Sanford Biggers @ MOCAD

Sanford Biggers Subjective Cosmology opens at MOCAD

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Sandford Biggers, From the Moon Medicin performance, All images Courtesy of Sarah Rose Sharp

The MOCAD kicked off their Fall program this weekend with an opening-night throwdown for Subjective Cosmology by Sanford Biggers on Friday, September 9, followed by an artist talk and walk-through of the exhibition on Saturday, September 10. While most art exhibitions feature an opening celebration, the events unfolding around Subjective Cosmology, including a performance by Biggers’ musical group, Moon Medicin, were integrated with work on display—and a continuation of Biggers’ larger body of work—acting as a kind of charging ceremony, or christening of sorts, for the show.

“I’m not focusing on one particular type of media in this conversation,” said Biggers, during the slide show and lecture portion of his artist talk at MOCAD, “because I consider myself to be a conceptual artist and an inter-media artist.” Indeed, the work within Subjective Cosmology runs the media gamut: kinetic inflatable sculpture in vinyl, multi-layer staged video art and footage collage, live musical performance, found object assemblage, fiber wall mosaic, and even a tiny, delicate origami-style paper horse. There is media-within-media; an object sculpture based on a large-scale industrial spool is displayed in one corner, but also appears in some of the video footage, being rolled around by figures wearing the same feature-obscuring masks donned by the members of Moon Medicin in live performance adjacent to the video collage (and subsequently displayed on a coat rack in the midst of the exhibition). Video clips projected on three walls of the exhibition alternately display process videos of the creation of a recent series of small bronze sculptures, formed by “ballistic sculpting” (aka being augmented by being shot through with bullets).

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Sandord Biggers, From the Moon Medicin performance 2016

Biggers deals almost exclusively in “ethnographic objects,” picked up through his international travels and residencies. Just as he engages with myriad media, Biggers seems to create no boundaries for himself in terms of cultural source material, resulting in a final product that might be considered ethnographic collage. This practice recently drew some fire from critic Taylor Aldridge, with particular focus on a piece titled Laocoön—the original appeared at Art Basel Miami last December, and there is a scaled-up version of the same work currently on display at the MOCAD. The supine figure on display in the piece is instantly recognizable as the titular character of the cartoon show Fat Albert, and his labored posture, made kinetic by a cycle of slight inflation and deflation, signals a dying breath that triggers a host of loaded connotations. Most immediately, one thinks of the show’s creator, Bill Cosby, who has fallen from hallowed status in the wake of rape accusations—but the positioning and the association with breathing cannot help but conflate the figure on display with the victims of lethal and excessive force in a wave of high-profile conflicts with police officers around the country. The leveraging of this loaded imagery has spawned its own kind of art-world fetishization of black bodies—much as the horror of sexual violence against women has become almost banal in its pervasiveness as subject material for wildly popular TV shows like Law & Order: Special Victims Unit, or Criminal Minds.

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Sanford Biggers, Moon Medicin costumes on display; according to Biggers they have now been retired and there will be new costumes at the next performance.

Certainly, Aldridge is entitled to her objections around the context and impulses at work in Laocoön, but it strikes me that the question raised by Biggers’ work is more one of appropriation on a broad level. Perhaps Biggers is trading in trauma associated with recent news events, but he deals equally in trauma associated with the slave trade—as with Lotus, an etched glass piece that mashes up renderings of the cargo hold on an 18th century slave vessel with the traditional Buddhist symbol for purity; as with Blossom, which brings the haunting subtext of the American jazz standard, “Strange Fruit,” to bear on the “Jena Six Incident,” involving an altercation between black and white students in Jena, Louisiana; and in Shuffle, Shake, Shatter, a three-part film/video suite on display at the MOCAD, which explores identity formation while abstractly retracing the North Atlantic Slave Trade route, from Europe to the Americas and finally Africa.

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Sandford Biggers, Video projections (still view) 2016

“I was thinking about appropriation, and what does it mean to use these symbols,” said Biggers in his artist talk, referring specifically to a series of works that involved obscuring and embedding objects in plastic Buddha statues, such as B-Bodhisattava. “I realized…all bets were off. You can put anything you want to in this [clear-cast Buddha].” Cultural appropriation is a sticky subject, particularly when one is in the position to capitalize on the potential suffering or ideas of others, and Biggers work raises questions in terms of who is entitled to claim certain cultural cache—and potentially profit from it—and who is not. The most de facto stance is to draw racial boundaries with respect to certain cultural traditions, but the fact of the matter is, the bulk of Americans are descended from willing or unwilling transplants from other places, and one’s ability to claim any given heritage can be tenuous, depending on who you ask.

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Sanford Biggers, Sleeping Giant (detail view) 2016

On some level, Biggers appears to be skimming the surface of so many different cultures that his work at the MOCAD merges into a kind of living collage—it feels unclear, at times, if the whirl of symbols and signifiers have actual meaning, or if we merely live in a society so densely programmed with media referencing other media that you can create a sense of meaning by the old Mortal Kombat strategy of simply mashing a lot of buttons at once. Moon Medicin kicked off their MOCAD performance with a cover of “Fly Like an Eagle,” wearing cartoonish masks, in front of video clips from Cool World and Who Framed Roger Rabbit—both movies that juxtaposed animated and “real” world imagery. The meta-ness of the moment was perhaps enough to feel as though something was going on, but what, exactly, is left pretty widely open to interpretation.

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Sanford Biggers, Seen, 2016

In fact, Laocoön references a statue, which references a piece of somewhat ambiguous Greek mythology. The eponymous subject of the story committed a transgression—in some versions he drew ire from Athena for attempting to reveal the military gambit of the Trojan Horse, in others he disrespected a temple of Poseidon—and was punished with the death of his sons. That Biggers has chosen to double-down on the presentation of this contentious work (literally tripling the height of the piece in this iteration) underscores a double-bind that is as ambiguous as the variations on the tale: Laocoön was either punished for doing wrong, or for being right. In his grasp-and-mash-up, is Biggers doing wrong? Is he right, and all bets are off, when it comes to cultural appropriation? Does this practice enhance understanding and bridge cultural divide, or does it wedge a dangerous foot in the door for people to perpetuate sensationalist imagery and culture-grabbing for their own gain? When does collage as a form generate richness in meaning, and when does it become mere sensory overload?

When dealing in cultural imagery this heavily loaded, these are the questions every responsible viewer must ask and decide for themselves—and Subjective Cosmology is perhaps more fertile ground than most to meditate upon these thorny considerations. As the title would suggest, what you read in Biggers’ cosmos is entirely up to you.

MOCAD

 

 

Colnaghi @ Wasserman Projects

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Frans Francken, Feast of the Gods, Oil on Panel – A landscape with Theseus and Achelous, with the Triumph of Poseidon and Amphitrite beyond Frans Francken the Younger / Antwerp, 1581 – Antwerp, 1642 Joos de Momper the Younger / Antwerp, 1564 – Antwerp, 1635 Signed lower left :Dᴼ FFRANCK. IN.E.F. Oil on panel, 72 x 157 cm. (28 ½ x 61 ¾ in.)

The Wasserman Projects opened a new exhibition, Old Masters / New World from the Colnaghi Gallery of London, for a limited time, September 7-11, 2016. The work includes major painting and sculpture by such artists as Frans Francken, Gaetano Gandolfi, Jusepe de Ribera, and Pedro Duque y Cornejo.

Gary Wasserman, Founder of Wasserman Projects says, “We share Colnaghi’s vision to connect the historic with the contemporary, and to show art in a diversity of contexts and through a wide range of collaborations. To be able to show these tremendous Old Master works in the contemporary, industrial-style setting of our exhibition space is an exciting proposition that highlights the connection between the past and present and offers a new way of experiencing both the art and the space.”

If you look at the trajectory of Wasserman Projects, set in a former firehouse in Detroit’s historic Eastern Market, the work on exhibition there has been contemporary and at times conceptual. The gallery works with artists from across disciplines and around the world, presenting exhibitions and performances that spark a discourse on art, but also cultural, social, or political issues, which are particularly active and timely in Detroit.

In attendance for this opening was Jorge Coll, CEO of Colnaghi, “We are thrilled to build on our long and storied history in America by holding our first exhibition in Detroit, and to be doing so in partnership within many of the greatest American museums and collections, including ones in this city. It is in this spirit of engaging new and existing communities of arts enthusiasts and collectors that we are holding Old Masters / New World in Detroit. We see our vision to present Old Master works across a wide range of locales as parallel to the missions of museums and universities to educate on the arts.”

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Fray Juan Bautista Maíno “The Holy Family with the Infant Saint John the Baptist” Pastrana, 1581 – Madrid, 1649, Oil on Canvas 110.5cm x 92.5cm

The painting, The Holy Family, reminds this writer of how popular it was in the 14th through 16th centuries to paint the Madonna and Child. Here, the artist Stozzi,  includes Joseph, the husband of Mary, and the young child Jesus, reminding us of the age difference, and provides the audience with a direct and comforting look from the mother. When I first read and studied the work of Giovanni Bellini, it was amazing how many paintings he made of Madonna & Child. People of wealth during these times, would commission a painting for their home, and because Catholicism was the dominate religion, there was nothing more pure and sacred than this image. One gets the impression there was tremendous status in having such a painting in their home. So the answer to the question is that it was very lucrative for artists to make so many of these paintings. The only question raised here is who is the child at the bottom of the painting who draws the attention of both Jesus and Joseph with the halo? The answer is his cousin, John the Baptist.

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Giacomo Ceruti, Kitchen Still Life, 84 X 118 cm, Milan, 1698 – 1767

Still life paintings were popular during this time period. In Kitchen Still Life, the painter Giacomo Deriti produces a classic realistic composition that easily sets the stage for painters to come a century later. These near photo realistic images (before the invention of photography) are composed and lit, which provides the artist with an unlimited amount of time to compose, draw, under-paint, and add reflective details. Elements of illusion are magnified by having the knives come off the front edge of the table, while at the same time create a balance of shape and form with the light source coming from the upper left.

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Juan van der Hamen y Leon, Abraham and the Three Angles, 279 X 181cm, Madrid 1596-1631

The Spanish painter, Juan van der Hamen, was born in Madrid in 1596 and was recognized for his allegories and landscapes during the Baroque period. A prolific artist, van der Hamen painted all his works during the first decade of the reign of Philip IV. As a religious painter Hamen worked for several religious institutions in and around Madrid and Toledo, like the Monastery of the Descalzas Reales, in Madrid, for which he painted altars. The best surviving examples of his religious work are in the cloister of the Royal Convent of La Encarnación in Madrid, painted in 1625 in a naturalistic tenebristic style. The painting Abraham and the Three Angels is known for the stylistic characteristics and the iconographic interest of the scene, by which the artist interpreted the Biblical theme of the apparition of the three angels in the house of Abraham to announce that Sara would conceive a son.

So why is it important for young people today to experience this work, both in galleries and museums? Let me start by saying that many things that are part of human history continue to enrich our lives: Mathematics, Philosophy, Literature, Music and certainly Art. Do we not still listen to Bach and derive meaning that connects us to all music, and can we not still relate to the allegory in Dante’s Divine Comedy? For Wasserman Projects to bring this experience to Detroit creates the opportunity to expose Italian and Spanish Renaissance Painting to an audience that may not have thought of the connection that all art shares.

Wasserman Projects demonstrates that it is guided by a spirit of collaboration, recognizing that art is best realized and most meaningful when it engages the broad range of people such as the dynamic and diverse population of Detroit.

Wasserman Projects, September 2016