Beyond Borders @ UMMA

When colonial powers carved up the African continent, borders were drawn that indiscriminately sliced through culturally similar people-groups, and the inhabitants were subsequently viewed by Europeans to live in distinct, monolithic “tribes,” each of which lived in relative isolation.  Beyond Borders: Global Africa, on view in the University of Michigan’s spacious Taubman Gallery, emphatically makes the point that cultural exchange across African societies and between Africa and the West is and always has been fluid.

Gleaned largely from its own collection and supplemented by works on loan from the Mott-Warsh Collection in Flint, the art on view ranges from 19thcentury through contemporary, and spans across a diverse array media.  Collectively, as Laura De Becker articulates in the exhibition catalogue, they “illustrate moments of encounter throughout history, complicating the colonial idea that the African continent is made of up ethnic groups or nations with starkly defined, impermeable boarders, or that it stands at one end of a dichotomy comprising Africa and the West.”

Artist unrecorded, Kongo peoples, Vili group, Democratic Republic of the Congo, Angola, Republic of the Congo, Nkisi(power figure), ca. 1800, wood, tukula powder and kaolin. University of Michigan Museum of Art, Gift of Candis and Helmut Stern, 2005/1.180.

Several sets of carved sculptural objects demonstrate thematic similarities that transcend colonial-era borders.  A selection of Minksi (Power Objects), though varied in form—ranging from representational to highly abstract—demonstrate the widespread belief that the sculpted figure could be spiritually potent and even intercede on behalf of the living.

Many of these works synthesize local traditions with European elements.  A pair of ceremonial shoes decorated with beads, for example, alludes to trade between Nigeria and Europe (most beads were imported from Venice). Furthermore, the beads create a mosaic of the British Crown, and it’s ambiguous if the reference, ingloriously appearing as it does on shoes, is understood to be a respectful homage or a wry and subtle insult to the colonial power.

Seydou Keïta, Untitled, 1956-57, gelatin silver print.

European faces make cameo appearances, carved into a Chokwe chair, for example, and European coins are inventively repurposed to decorate carved boxes and wooden figures.  Commerce and cultural exchange are addressed directly in a series of black and white photographs by Seydou Keita, hailed by many as the “father of African photography,” depicting anonymous residents of Bamako, Mali, posed with imported consumer goods that reveal the country’s rising middle class in the latter half of the 29thcentury.

Omar Victor Diop, Jean-Baptiste Belley (1746-1805), 2014, pigment inkjet printing on Harman by Hahnemühle paper. Courtesy of Mott-Warsh collection, Flint, Michigan and MAGNIN-A Gallery, Paris, © Omar Victor Diop

In a powerful pair of confrontationally large photographs, Omar Victor Diop recreates images of historically significant figures from the African diaspora.  Like the ever shape-shifting Cindy Sherman, Diop stars himself in his works, assuming varied roles.  Here, the artist recreates Samuel Miller’s portrait of Frederick Douglass, but modernizes it by brandishing a plastic referee’s whistle.  Sports paraphernalia invariably appears in his work, addressing the discrepancy between the celebrity status African athletes enjoy in Western countries and the xenophobic attitudes expressed by people in those same nations.  In a second photograph, the artist recreates a painting by Trison, posing as Jean-Baptiste Belley, a former slave who won his freedom after service in French army, and subsequently became a vocal abolitionist.  The soccer ball Diop poses with serves as a foil to his otherwise convincing 18thcentury regalia; just the same, the image, replete with the subject’s gentle contrapposto, really does seem uncannily as if a portrait from the Louvre has nearly come to life.

A painting by Kehinde Wiley lends a jolt of young and energetic star-power to this exhibition.   Known for his paintings that present works of art from the Western cannon reimagined to star black protagonists, here the artist borrowed the pose of a statue of Chief Obafemi Awolowo—a key figure in securing Nigerian independence from Great Britain—and transforms the figure’s outstretched hand into a black power salute.  Wiley’s work consistently manages to be emphatically contemporary, giving a fresh spin to the old masters, and giving the lie to the notion that traditional figure painting is dead.

Kehinde Wiley, On Top of the World, 2008, oil on canvas. Courtesy of Aishti Foundation, Beirut © Kehinde Wiley

Beyond Borders succeeds in offering a cross section across mediums and across time, demonstrating in small part the extent to which cultural exchange happened in Africa and continues to occur today through its diaspora.  Furthermore, the national conversation in recent years has increasingly placed borders (and walls) at the forefront of political discourse, giving the show a timely relevance.

UMMA  –  Beyond Borders runs through November 24.

Mirrors and Intersections @ Grand Rapids Art Museum

Anila Quayyum Agha (American, b. Pakistan 1965). Intersections, 2013. Laser-cut wood, 6.5 x 6.5 x 6.5 feet. Courtesy of the Artist.

Anila Quayyum Agha’s ethereal sculptural installation Intersections is likely the most photographed work of art in Grand Rapids at the moment, surpassing even the city’s iconic, blazing-red Calder.  At Artprize 2014 (the city’s annual public-art festival), Intersections won both the People’s Choice and Judges’ Choice awards, and now, through the end of Summer, it returns to the Grand Rapids Art Museum where it made its auspicious debut.  It was a work calculatedly fashioned to appeal across social and cultural demographics, and if Instagramability is a worthy criterion of a work’s public appeal, then the artist certainly succeeded.

The work is the star of a pair of closely related solo exhibitions on view in adjacent gallery spaces, one showcasing Agha, and the other featuring Iranian artist Monir Shaharoudy Farmanfarmaian. There’s a thematic continuity between their distinctive styles that make the pairing work almost as a single show. Both artists apply sophisticated tessellations and kaleidoscopic patters so characteristic of visual culture in the pan-Arab world, and both artists explore the visual possibilities of reflected light and cast shadow.  Their works are also both—to some degree– participatory and interactive.

Monir Shaharoudy Farmanfarmaian, Installation image, Courtesy of the Grand Rapids Art Museum

The first exhibition space contains Mirror Variations, Farmanfarmaian’s luminous glass sculptures which represent an inventive fusion of traditional Persian art mixed with the American abstraction the artist encountered during her formative years in New York between 1945 and 1957, where she met art-world luminaries like Willem de Kooning and Louise Nevelson.  (In 2015 her work came full circle; New York’s Guggenheim awarded the artist her first solo American show—perhaps a curiously late honor for an artist and socialite of such import that she and her husband once played host to President John and Jackie Kennedy in Tehran.)

Inspired both by Arabic architecture and by principles of Sufi geometry, Farmanfarmaian’s work applies repetition and progression of simple shapes.  Like mosaics in 3D, her sculptures comprise tens of thousands of individual glass components which reflect light, diffusing fragmented geometric shapes across the gallery walls, ceiling, and floor.   One pentagonal sculpture—though prohibitively stowed behind glass on a pedestal—reflects light onto the ceiling and into the viewer’s space, directly involving the GRAM’s architecture into her work.  The lack of artisans in the United States able to help execute such detailed cut-glass work as this is partly why the artist eventually returned to her home country in 2004 after over 20 years of exile initiated by the Iranian Revolution.

Monir Farmanfarmaian (Iranian, b. 1924). Tir (Convertible Series), 2015. Mirror, reverse-glass painting, plaster on wood, 63 x 63 x 6 inches

These stately, ordered sculptures might seem the polar opposite of the often noisy, raucous world of the Postwar New York School, but some of her hanging sculptures invite a certain relinquishment of control that seems to parallel the likes of Robert Rauschenberg—particularly his playfully interactive Synapsis Shuffle (incidentally, a series of paintings which the GRAM exhibited in this very room back in 2012). Her Convertible series explores the myriad of varying geometric possibilities that can be created with a set of identical, interlocking shapes.  Each polygonic component is a fairly complex work in its own right, but the specific way they are arranged on the wall remains entirely fluid, ever-changing wherever they happen to be installed.

The second major gallery space is entirely devoted to Agha’s Intersections.  The work is a suspended black cube (about 7 feet square) crafted out of laser-cut wood, and inside a high-power bulb blasts the form’s intricate geometric shadows onto the gallery’s walls, ceiling, and floor, transforming every cubic millimeter of the space.  Its patterns derive from architectural elements of Spain’s Alhambra,the famed 14thcentury Nasarid dynasty palace and fortress.   It’s visually striking, but the work is conceptual as well.  Agha states that growing up in Pakistan as a female, she was not allowed to enter mosques, and with Intersections, wished to create a work which was open and accessible across all demographics.  Indeed, there’s something democratic and participatory about seeing yourself silhouetted on the gallery wall alongside the shadows of other visitors, all invariably with phones drawn, ready to share the moment on social media.

Video interview with Agha

In an auxiliary exhibition space, viewers confront a final bit of shadowplay.  A circular sculpture comprising  hundreds of identical triangular shapes is affixed from a wall and tactfully illuminated from three different angles.  The shadows it casts resemble a mash-up of a Venn-diagram and a series of tessellations by M.C. Escher.

Together, Mirror Variations and Intersections both manage to tactfully translate centuries-old Arabic visual culture into the language of 21stCentury abstraction.  And both artists manipulate light to transform a gallery space, creating works that transcend the beautiful and perhaps approach the sublime.  Their works slow us down—even in an art museum, after all, one is tempted to rush through to take everything in, spending, according to one study, less than 30 seconds in front of each painting.  But here the artists invite us to linger, and these exhibitions suppress our impulse to hurriedly move on the next thing.

Grand Rapids Museum  – through August 26, 2018

Gertrude Kasle Collection & See Through @ UMMA

Exercising the Eye

Robert Rausehnberg, Intermission(Ground Rules) Intaglio, 1996

In 1965, Gertrude Kasle established a gallery in Detroit’s Fischer Building with the intent of introducing the New York School of abstract expressionism to the Midwest.  The gallery lasted for 11 years, during which she acquired and exhibited works by luminaries such as Willem de Kooning, Robert Rauschenberg, and Grace Hartigan.  An alumnus of the University of Michigan, Kastle subsequently donated her muscular collection of American postwar art to the university’s art museum, and through July 22, Exercising the Eye celebrates Kasle’s visionary, connoisseurial eye.

Jasper Johns, Savarin, Color Lithograph on Paper, 1977

Exercising the Eye comfortably fills the UMMA’s large Taubman Gallery with a veritable Who’s Who of American Abstract Expressionism and Pop Art of the 60s and 70s, alongside a generous selection of works by artists perhaps underrepresented in the typical art-history survey.  An impressive spread of Rauschenberg’s works fills an entire wall, including diminutive aquatints and lithographs, a reminder that Rauschenberg produced far more than the “combines” for which he became famous. Nearly running the length of another wall is a suite of immersive,  large paintings by Grace Hartigan, a staple among America’s abstract expressionists and friend of Jackson Pollock, Helen Frankenthaler, and the de Koonings.  Hartigan worked both in abstract and figurative imagery, challenging Clement Greenberg’s vocal and uncompromising championing of pure abstraction, and here her immersive Tarzana applies frothy scribbles and uninhibited swaths of smack-you-in-the-face color to deliver the fleshy exuberance of a Renaissance Bacchanal translated into the vocabulary of postwar expressionism.

Other artists represented include Robert Motherwell, Adolph Gottlieb, Jasper Johns, and Philip Guston (the later represented with an original pen drawing advertising a show if his own paintings at the Gertrude Kasle Gallery).  Exercising the Eye perhaps suffers mildly  from a lack of thematic continuity beyond its works having been collected and exhibited by Gertrude Kasle, shrewdly perceptive as she may have been.  But its strength rests on the admirable willingness of Kasle to acquire and exhibit works by worthy artists that had yet to attain household-name status, and this exhibition is a markedly inclusive reflection of the climate of postwar American art, which often seems mischaracterized almost as a sort of boys-only club.

The Treachery of Images

Elliott Erwitt, Cracked Glass with Boy – Colorado, Gelatin Silver Print, 1955

Concurrent with Exercising the Eye, the UMMA is also presenting a show of pictures in its photography gallery which collectively aim to “expose the contingent nature of reality” through a series of visually beguiling photographs, each guaranteed to procure a double-take from the viewer.  The exhibition, See Through: Windows and Mirrors in Twentieth-Century Photography, brings together an eclectic selection of images that visually pun on the nature of the image and in which nothing is quite as it seems.  It’s as if the visual devilry of Rene Magritte has been transposed into photography, and, impressively, all of it prior to the advent of photoshop.

Walker Evans, Penny Picture Display, Savannah, Gelatin Silver Print, 1936

Walker Evans, generally known for his soul-wrenching portraits of down-and-out Depression-era families of the American South, is here represented with an uncharacteristically lighthearted set of illusory images that seem to portray special depth where there is none.  A wry photograph of a mirror in a hotel lobby, for example, seems to open up a portal in the picture plain that leads to another room; of course, there’s nothing in front of the camera but wall and glass.

Several images make playful use of distortion caused broken glass.  Carl Chiarenza’s  Bat Windowpresents a smashed window, its break forming an ominous angular black hole resembling the shape an abstract bat; the encroaching field of black recalls the schematic of a Robert Motherwell painting.  And Algimantas Kezys’ fragmentated reflection of two silhouetted male forms staring into a shattered mirror seems cubist, like a much paired down version of Picasso’s Les Demoiselles d’Avignon.

Such a theme as this naturally opens the door to moments of subtle humor.  Robert Doisneau’s wonderfully mischievous  La Dame Indignée (“the indignant woman”) captures the moment a Parisian woman passes by a storefront window displaying a lascivious and revealing picture of a nude woman and gives the work a fiercely disapproving scowl.  The picture was part of a series for which Doisneau stealthily photographed the varying reactions of passers-by, with this indignant woman on one end of the spectrum, and a visibly enamored man craning in for a closer look, on the other.

See Through is a small exhibition, fitting in its entirety on two perpendicular walls on the UMMA’s third-floor atrium.  Nevertheless, While the primary draw of the show is visual, there’s a cultural resonance to these photographs which whimsically distort reality.  After all, the alarming spread of pseudo-news on social media has demonstrated that a provocative image divorced from context can easily pass itself off as truth, and this exhibition serves as a gentle reminder not to instinctively take images at face value.

University of Michigan Art Museum

Exercising the Eye:The Gertrude Tase Collection, through July 22, 2018

See Through: Windows and Mirrors in Twentieth-Century Photography, through September 23, 2018

 

 

 

 

Photorealism @ Flint Institute of Arts

From Lens to Eye to Hand: Photorealism 1969 to Today

Davis Cone, American, born 1950. State-Autumn Evening, 2002. Acrylic on canvas. 26 1/2 × 46 ½” Collection of John Gordon.

According to the ancient historian Pliny the Elder, two rival artists, Zeuxis and Parrhasius, once had a public competition to determine which of the two was the better painter.  When Zeuxis unveiled his painting of a bowl of grapes, the story goes that they were so realistic that birds approached the painting and pecked at it.  Convinced he had won, Zeuxis turned to his rival and asked him to unveil his painting.  But Zeuxis had been deceived; Parrhasius had merely painted a very realistic image of a veil, which had fooled not just Zeuxis, but everyone present, and he was thus declared the winner.  The tradition of hyper-realistic painting never died, and even in the 20thcentury when abstract expressionism took the world by storm, some artists chose instead to rebel against the rebels by creating paintings that rivaled photography in their realism.  Through August 12, a fine survey of the first and second generation of photorealist painters is on view at the Flint Institute of Arts, emphatically making the point that the realist tradition is alive and well.

Robert Bechtle, American, born 1932. ’73 Malibu, 1974. Oil on canvas. 48 × 69 inches, Meisel Family Collections, New York

The show snugly fills the spacious Hedge and Henry galleries at the FIA, and traces the history of photorealism from 1969 through the present.  The movement began in densely populated areas in America’s east and west coasts, and the subject matter frequently featured the stuff of urban life.  Early photorealist artists like John Salt and Robert Bechtle produced candid images of automobiles, going out of their way to not beautify the mechanized, industrial world of postwar America. John Salt’s Albuquerque Wreckyarddepicts a junkyard populated with abandoned cars.  Although the scene is unidealized, Salt flaunts his deft ability to connivingly translate reflective chrome surfaces into paint, and the effect is visually striking.  The painting also works as understated social commentary on consumption and waste.  Tom Blackwell’s arrestingly large paintings take a different approach, focusing instead on the aesthetics of the wiring and mechanical components beneath the hood.  His Indian’s Chopper Modified ’57 Harley offers us a close-up of the inner workings of a motorcycle.  Divorced from any frame of reference or context, the highly reflective chrome and the intricacies of the engine components almost become a work of abstract art.

John Salt, English, born 1937. Albuquerque Wreck Yard (Sandia Auto Electric), 1972. Oil on canvas. 48 × 72″, Meisel Family Collections, New York

This exhibition makes clear that there are different approaches to photorealism.  Some artists wanted their paintings to quite literally translate photographs into paint, replete with points of sharp focus in the foreground and blurring and distortion in the background.  Audrey Flack’s iconic 20thcentury vanitas Wheel of Fortune, is a good example.  And at almost ten feet square, this monumental painting is arguably the star of the show.  Other artists believed that painting could actually improve on photography.  Richard Estes’s cityscapes portray the world in extreme lucidity—both foreground and background retain crisp focus.  Strictly speaking, Estes is a photorealist, but his paintings certainly don’t look like photos.

Audrey Flack, American, born 1931. Wheel of Fortune, 1977–1978. Acrylic and oil on canvas. 96 × 96″, Parrish Art Museum, Water Mill, New York. Gift of Louis K. and Susan P. Meisel, 2016.20

The show divides the exhibition into two sections, representing the first and second generations of photorealists.  Unlike the pioneers of the style, the artists of the second generation have more technology at their disposal, such as the use of computer software to assist in the transfer of a photo onto canvass.  The works of contemporary photorealists are every bit as satisfying as those of the pioneers of the movement.  Yigal Ozeri blows up small photographs into huge paintings, and his ability to convincingly translate the sparkly dance of sunlight striking ripples in Mediterranean waters into paint is virtuosic.  Perhaps the most convincing work in the show might ironically be the most passed-over, simply because it looks too deceptively real to even be a painting; in a witty demonstration of trompe l’oielwizardry at its finest, we’re deceived into thinking a cardboard box filled with money is resting under glass on a pedestal. It’s in fact a carefully-painted wooden sculpture.

Ralph Goings, American, born 1928. Miss Albany Diner, 1993. Oil on canvas. 48 × 72”, Heiskell Family Collection

The visual force of these works gets lost in translation when they’re photographed and reproduced in diminutive form in print or online.  Only in person, for example, looking at Richerd Estes’s Plaza, a cityscape crammed with busy details, do we see that the artist rendered the socks of a foreground figure with a few scribbled in, almost impressionistic brushstrokes.  And the playful ripples in Jack Mendenhall’s Pointe Hilton, when seen close, reveal themselves to be horizontal swipes of paint, bristle-strokes clearly visible.  I was reminded of Rembrandt who, in his 1654 portrait of Jan Six,shows the subject standing with gloved hands; but zoom in close on the gloves, and we see a calculatedly scribbled mess that might just as well be a detail from a de Kooning abstraction.  So while the artists on view are unmistakably contemporary, the tradition in which they work extends through the centuries all the way back to the likes of Zeuxis and Parrhasius.  And From Lens to Eye to Hand emphatically makes the point that even in a world oversaturated with photographic images–  almost exclusively in the form of advertisements– traditional painting triumphantly retains its enduring relevance.

Flint Institute of Arts: From Lens to Eye to Hand: Photorealism 1969 to Today – through August 12, 2018

 

 

Michel Parmentier @ MSU Broad Museum

In 1966, Andy Warhol was churning out silkscreens of electric chairs and car accidents, the Fluxus movement had given the world zany performances by the likes of Joseph Beuys and Yoko Ono, and Lichtenstein’s punchy Whams! and Bams!sprawled across gallery walls by the yard.  Against this cacophonic backdrop, when Michel Parmentier debuted his understated, monochromatic canvasses of painted blue stripes, they might hardly seem particularly radical, yet “radical” is precisely how Parmentier’s work is often described.

Through October, Michigan State University’s Broad Art Museum allocates its whole second floor to exploring just what might be so groundbreaking about Parmentier’s work.  The exhibition brings together 30 representative works spanning the artist’s career, along with rare texts authored by the artist. These allusive minimalist canvasses reveal the consistency of the artist’s philosophy, which remained largely unchanged from his early experiments in the 60s to the works he created just prior to his passing in 2000.

Michel Parmentier, installation view at the MSU Broad, 2018. Photo: Eat Pomegranate Photography

Parmentier didn’t want his painting to be about anything other than the physicality of paint itself, so he abandoned subject matter.  His work was guided by an almost religious adherence to the pliagemethod, for which he prepared a large un-stretched canvass by folding it like an accordion in increments of 38 centimeters. He’d then spray-paint the exposed surface, unfolding it to reveal visceral horizontal creases and painted bars in monochromatic, horizontal blue stripes.  The creative act was thus reduced to a nearly-mechanical process.

At first, his works might seem to rhyme with the striped paintings of Anges Martin. But Martin’s chromatically subtle works are warm, nuanced, and serene, while Parmentier’s have the impersonal detachment of an improvised painted banner advertisement. He worked in only one color each year. Wishing to disassociate his bars of color from any implied symbolism or personal significance, he’d change the color annually, switching from blue to gray in 1967, and finally to red in 1968.

Michel Parmentier, installation view at the MSU Broad, 2018. Photo: Eat Pomegranate Photography

Parmentier joined forces with several other French painters (Buren, Mosset, and Toroni, collectively calling themselves BMPT), but broke from the group in 1967, perhaps believing the other artists were becoming too reactionary.[i]  In 1968, he stopped painting altogether, not producing any art again for fifteen years.

When he resumed in 1983, he integrated some variety in texture and media.  Color disappeared altogether, replaced with varying values of graphite-gray or barely-discernible, creamy white.  And in place of canvass, Parmentier began stapling together individual sheets of disconcertingly cheap printing paper.    In addition to paint, he explored pastel, charcoal, and pencil.  We even see trace elements of the artist’s hand start to emerge: rather than apply paint with a spray can, Parmentier took to scrubbing in his horizontal stripes with pastel, or applying thousands of neatly-arranged horizontal graphite marks.  But his later works never strayed far from that which he produced the 60s.  They invariably retained the same folded horizontal creases at 38cm increments, and they defiantly refused to be anything other than self-referential.

Michel Parmentier, installation view at the MSU Broad, 2018. Photo: Eat Pomegranate Photography

The Broad Art Museum’s retrospective compartmentalizes the artist’s work chronologically, beginning with his earliest blue, gray, and red paintings from the 60s.  As the artist intended, they’re unframed and affixed to the wall only at the top, making his paintings almost look like linens hanging up to dry.  An adjacent gallery displays a large selection of the artist’s writings and projects a one-channel video showing the artist preparing a canvass using his signature pliagemethod, giving us a sense of the mechanical rigidity of his working process.

A third gallery space is devoted to his later works, generally consisting of many sheets of paper affixed together, marked with graphite or pastel.  Here, viewers can see elements that get lost in translation when his work is reproduced in photos.  Easily missable (even in person) are the dates he’d stamp repeatedly on the hem of each work; if a piece took him several days, we’ll see several dates, each stamped on the relevant section of the image.  It’s an element that recalls the conceptual paintings of On Karowa, who famously produced paintings of the day’s date, always painted in white against a black background.

Michel Parmentier, installation view at the MSU Broad, 2018. Photo: Eat Pomegranate Photography

In a letter to a friend, Parmentier once wrote, “To work without producing is undoubtedly one of the finest ideas there is […], not to work at all is another.  Detachment from everything is a third.  Being interested in everything without actively drawing any conclusions—simply doing, rather—seems to me very good.”[ii]It’s a philosophy which certainly informed his work, which always remained intentionally disengaged and aloof.  So it’s to the Broad’s credit that it took a chance on organizing an exhibition exploring such an esoteric artist.  And while this may lack the punchy visual theatrics of some of the Broad’s previous shows, it carries some historic weight as the artists’ first ever retrospective in the United States.  Furthermore, one really does need to see Parmentier’s oveurein its entirety to grasp the unflinching consistency of his desire to produce art which, as one critic intoned in 1967, “simply exists.”

Michel Parmentier @ MSU Broad Museum through October 7, 2018