NPT Media Update Arts Correspondent Daniel Tidwell visited some art galleries on a recent trip to New York, and came back with this dispatch. Tidwell contributes to the blog every few weeks. He most recently posted reviews of the Sylvia Hyman: Fictional Clay and Brushed with Light: Masters of American Watercolor from the Brooklyn Museum exhibits at the Frist Center.
I recently spent ten days in New York looking at art and on my first outing to Chelsea, ran into Jerry Dale McFadden, owner of Nashville’s TAG Gallery, in Printed Matter books (Jerry Dale was interviewed in a recent NPT Arts Break on Nashville’s emerging downtown art scene.) He highly recommended the New York debut of LA-based graffiti artist Shepard Fairey at Jonathan Levine Gallery. Fairey is best known as the artist responsible for the ubiquitous “Andre the Giant Has a Posse” graffiti, stickers and t-shirts which employed the unlikely image of Andre Roussimoff, the deceased professional wrestler. The two part exhibit in Chelsea and Brooklyn is graphically bold and extremely appealing with the deployment of various images associated with countercultural movements, the works have an updated sixties feel. Interestingly the opening at Levine’s outpost in DUMBO was disrupted because of an attempted stink bombing by a 24-year old man protesting street graffiti. Fairey’s work is fun to look at and would look great in a hip living room, but much of the imagery of figures such as Malcolm X, Zapatistas or Chinese Revolutionaries seemed to be used in an arbitrary manner, but perhaps that’s the point. They would look great on a t-shirt.
While I was intrigued by the drama surrounding the Fairey exhibits, the art that sticks out most in my mind on exhibit in New York is Bucket of Blood from 2004 by Chris Hanson & Hendrika Sonnenberg (Friedrich Petzel Gallery until August 11). The work is a plain, white five gallon industrial container, the kind you might use to mix paint, filled to mid level with fake blood and a broken hockey stick. It’s positioned in a corner so at first glance it could easily be mistaken for the clean up from a contractor’s job. As you get closer to the piece though, you realize that this is no ordinary paint bucket, the “blood” has apparently been stirred with the hockey stick and areas of it have dried around the rim of the bucket. Multiple implied scenarios come to mind from the piece as the artists, using extremely spare but theatrical means, imply that a violent act has taken place and encapsulate multiple narratives into the piece. Bucket of Blood was originally exhibited in 2004 as part of a larger installation which included a collapsed hockey scoreboard, microphone, speakers, and beer coolers all made of carved polystyrene. Those objects also imply a number of speculative narratives but in the end remain mute. In the context of this show with the tongue and cheek title The Lath Picture Show, Bucket of Blood’s aspirations are a welcome and startling contrast to much of the other work in this show which concerns itself with the transformation of everyday materials like plywood, bricks, chain link and more plywood into art. The rest of the show looks like Duchamp run amok at the Home Depot.
Another artist who has been using narratives, both real and implied along with minimal means for some years now is Banks Violette who has a two part show at Barbara Gladstone and Team. Two years ago I saw a remarkable skeletal church frame at the Whitney that the artist had fashioned from bonded salt. The ghostly frame alluded to a series of church burnings by members of black metal bands that took place in Norway in the early 90’s. The installation included a soundtrack by Snorre Ruch, part of the black metal band Thorns, who was imprisoned as an accessory to the murder of a member of a rival metal band. In his current work, Violette has collaborated with Stephen O’Malley of the drone metal band Sunn O))) to create an environment of collapsed girders, cascading fluorescent lights and shiny stage-like platforms functioning as spaces for performative events that occurred in the past or may have yet to take place—the constant drone of the Sunn O))) soundtrack provides an appropriately creepy and destabilizing atmosphere. While Violette’s earlier work directly referenced real world events, this work resists any easy narrative interpretation while implying to the viewer that much more is going on than is readily discernible. When I saw the installation at Team, the artist was outside on the street having a heated argument – you might even say hissy fit — on his cell phone. As befits his work, he looks the part of the dark, goth kid, with tattoos up and down his arms and a large spider web on his neck, yet somehow seeing the guy on the street whining non-stop about some problem with the show took away from his work’s serious intent and undercut Violette’s nihilistic image. I was under the impression that nihilists cared about nothing and therefore would be immune from throwing fits on the street via cell phone.
Norwegian black metal also shows up in a group show at Leo Keonig. Audrey Ewell & Aaron Altes have created a haunted house of a living room setting where two mannequins have been dressed up with kabuki like make up and are hanging out in a trash strewn living room watching a black and white video of black metal bands. The scene implies that something is afoot or that these two scary looking figures have already perpetrated something, but there’s no clear indication of what may have happened except that these two enjoy watching grainy black and white heavy metal videos and listening to blaring music. Ewell and Altes are currently editing a feature length documentary called Until the Light Takes Us which tells the story of the Norwegian black metal movement. The filmmakers spent two years living in Norway interviewing black metal musicians including the aforementioned ones who burned churches and killed members of rival bands. Their installation isn’t very good art, but I can’t wait to see the movie.
Implied narrative gets taken to the natural history museum in Erick Swenson’s show at James Cohan. In this tour de force of skilled model making, the artist has filled most of the main gallery with an icy arctic pool made of resin with the half-rotted or half-eaten corpse of a killer whale lying on an ice floe. The sheer technical bravura and heroic scale of this life-size installation are pretty amazing. As I walked around the piece and looked at the whale carcass, I began to wonder whether the whale died of natural causes or was slain by man or predator or some other unseen force. The work offers up no clues as to how this animal met its demise and so the viewer is left to make their own interpretation. As with much of the work that currently interests me, the implication of a narrative forms a deeper resonance that sticks with me long after I’ve seen the work. In its refusal to give up an easy interpretation, the work defies sentimentality and addresses deeper ideas and issues in ways that would be overwhelmingly pretentious with more obvious means.
On NPT, visual art has continued to be in the spotlight as Simon Schama’s excellent Power of Art series reached its conclusion on Monday night with an episode on Rothko which was quite possibly the best, most powerful profile of an artist and his work that I’ve ever seen. Schama’s breathless and sometimes overwrought prose was finally in perfect synch with the subject matter. It’s easy to forget that there was a time, not so long ago, when artists believed their work could change the world. Schama masterfully communicates the seriousness with which Rothko approached his work and discusses the formal qualities of specific paintings in an extremely powerful way. It was an hour of television with life changing implications.