Kara Walker @ Toledo Museum of Art

Kara Elizabeth Walker is an African American painter, silhouettist, and print-maker, who  explores race, gender, sexuality, violence, and identity in her work. This exhibition is Harper’s Pictorial History of the Civil War.

Kara Walker, Installation image, courtesy of Toledo Museum of Art

In 1866, the magazine Harpers Weekly published its Pictorial History of the Civil War, a hulking two-volume set which anthologized its prior five years of war reportage, replete with over a thousand illustrative woodcuts. American artist Kara Walker, known for her unsettling and often violent depictions of the antebellum South, “annotates” fifteen illustrations from the series by superimposing silkscreened silhouettes atop the unfolding dramas depicted in the original woodcuts, interrupting the narrative and re-contextualizing the images.

On view at the Toledo Museum of Art until October 22, this small but worthwhile exhibition features all fifteen silkscreens from Walker’s Annotated Pictorial History of the Civil War (2005), newly acquired by the TMA. There’s a helpful curatorial statement on the wall introducing the series, but from that point onward, viewers are just given the title of each work, so each image must be confronted on its own terms. Furthermore, they’re intentionally displayed without any obvious beginning or ending point, subverting any chronological narrative structure.

Tara Walker, Installation image, courtesy of Toledo Museum of Art

Walker’s calculated use of the silhouette harkens back to the antebellum-era popularity of the silhouette portrait in genteel society. But the silhouette is also loaded with associations of physiognomy; Walker’s silhouettes typically confront 19th century racial stereotypes though heightened exaggeration, caricaturing the caricature. Her silhouetted forms and figures also conscientiously reference Rorschach tests, the interpretations of which are fluid and in which there’s continual interplay between positive and negative space. In these lithographs, this interplay is dramatically heightened since the negative space consists of dramatically enlarged images from Harper’s Pictorial History.

Here, Kara Walker combines her art with characteristic wit and verbal irony; her “annotations” in this case are the silhouetted figures which place in the foreground that which was marginalized in Harpers–of the Pictorial History’s 1,000+ illustrations, just over a dozen contained any African-Americans, and only three images referenced slavery (possibly more, depending on what constitutes as a reference). Yet Walker’s annotations do the exact opposite of what we would expect of a marginal note, confounding, rather than enhancing, the narrative of the original woodcuts. Her figures sometimes mask out the entirety of the original subject. Other times, they re-shape the original narrative. Some even interact with, react to, or participate in the events portrayed.

Her annotations are allusive; neither side in the conflict is framed as having the moral high ground. In one instance, a silhouette seems brutally torn apart by the cannon-fire from the Union artillery in the original woodcut. In another, Union troops triumphantly march in parade-formation into Alexandria, Virginia, greeted by cheering figures, but Walker inserts figures of her own in the foreground; one shakes its fist at the sky in what might be exasperation or rage. Another seems to try to scurry away and hide.

Kara Walker, Cotton Hoards in Southern Swamp, courtesy of Toledo Museum of Art

These images aren’t flippantly dismissive of the many lives that were indeed lost during the Civil War, rather, they challenge the visual narrative of the conflict as presented by Harpers. Some of its depictions of African-Americans (such as Cotton Hordes in a Southern Swamp) stoop to cruel and abusively dehumanizing caricature.   This is especially disconcerting when weighed against the book’s claim in its preface (which appeared in both volumes) of authenticity and impartiality. For reference, incidentally, featured in this exhibit are an original copy of the 1866 Harpers text and a screen which allows us to compare Walker’s annotations with the original illustrations from which they derive.

One should enter this show ready to be unsettled and at times disoriented. Yet we can always confidently approach Kara Walker’s work assured that she’ll have synthesized both fine craftsmanship with a well-thought out concept, reminding us along the way of the sad ironies so tragically present in America’s history. And her work has continued relevance– competing political narratives vocalize ever more shrilly in print and electronic media, but Walker’s Annotated History suggests we not accept any unscrutinized narrative, de facto, as truth’s final word.

Toledo Museum of Art    Through October 22, 2017

 

Rodin @ Flint Institute of Arts

An Exhibition from the Gerald Cantor Foundation

Installation Image Flint Institute of Art

Fresh out of the army, in 1946 Gerald Cantor purchased a bronze version of Rodin’s The Hand of God, thus beginning what he called his lifelong “magnificent obsession” with Rodin. Today, with over 750 sculptures and drawings in its collection, the Iris and B. Gerald Cantor Foundation boasts of the world’s largest private collection of works by the artist, the majority of which have been gifted or loaned to museums throughout the world. Rodin, The Human Experience, on view at the Flint Institute of Arts, is a muscular exhibition of 45 sculptures on loan from the Cantor Foundation, offering an impressive survey Rodin’s artistic career. Expect to see more Rodin in one place than nearly anywhere else this side of the Atlantic.

Auguste Rodin, French, 1840-1917, Large Hand of a Pianist, modeled 1885, Musee Rodin, cast 9, 1969

Rodin possessed an uncanny knack for creating emphatically expressive sculpture, even when the sculpted forms were merely a clutching hand or straining torso. They surge with energy, and the surfaces of his figures were left calculatedly rough, so as to catch the light and imbue a sense of movement. They need to be seen in the round, and, thankfully, nearly all the works on view are thoughtfully displayed for viewing from multiple sides.

Auguste Rodin, French, 1840 – 1917, Narcisse, modeled about 1882,enlarged and retitled 1890; Musée Rodin, cast 8/8 in 1985, Bronze, 32 × 13 × 12 1/4 inches. Lent by Iris & B. Gerald Cantor Foundation.

The exhibition comfortably fills the spacious Hodge Galleries with works both large and small. Some of the most interesting sculptures, in fact, are the wispy, diminutive studies Rodin made—never intended for display—which reveal how he worked out compositional problems. These offer a glimpse at his working process.

The Gates of Hell was his breakout masterpiece, and the teeming cascade of figures which writhe on its surface served as inspiration for many of his subsequent works, like The Thinker, which in its original state, was perched high on the doors, meditatively and dispassionately contemplating the inferno below.

Auguste Rodin, French, 1840 – 1917, Three Faunesses, modeled before 1896; Musée Rodin, cast in 1959, cast number unknown, Bronze, 9 1/4 × 11 1/2 × 6 1/2 inches. Lent by Iris & B. Gerald Cantor Foundation.

Several studies for Rodin’s triumphant posthumous monument to Balzac are on display; one of his most iconic works, Rodin obsessed about getting the likeness correct, going so far as to arrange for Balzac’s tailor to make a suit of Balzac’s dimensions; this was worn by a model who was a dead-ringer for the author himself. In the end, though, Rodin sculpted Balzac shrouded the monk’s robe he famously wore as he wrote.

Auguste Rodin, French, 1840 – 1917, Bust of Victor Hugo, modeled 1883; cast number and date unknown, Bronze, 17 × 10 1/4 × 10 3/4 inches. Lent by Iris Cantor

There are several studies for the Burghers of Calais, a project that now seems ideally suited for Rodin, though it was poorly received at its unveiling. The emotionally charged ensemble depicts a group of citizens of Calais about to sacrificially offer themselves to the English, who during the Hundred Years War, had laid siege to the city. Each man reacts differently; one, clasping his head, seems distraught. On the face of another we read steely determination. Their entire bodies viscerally respond to the emotional weight of certain death, and the ensemble allowed Rodin to fully explore sculpture as a vehicle for expressing emotion.

Auguste Rodin, French, 1840 – 1917, Fallen Caryatid with Urn, modeled 1883, enlarged 1911-17; Musée Rodin, cast 4 in 1982, Bronze, 45 1/4 × 36 3/4 × 31 1/8 inches. Lent by Iris Cantor.

When Sixteenth Century art historian Giorgio Vasari described Michelangelo’s sculptures as terribilita (“terrible,” in English), he certainly wasn’t insulting them; the word then meant what we might today describe as “awesome,” like a fearfully powerful thunderstorm.   It’s hard not to experience a streak of the same sensation as you stand in these rooms full of Rodin’s sculptures; they’re absolutely sublime.   The forty-five works which comprise this exhibition are an infinitesimally small fraction of Rodin’s prodigious output; nevertheless, they’re more than enough to support the assessment, made by many, that Rodin was, without question, the greatest sculptor of his time.

Flint Institute of Art   This exhibition has been organized and made possible by the Iris & B. Gerald Cantor Foundation. On exhibition through July 30, 2017

 

Suspended Disbelief @ Broad Museum, East Lansing

Transported Man Exhibition opens by New Director

Eli and Edythe Broad Art Museum at Michigan State University, East Lansing, MI

I once entertained aspirations of being a professional magician (I was never good, but at one point I could make all the faces of a deck of cards disappear, using a trick deck, admittedly). It’s likely for the best that I never pursued that career, but the Broad Art Museum’s Transported Man suggests that perhaps the world of art and that of magic aren’t that different. Both, after all, inexorably rely on the viewer voluntarily suspending disbelief.

The Broad’s new director, Marc-Olivier Wahler has a tough act to follow. The museum’s grand opening in 2012 featured works by art world heavyweights Andy Warhol, Joseph Albers, Anselm Kiefer, and Damien Hirst. The building’s architect Zaha Hadid even made an appearance. But, with over 400 exhibitions under his belt, Wahler capably delivers a conceptually interesting and visually arresting debut exhibition. His first show is an ambitious exploration of the relationship between art and viewer, and it brings together over 40 international artists, some quite familiar (Duchamp and Magritte) and others either emerging or mid-career.

The Transported Man derives its title from the magic trick of the same name, as depicted in the novel (and movie) The Prestige. Using magic as a motif, the exhibition, broadly speaking, explores the mutability of perception. Mundane items—magically—become art objects once placed in a museum. Furthermore, the exhibition tests the limits at which art can fool us. It certainly works. By the time you’re done on the second floor, you’ll have seen so much trompe l’oeil wizardry and visual sleight-of-hand that you’ll be thoroughly confounded as to what’s real and what’s illusory. The Broad’s counterintuitively shaped spaces, replete with walls that slant every which way, make the experience even more disorienting.

The Transported Man, all images courtesy of the Eli and Edythe Broad Art Museum at Michigan State University

Stepping into the first level exhibition galleries, visitors will be met with a wooden table hovering in air; it’s propped up by a fan set within the floor (there’s no attempt at hiding that), yet how the air current so firmly holds the table in place remains a mystery. But the elephant in the room is, quite literally, the elephant in the room. It freely hangs with its trunk clasped around a rope affixed to the ceiling. Possessing all the convincing texture of an actual elephant, it’s actually a polyurethane resin, polyester, steel, and fiberglass sculpture by Daniel Firman. There’s something strangely beautiful and visually satisfying about the suspended creature so improbably defying gravity. (Look up Firman’s elephants on the internet; they’ve appeared in all sorts of places).

Perhaps the most disorienting work in the show is Synchronicity, an experimental work by Robin Meier and Andre Gwerder. It’s a big, black tent inside a big black tent. Step inside both and suddenly you’re walking on (and smelling, quite strongly, in fact) soil and grass, the atmosphere has suddenly become hot and extremely humid, and it’s very dark. Real crickets happily chirp away (afterhours, the lights within turn on, mimicking natural daylight, and the crickets, cicadas, and fireflies erroneously think it’s day). The work explores how we can manipulate nature through electronic stimuli. Small electronic LED lights stimulate actual synchronistic fireflies, which under the impression that it’s a hot, muggy night, flicker in a pulsating rhythm. While far from the point of the installation, I couldn’t help but reflect on our own susceptibility to electronic stimuli/media which we increasingly accept at face-value as truth.

Upstairs, the visual and sensory theatrics continue. In the corner of one gallery space you’ll find weeds sprouting improbably from the floor. They’re actually steel sculptures by Tony Matelli, and seem so convincingly real that you really do have to fight the urge to reach out and touch them…just to check.

The Transported Man, all images courtesy of the Eli and Edythe Broad Art Museum at Michigan State University

One subtext of the show is the uncanny transformation of mundane objects into works of art. The point is most explicitly made with Piero Manzoni’s Magic Base—Living Sculpture, a wooden pedestal upon which people are supposed to stand, thus momentarily turning themselves into art objects (for this exhibition, however, viewers are asked to kindly refrain from turning themselves into art objects, and thus help preserve the original base, now over half a century old). This also seems to be the point behind the many non-functional air ducts installed throughout the museum by Charlotte Posenenske, and the plywood plank (by Robert Gober) leaning against a wall. Visually, these works are uninteresting, but they nevertheless foster conversation about the nature of art, and in this respect they advance the goal of the exhibition.

The Transported Man, all images courtesy of the Eli and Edythe Broad Art Museum at Michigan State University

 

Perhaps ironically, the most conceptual part of the show may very well be The Transported Collection, a playfully inventive adjacent exhibition of works from the Broad’s permanent collection. About forty paintings and drawings hang on a wall in one of the Broad’s lower galleries, but without any obvious reference to their corresponding artists. The viewer is left in a quandary: which of these works are, in fact, generally recognized as great works of art? Stealthily tucked in the corner of the room are some laminated explanatory cards which identify the artists. I cheated and peaked; the list is impressive– Van Dyck, Picasso, Delacroix, Matisse, Giacometti, and others. But some of the most compelling works on view were by artists I’d not heard of, such as Federico Castelluccio, who fools the eye with a convincingly illusory painting of a torn up, wrinkled postcard of a Titian portrait which seemed to be taped back together and affixed to a wooden background. This small exhibition wittily questions the subjective process by which we determine what constitutes great works of art.

Jonathan Monk, Second Hand Daily Exchange, 2006 The Transported Man, all images courtesy of the Eli and Edythe Broad Art Museum at Michigan State University

Picasso famously said that art is a lie which points to the truth. He was right; after all, the overwhelming majority of art history is comprised of artists trying to fool us into seeing three dimensions on a two dimensional surface. But it’s while looking at illusory paintings that we’re made acutely aware of the beauty of the actual world…or the shortcomings of human nature, as the case may be. Art’s deception has a purpose; to paraphrase from Shakespeare’s Hamlet, it holds up a mirror to nature, and within that mirror’s distorted reflection, we’re more able to see ourselves.   So while the playful theatrics and visual punning makes The Transported Man an eminently enjoyable and accessible show, there’s substance behind the visual magic that speaks to art’s ability to nudge us toward beautiful, enduring– sometimes uncomfortable– truths

The Transported Man at  the Eli and Edythe Broad Art Museum at Michigan State University

 

 

Stella’s Flatland @ UMMA

Today, Frank Stella’s paintings (better described as sculptures, really) burst from the wall, exploding forcefully into our space. But it was Stella’s flat and austere Black Paintings created while he was still a student at Princeton that originally thrust him into the national spotlight. Through April 23, a modest but important ensemble of three lithographs recently gifted to the University of Michigan Museum of Art (UMMA) reminds us that before his paintings brazenly shattered the fourth wall, Stella was first and foremost the master of emphatically two-dimensional canvasses thoroughly unburdened by any adherence to illusionistic space.

Frank Stella (American, born 1936), Lac Laronge IV, 1969, Acrylic on unprimed canvas. Toledo Museum of Art, Purchased with funds from the Libbey Endowment, Gift of Edward Drummond Libbey. ©Frank Stella. 1972.4

Stella’s meteoric rise began when, as a graduate fresh out of Princeton, his work was exhibited at the Museum of Modern Art’s Sixteen Americans exhibition in 1959. During the 1960s, Stella’s work adhered to the flat aesthetic of his Black Paintings, though he began experimenting with radically unconventional canvas shapes. Among these were his whimsical Notched-N paintings, canvasses which defied the centuries-old conception of painting as illusionistic and necessarily bound to the confines of a rectilinear surface. His stacked chevrons of muted color bands are never confined by any frame, blurring the boundary between painting and sculpture. In 1967, Stella began a famous collaboration with printmaker Kenneth Tyler, founder of the (then) Los Angeles based Gemini Studio, and Stella began to transpose his paintings into lithography.

Frank Stella, Empress of India II, from Notched-V series, 1968, lithograph on paper. Gift of Marsha L. Vinson and Marvin Rotman, 2014/2.19

It was one of many collaborations for Tyler, who also worked with 20th century art-world heavyweights such as Robert Motherwell, Josef Albers, Roy Lichtenstein, Jasper Johns, and David Hockney. With Stella, Tyler produced a series of lithographs based on Stella’s Notched- Ns. Look for Empress of India II; it’s a diminutive print based on the majestic, sprawling, 18-foot Empress of India in the permanent collection of the MoMA. The three lithographs on view in the UMMA’s Corridor Gallery were produced in the first year of their lifelong collaboration (they worked together until Kenneth Tyler closed his studio in 2000).

Frank Stella, Ifala I, from Notched-V series, 1968, lithograph on paper. Gift of Marsha L. Vinson and Marvin Rotman, 2014/2.20

Initially, it’s difficult to be impressed by them, perhaps simply because as 21st century viewers, we might reflexively associate their crisp, geometric lines with computer-generated art—merely the photoshoped creations of easy copy-and-paste. But if we lean in close, we’ll see the subtle imperfections that betray the human touch. (Significantly, even Stella’s large geometric abstractions of the same era reveal marks of the human touch; lost in translation when reproduced in textbooks, in person we can see the subtle pencil lines that demark the separation between color borders.) The lithographs are also tactile; the ink rising from the page gently but unmistakably pushes out into our space; one lithograph even shows gentle signs of distress; an effect which doesn’t translate in digital reproduction.

Frank Stella, Quathlamba II, from Notched-V series 1968, lithograph on paper. Gift of Marsha L. Vinson and Marvin Rotman, 2014/2.21

Long after he had moved beyond his minimalism, Stella maintained his partnership with Tyler. Among the more famous (and audacious) of their later collaborative works was Stella’s series of loosely illustrative prints based on Herman Melville’s Moby Dick. These intensely sculptural prints press out into viewer space, and– technically virtuosic– took years to produce.

Frank Stella (American, born 1936), La penna di hu, 1987-2009, Mixed media on etched magnesium, aluminum and fiberglass. Toledo Museum of Art. Museum purchase, by exchange. ©Frank Stella. 2014.104

Today, Stella’s works are, at least on first appearance, the complete antithesis of his minimalist abstractions of the 1960s. Take, for example, his playfully obnoxious La penna di hu (1987-2009), a recent work currently on view at the Toledo Art Museum. It’s sculptural in every sense, perhaps its only initial commonality with his paintings of the past being that it hangs on a wall. Yet, like Stella’s Notched-Ns, it nevertheless fights the notion that art should be illusory, and, in this respect, Stella’s oeuvre has remained strikingly consistent.

In comparison with his playfully sculptural three-dimensional collages, the works from Stella’s formative years as a minimalist artist perhaps seem weighted down by an austere solemnity, their meticulously calculated arrangements of shape and color eluding interpretation. But these serene, meditative works brazenly defied the notion of art as the conduit of illusion and narrative, and the three lithographs on view at the UMMA stand as historically important documentation of Stella’s celebrated early days as 1960s minimalist, emphatically the art world’s undisputed modernist master of Flatland.

Frank Stella, Lithographs, UMMA – April 23, 2017