Friday, April 27, 2012

Chelsea Gallery Notes: Nir Hod, Adolph Gottlieb, Nigel Cooke, Pia Fries, Tony Matelli, and Tim Hetherington

I felt a quasi-religious feeling upon entering the Nir Hod exhibition at Paul Kasmin. The title of the exhibition, Mother, refers to the image of a woman repeated, icon-like, across the gallery. Vaguely cinematic but with only subtle variation in color to distinguish one painting from the next, I wondered about the significance of the repetition and the meaning of her gesture.

The woman could easily be shopping on Fifth Avenue. Towards the back of the gallery there is a small reproduction revealing the well-known source: Hod's paintings are based on a photograph taken in the Warsaw ghetto during the Holocaust.  If you didn’t get the reference upon entering, it comes as a kick in the head.

This work raises many questions. Slight changes in proportion and the addition of color make Hod's woman seem contemporary. Nominally, the boy is the subject of the source photo.  What are the effects of the decisions to focus on her and to remove her from the context of time? Is Hod treating the original photograph -- and the Holocaust as a subject -- with respect? The press release did make a comparison to Warhol, which in this case might be a red flag. Is the repetition an emptying out of meaning, or an intensification? I thought about all of this while in the gallery, and for some time afterwards. In the end, my feeling is that Mother serves as an elegy in particular to the unknown woman in the photograph. The temporal decontextualization brings us closer to her. And the repetition extends our empathy for her suffering to all the other unknown victims of the Holocaust.  

Nir Hod, Mother, at Paul Kasmin, 515 W. 27th St., through April 28, 2012.

When I think of Adolph Gottlieb, I think of black, white and red. Pace Gallery’s Gravity, Suspension, Motion: Paintings 1954-1972, shows Gottlieb’s strength as a colorist. This is more Gottlieb than you’ll ever see in the permanent collection of any museum and well worth checking out.

Adolph Gottlieb, Gravity, Suspension, Motion: Paintings 1954-1972 at Pace Gallery, 534 W 25th St., through April 28, 2012.

Nigel Cooke produces paintings in quotation marks. Mixing references to the grand gesture, Bosch, and clichés of pulp illustration, Cooke is a master of bathos. I don't normally go for this sort of thing, but I felt the paintings were unexpectedly compelling.

Nigel Cooke at Andrea Rosen, 525 W 24th St., through May 12, 2012.

Pia Fries also quotes from the history of painting. Her work explores gesture and the nature of paint as substance. There are some interesting passages where the paint looks extruded in ribbons onto the surface, others in which the paint is scraped, pushed and pulled, as if to catalog the various ways of manipulating the material.

Pia Fries, randmeer, at CRG, 548 W 22nd St., through April 28.

I’ve come across Tony Matelli’s dusty mirrors in a number of places recently, but the technical tour de force in his show at Leo Koenig is a sculpture of a man falling down. Supported by just the part of the shirt where it touches the floor, the piece is an amazing bit of engineering.

Tony Matelli at Leo Koenig, 541-545 W 23rd St., through May 19, 2012.

Yossi Milo is presenting the work of Tim Hetherington, a photojournalist who was killed while working in Libya last year.  One group of somber and sobering pictures show sleeping soldiers in Afghanistan – the implied connection of sleep and death is hard to ignore. Another group was taken during the civil war in Liberia.  In both, Hetherington tells the story of war and conflict from the point of view of the participants, personalizing events which are most often understood at a distance.

Tim Hetherington at Yossi Milo, 245 10th Ave., through May 19, 2012.

I've always admired Margaret Thatcher Projects commitment to process-oriented work. They have an excellent group show up right now, Surface Tension. The standout for me is Cathy Choi, who makes paintings on the verge of becoming sculptures. Her color appears intense viewing the work from a distance yet simultaneously subtle upon approach.

A couple of other shows I think are worth seeing, without comment:

Iran do Espirito Santo, Switch, at Sean Kelly, 528 W 29th St., through April 28. 2012.

Mauricio Ancalmo at James Cohan, 533 W 26th St., through May 5, 2012.

Anne Collier at Anton Kern Gallery, 532 W. 20th St., through May 12, 2012.

Thursday, April 5, 2012

Cindy Sherman and Eugene Atget at MoMA: Photography vs. Reality

The Museum of Modern Art is host to two significant exhibitions, both of which explore Photography’s relationship to reality. Cindy Sherman’s 6th floor mid-career retrospective and Eugene Atget’s “Documents pour artistes”, hidden away in the Photography 3rd floor galleries, represent diametrically opposed positions.

First some notes on the Sherman retrospective, which is the big draw. The first room held a couple of revealing images. Revealing to me at least, because I had never considered Sherman in the context of Warhol, and his influence on her early work seems so obvious in retrospect. I appreciated gaining that insight. I also appreciated the playfulness of Sherman’s early work itself. A good example is an animated stop-action film: paper cutouts of Sherman trying on outfits, much like a children’s game. Unfortunately, I don't have images of the earliest pieces from the show - a good reason to go and see for yourself.

The organization of the exhibition as whole is somewhat confusing: alternating between chronological and thematic. Pictures from the same projects get dispersed among many of the themed sections, making the themes seem somewhat arbitrary or forced. One gallery, containing a series of images primarily referring to Renaissance and Dutch Master era painting was decked out like a room from the Met, with painted walls and benches in the center of the room. This seemed really silly to me. There is a difference in the way one looks at an “Old Master” painting and it’s pastiche. And the curators know the difference. I wondered if this was done tongue-in-cheek, or worse, was it an example of pandering? In either case, I don’t think institutions should take the role of jokers or panderers. Let’s leave that to the artists.

What about Sherman’s work itself? No one can contest that she is an important and influential artist. Her Untitled Film Stills are a significant piece of feminist art. Feminists have taken the work to argue that in a male-dominated society, women cannot have authentic public selves; instead, women, in Sartre’s sense, live-for-others. Women are forced to become actresses, taking on only roles permitted by men. In her work, Sherman is the actress, and by deconstructing the roles, she undermines them. Not everyone agreed with the feminist interpretation then, and some may think it is no longer applicable now, but that was the argument at the time the work was produced and it did influence a lot of artists.

I had mixed feelings about the show. I find the work from her middle period the most interesting: the clowns, the viscera, and body parts. However, I don’t think this work was ever resolved. The clowns don’t grate the way Nauman’s do and generally, the feeling of revulsion from the work just isn’t as strong as it could be. But I admire Sherman for taking the risk. For one, it was so different from what she had previously done, and second, if done well, it wouldn’t be easy to like. I get the sense of an artist trying to go deeper, to go beyond what she already knows, and beyond her comfort zone. This is what artists should do, at least from time to time.

Unfortunately, I don’t think she went far enough. And where she ends up – the most recent work in the exhibition -- falls back on ideas that are by now familiar and safe.  So the trajectory isn’t quite right.  There is another aspect of the later work that bothers me: it seems filled with narcissism. I don’t mean to suggest that Sherman is a narcissist for photographing herself. Rather, I have the feeling that the work indulges our ever-growing societal narcissism. We, collectively, are too much in love with ourselves.

Unlike Sherman, Eugene Atget is nowhere to be found within his photographs. Atget is the type of photographer it can take quite a long time to get, but it is worth it when you get it. The title of the exhibition, “Documents pour artistes”, comes from the signage on Atget’s shop. He was a photographer whose business was to produce images to be used as a reference by painters working in the studio. He was creating source material for other artists to use, rather than making images to be valued as aesthetic objects themselves. It is in good part because of his desire to describe that the work has the power it does.

When I think about Sherman and Atget together, I think about the significance of a photograph’s ability to record every detail, and how enticing it can be to simply look at the surface of things. I also think about the presence or the absence of the photographer as a deliberate and personal choice each artist makes – and the wonderful conundrum that results: When being there is not being there. And when seemingly not present, is there, nevertheless.