged about Dana Schutz’s painting Open Casket, I found another painting by her, Elevator (2017, shown above) to be far superior. A commanding picture, with people and more squashed into an elevator in a Guernica-like jumble, it was confident where Open Casket was muddled, and amusing where the other was annoying/infuriating. Interesting that they were not hung together.

Another painting highlight was Frances Stark’s Ian F. Svenonius’s “Censorship Now” for the 2017 Whitney Biennial, a series of 8 selections from punk musician Svenonius’s treatise in favor of censorship, with selected sentences/phrases underlined. Svenonius pulls no punches, and his fire is surprising considering punk’s reputation for tearing down barriers. This has been described by others as a very political Biennial, and Svenonius’s words bring chilling premonitions of the Trump administration.

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Raul de Nieves satisfied the need for eye candy and then some in his collection of figures (costumes, perhaps) made of yarn, beads, cardboard, costume jewelry, and more, stood in front of a “stained glass” (actually acetate sheets) window. The colors and textures are dramatic and gorgeous. Don’t take my word for it – look at the detail above.

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Jessi Reaves has several pieces of creatively upholstered/assembled furniture, which left me with mixed feelings. The most creative-looking works were not comfortable; the most conventional of them (shown above with the author in repose) was also the best to sit in. The piece above was one of two in a room otherwise filled with paintings by Carrie Moyer. Unusable but interesting were Kaari Upson’s faux furniture made from urethane foam.

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KAYA, a collaboration between painter Kerstin Brätsch and sculptor Debo Eilers (above) were also eye-catching and demanded closer inspection. I find it hard to summarize just what they are doing or why, and that’s okay. Brätsch’s contribution drew the eye in to half-hidden details; Eiler’s sculptural elements commingled assemblage and AbEx gestures.

Soundtracks to video works in contemporary art can vary wildly from the serene to the obnoxious; it was nice to hear Kamasi Washington‘s jazz suite, Harmony of Difference, which was not only pleasant to the ears, it was the point of the work. The video accompaniment is in support of the music, not the other way around.

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Another: Casey Gollan and Victoria Sobel created Reflections (above), text on windows. Perhaps not the most creative work in the show, but on a Spring day with the sunlight coming in the viewer wants to stay and read every word.

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Samara Golden created an installation (above) that is…well, let me describe it. You stand at a railing. Looking down from a bay of west-facing windows, you see reflections of rooms; looking up you see the same. The reflections come from mirrors above and below. The rooms being shown – a bar, what might be a hospital or nursing home, etc., are small-scale models on either side of the space. The models mounted on the floor are reflected in the upper mirrors; the models mounted to the ceiling are reflected in the lower mirrors. The spaces are very lifelike, and the change in scale is not noticeable. What you do notice is that there are too many rooms for the amount of real space, and the absence of people. The rooms have no relation to each other, yet you see them as a whole. The effect is quite fascinating. Mea culpa: I forgot to write down the title, and the catalog reads “As Yet Untitled.”

I could go on, and discuss why I did not watch Jordan Wolfson’s VR installation, or dissect the rather blah quality of most of the painters (only one of which I really disliked; the others I was just indifferent to) but this is about highlights. The Biennial is well worth a visit – it runs until June 11 – and if the day is fine, follow up with a walk along the High Line, which begins right opposite the museum.