ReviewArt

Art Experiences in Bloomington, Indiana, and elsewhere

Friday, January 9, 2015

Ai Wei Wei Escapes To Alcatraz

The best take I've ever seen on Ai Wei Wei's career comes from  Sean Scully, a noted Irish painter...

Scully is an admirer of the Russian artist Kazimir Malevich (1879-1935). Malevich’s work was suppressed and destroyed by the Russian Communist authorities because abstraction was seen as a decadent inferior to the favoured artistic mode of socialist realism. But, conversely, there is a suspicion that the growing popularity of abstraction in China is due to the fact that the genre is very hard to censor. “It’s uncensorable,” Scully agrees. “However, that said, from what I see when I go to China, the censorship is minimal.”
I suggest that Ai Weiwei, who remains under heavy surveillance and travel restrictions, might not agree. “Ah, I knew you were going to say Ai Weiwei. He was a student of mine [in New York]; I know him very well. He’s manipulating all that to stimulate his market in the west; he’s playing a game against China, and the west loves him for that.
         my emphasis
I think that's it in a nutshell.  It's understandable, of course, that Wei Wei would  focus  his work on the sins of China, since he and his family have suffered from those sins, but as Wei Wei's fame has grown, that focus seems increasingly opportunistic or even cynical.  A film about Wei Wei disputes such a negative interpretation ...
Klayman also dissolves the longstanding myth, perpetuated by the government, that Ai is a Western stooge, someone who is not actually popular in China. In scene after scene, average Chinese come out of the woodwork to help with his investigation, shake his hand, and rally around his studio when the government demolishes it. These are people lacking political protection and with much to lose. Yet they do it anyway. 
Klayman's argument, as noted here (I haven't seen the film) seems disengenuous.  To claim that  Ai  may be, wittingly or unwittingly,  a Western stooge is not the same as to claim that he is not popular in China.   But as his reputation and work have  expanded beyond China, his responsibility to speak to global situations has surely grown.

 Ai's recent exhibition at Alcatraz would have been an ideal opportunity for him to embrace the challenge of speaking to the world situation and not just China's situation.  Alcatraz is the preeminent symbol of the American penal system, a system which - as Ai must know - is reportedly far larger than China's penal system, both in terms of absolute and per-capita numbers.  No doubt such numbers can be disputed, probably on both sides, and no doubt Wei Wei can claim that the very fact that he has chosen Alcatraz as his art-site implicitly calls for such comparisons, but based on the reading I have done about the Alcatraz exhibit, such implicit comparisons are  weak,  far outweighed by the official program, which  pointedly highlights Russia and China as offenders against civil rights in the world today.  Yes, apparently Chelsea Manning and Edward Snowden appear in a kind of floor mosaic made of legos, which pays tribute to 176 global  icons of  persecuted dissent, but most references to oppression in America seem to be safely buried in the past (eg. Native Americans once imprisoned at Alcatraz).


CNN describes Ai's Alcatraz exhibit:

Visitors to Ai's exhibit, called @Large, can sit in a drab, 8x5 feet concrete cell and listen to the works of dissidents, such as anti-Apartheid singers and anti-Soviet musicians whose poems or songs landed them in prison.
Among them is Lolo, a Tibetan singer whose song implores the children of Tibet to "raise the Tibetan flag." Lolo is serving a six-year prison sentence for calling for independence -- a direct challenge to China's rule.
In another installation, the image of Liu Xiaobo, the 2010 Nobel Peace Prize winner, fashioned out of black, grey, blue and white Lego peers out at visitors. Liu, who called for the end of China's single-party rule, is serving an 11-year prison sentence.

 Like most of the really famous artists of our time, Ai Wei Wei does not fit the stereotype of the nearly mad genius wrestling with the interface of mind and material in a lonely, paint-stained studio.  He seems to be more of an impresario, a man of big ideas, capable of  setting armies of helpers in motion each time he sweeps his arm across the globe.   As such, Wei Wei has lots of pizzazz.  One moment he is a kind of Shepard Fairey who works in legos.   Next he is a Lee Bontecue working in steel and (carefully selected) found objects...

Creating in a more stripped down mood, Ai arranges voices that are heard in abandoned cells...
... but  over-the-top drama is not stinted, as represented by a huge dragon which seems to represent the spirit of freedom, truth and dissent...

Is the overall effect of Wei Wei's creation truthful?   I say no.   How can it make sense, as truth, for Ai to come to America's most infamous prison in order to stage an exhibition that seems to focus almost entirely on sins against freedom outside of America (or buried in America's past)?  This seems perverse at best, deeply cynical at worst.

One reviewer raises more questions about Wei Wei's show, about the use of volunteers in his works...
The positioning of work such as Refraction or Trace in the New Industries building where inmates earned prison wages for assembly work, mostly sewing, raises interesting questions about For-Site’s open call for volunteer labor to assist with production. Given that a very successful Kickstarter was launched — in addition to the project budget raised by For-Site — to pay for the art guides program, the absence of compensation for assembly work seems to perpetuate the art world’s penchant for free production labor.  It also appears shortsighted given the site itself and the larger history of prison labor.
Al Wei Wei is perhaps the most famous artist in the world today.   Events like Alcatraz help build his reputation and this in turn helps him make more money.   In view of the fact that de facto slavery within the US penal system is a major issue at this time, Ai Wei Wei's use of volunteer labor in Alcatraz  comes off , I would say, as a slap in the face to anyone concerned with freedom and prisons in America, to say the least.

It's good that Ai included Snowden and Chelsea Manning in his lego floor mosaic, amongst 176 other icons of dissent. He deserves praise for that.  However,  I would have been more impressed if, say, Mumia's voice would have been featured in the part of the exhibit that featured Pussy Riot, perhaps.  But would that have ever happened?  Probably not, since permission was sought from the State Department to do the exhibit in the first place and such a feature might not have gone over well with the government.  And that might be the point.  We are blind to the ways our own government oppresses freedom both at home and around the world and Ai Wei Wei doesn't seem to mind playing his part in perpetuating that blindness.  If Ai did an expose in America such as the one he did about shoddy government construction in China, does he really think that he would face no danger of harrassment, or worse, and on top of that simply being ignored into nothingness by the corporatized media?
Ai Wei Wei came to Alcatraz to make a show about ...  China and Russia?!!  Really, Ai?   Almost seems a bad joke...
Here is some information that Ai Wei Wei ought to take a look at and perhaps create an art piece about...
To put these figures in context, we have slightly more jails and prisons in the U.S. -- 5,000 plus -- than we do degree-granting colleges and universities. In many parts of America, particularly the South, there are more people living in prisons than on college campuses. ...

The rise of what Marie Gottschalk, the author of “Caught: The Prison State and the Lockdown of American Politics,” calls “the carceral state” is ominous.It will not be reformed through elections or by appealing to political elites or the courts. Prisons are not, finally, about race, although poor people of color suffer the most. They are not even about being poor. They are prototypes for the future. They are emblematic of the disempowerment and exploitation that corporations seek to inflict on all workers. If corporate power continues to disembowel the country, if it is not impeded by mass protests and revolt, life outside prison will soon resemble life in prison. 


Thursday, January 8, 2015

'Scene' Scene

Normally, Thanksgiving is my least favorite holiday.  I don't like the bogus patriotism of the day and the way it is linked to celebration of the Western European colonial conquest of the world.  As a vegetarian, I don't like the heavy emphasis on meat.  As someone who comes from a dysfunctional family, I don't like the cloying sentimentalism about family.  I especially don't like the shamelessly commercial Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade.   When one thinks of the world's great parades (such as in New Orleans or in Rio)...

 ... or even First Night in Boston ...

...one thinks of people trying to create something unique.  Contrast that with the unrestrainedly crass recycling of images in the Macy's parade...
So I wasn't thrilled when I was cornered into watching this year's Macy's Parade, until I saw Idina Menzel sing.  ...

I admit, I've been resisting her appeal.  I think it's because I love the movie the Wizard of Oz so much and I resented the idea that it needed to be updated, an idea that the musical Wicked seemed to be built around.
The idea that Elphaba, the wicked witch, has a history and a character that may in some ways be a lot more interesting than the history and character of Glenda the good witch is not much hidden in the classic movie, if you ask me.  So I didn't expect much when I saw that she was going to perform in the Macy's parade.  Also, I've had the impression from when I've watched in the past that all the featured performers at Macy's totally mail in their 'performances', as one would expect.  It's not exactly a performer-friendly gig.

I was really blown away by what Idina did at Macy's.   I don't know what is more terrific - the way she took a classic song - isn't it Mariah Carey's song?  - and not only made it her own, but made her version sound classic - or the way Idina took what is normally a throwaway performance gig and made it really special.  She really is a great artist, powerful enough to inject new life into Broadway.    We are lucky to have her as an artist.  I don't know why I didn't quite get it before.

I suppose I often feel jealous of successful artists because my career has been unsuccessful, so I'm slow to appreciate them.  I've also been reading Joe Perry's autobiography.  It touches a lot of chords with me because I'm from Boston, the town Aerosmith is from.  The way I remember it, Aerosmith meant a lot to Boston because its success took Boston from pop backwater status to the center of the pop world.  If Boston has an anthem, Dream On must be it...
Always big in classical music and folk music, Boston seemed to be a pop backwater until Aerosmith ushered in a decade of pop prominence, if not grunge Seattle level dominance.   After Aerosmith came the band Boston with one of the alltime great records.,.

The Boston -Seattle connection is really intriguing.   I suspect that Seattle bands in the late eighties and early nineties must have been looking at Boston's pop surge in the late seventies and early eighties for encouragement that a local scene could have national impact.   In fact, I think that Aerosmith's Dream On inspired Boston's More Than a Feeling, which in turn inspired Nirvana's Smells Like Teen Spirit ...
After the band Boston came The Cars, a Boston band that had a string of new wave hits in the early eighties.
The glory days of Boston music also had a strong black component, from Donna Summer  to New Edition, Bel Biv Devoe and Bobby Brown.

 Arguably, though, Boston has been less known for pop bands than for underground bands like the Pixies...

Blake Babies ...

and Gang Green ...
In more recent years Boston has become known for celtic punk music, such as Dropkick Murphies ...
Thinking about Boston's pop music heritage, which in some ways was kicked off by Joe Perry and Aerosmith, reminded me of how much the movie The Departed ticked me off a few years ago.   Martin Scorsese is so proud of his hometown, New York.  Why would he choose to set a movie in Boston that barely has anything to do with Boston, other than superficialities?  As I understand it, most of The Departed was shot in Brooklyn.  The soundtrack features bands like the Rolling Stones!!!  The Stones?  They evoke thoughts of London, Studio 54 and MAYBE american blues, but nothing to do with Boston, except that they were an important inspiration for Aerosmith.  SO PLAY AEROSMITH IN THE SOUNDTRACK!   There is so much great Boston music from the era The Departed is set in.

Joe Perry's bio is pretty good.  It's a lot about the love/hate relationship between Aerosmith guitarist Joe Perry and Aerosmith vocalist Steve Tyler and about the bad boy lifestyle that initially contributed to the band's fame, then led to their breakdown and finally became part of their redemption narrative;  but it's also about the Boston scene itself and it's full of Boston characters - the kind that one wish Scorsese would have tried to depict.  Most striking is Perry's depiction of Aerosmith's early manager, Frank Connelly.  The way Perry tells the story, Connelly is a real Boston character, an Irish Mafia connected impresario with a heart of gold, a  lover of music and culture who made his name by bringing the Beatles to Boston.  Connelly seems to have loved Aerosmith much the same way Brian Epstein loved the Beatles, but like Brian, he wasn't above taking advantage financially a bit too.   I sure wish Marty had read this book before he decided to foist the likes of Jack Nicholson on Boston. There IS a real Boston culture, if only Marty had made a real attempt to explore it on film.

The Boston Globe has a list of all-time greatest Boston pop acts .  According to the Globe, Faces on Film is a great Boston act of recent years...

Last word to Joe Perry...

My Boston fave...




Wednesday, December 24, 2014

Keanu vs. Tilda

I don't usually write about movies, but it's something I've been thinking about doing.   Last night I watched two movies.  One was Man of Tai Chi, starring Keanu Reeves, and the other was Julia, starring Tilda Swinton.  Although I didn't plan my movie selection that way, I tend to pair the two actors in my mind.  Keanu is, in a way, the quintessential American actor and Tilda is, in a way, the quintessential English actor.  Keanu has almost no acting skills, as far as I can tell, but he has a lot of charisma.  Tilda doesn't have as much charisma, but has lots of chops.  In Julia, she takes her character through an almost encyclopedic range of emotions and states of mind and seems to completely lose herself - accent and all - in a character that seems far away from the person one imagines her to be.  She says she's not an actor though.

Both Keanu and Tilda take on surprisingly awful characters in the films I watched last night and play against type.  Keanu in particular always seems to play a good guy, but in Man of Tai Chi, he plays a mysterious rich man who arranges martial arts fights for internet pay-per-view audiences made up of super-wealthy elite types, a sadistic and brutal character.  Swinton tends to play highly cultured characters, but in Julia she plays a lower class character who seems to drift from job to job, bar to bar, bed to bed and crime to crime.  Both movies are about climactic struggles in the lives of their main characters.   Keanu poses as a deus ex machina, an uninvolved observer, but in fact, he watches his fighters intensely, cultivating them lovingly, slowly raising the stakes for which they fight until  both their lives and their souls that are on the line.  In the Man of Tai Chi's ultimate scene, Keanu fights a Tai Chi man whom he has almost succeeded in turning from a man of peace into a ruthless killer, perhaps his ultimate achievement as a destroyer of pure hearts;  again and again he shouts at his opponent "YOU OWE ME A LIFE"  as he attacks, seeking to drive the man into an even more murderous fury than he has shown before, but what he is really demanding is that the man of tai chi prove to him that good really can prevail over evil and that a man of peace can prevail over violence.
Tiger Chen, the man of tai chi, is his Job.

Julia's path is similar, even though it is without equivalent trappings of wealth and culture.  Where Keanu works his way through fighter after fighter, apparently looking for a soul whose inner peace can withstand the seductions of power and rage, Julia goes through drunken rounds of friends and lovers, apparently searching for one who can find the goodness in her that she can't find in herself.  She finds her ultimate struggle when she kidnaps a boy and holds him for ransom.  Of course this only makes Julia's already complicated life much much more complicated and hopeless as the film soon turns into a Tarantino style farce - Julia ends up fleeing, accidentally, to Mexico, where her child is re-kidnapped.  Now she has to rescue the child she kidnapped.  Little by little her efforts to protect/rescue him become sincere and she finds in her heart the thing she was searching for all along - the ability to love.

Julia is a darkly comic movie in the gritty B action movie tradition elevated by a brilliant performance.   Man of Tai Chi is a pretentiously dark movie in the martial arts film tradition, also elevated by a brilliant performance (by two, actually - Tiger Chen is a marvel as Tiger Chen).  

Keanu Reeves may be America's least respected star, but I think he has actually had a brilliant career.  I think he has been more successful than any other star at keeping feet in both the art film side and the commercial film side.  He is not a good actor, sure, but he has an almost unrivaled ability to virtually will his characters to life, and the parts he plays seem to reflect, almost nakedly, the development of his own thoughts.  I think it might be great if Swinton and Reeves did more movies together.  The only one they've done that I know of is Constantine.  As those two actors age, they seem to be interested in the temptations of despair as a theme.  I could see a series of films where they continue to explore this theme together in various ways.

Saturday, October 11, 2014

Don Geyra - Dark Star

Bloomington's most accomplished and interesting artist may be Don Geyra...
Detail of "The Reluctant Draftsman"

Geyra is a member of a special tribe,  of people who have graduated from Indiana University (with a 1977 MFA in painting in Don's case) and left Bloomington, and later returned.   Don has done a lot in between.   Moving to New York City after graduating from IU, Geyra found himself in the middle of one of New York City's creative heydays.  

detail of  "Ramones at Shadow Creek"

Don worked at CBGB, showed in Galleries, painted murals and became a skilled scenic painter for Broadway, television and film.  After a long and successful career Geyra has returned to his roots, both geographically and in terms of focusing on easel paintings.

Studio Diptych o/c

Most prominently, Don Geyra's current show at The Bellevue Gallery features a set of five paintings called The Five Senses ...

The solid black frames of these paintings recall perhaps the most sensual period in the history of painting - 17th century dutch painting...


The thought of such delectable eats hovers as we study the first painting in Geyra's "Five Senses" series, which appears to show  a fitting Indiana variant: fair food:
This painting seems to remind us that taste is at the same time the most selfish sense and the most shared, the most social, nor can taste be separated from the other senses.  To taste is also to smell and to feel.  Aromas may waft.  Biting and chewing is heard and felt.  Juices may squirt or dribble.  There are feelings of emptiness and fullness.  The boy on the right looks embarrassed to be seen dripping his catsup or salsa on his shirt...
The next painting in the series seems to represent sight - situating the viewer on a sofa in a lush room,  looking up at a lovely landscape just outside a picture window ...
If taste is a sense that bursts past limits, spurting across boundaries, is sight to be thought of as a sense that recedes from the world?  Geyra seems to suggest that it is.  Like the cats in his picture, we want to be voyeurs. The record player and the couches are indications that we want our other senses to be calmed and tamed so that our eyes can drink their fill , as the two goblets suggest.
The next painting in the show, which seems to represent the sense of hearing, is one of the most charming.  A young man seems to have moved into a new apartment, and he is filling the empty halls and rooms with his violin music.  The sound that must  booming through the hallways in the painting reminds one of the way sound reverberates through the chambers in one's ear.  The violinist looks like he is becoming one with the space around him as he concentrates.

One of Geyra's most moving paintings, for me, is his painting of the sense of smell....

For me this painting is about the revulsion we often feel about our own bodies, about our physical natures.  The woman in this picture seems to be at war with herself, a feeling that I think anyone can relate to...
The next picture in the series seems to explore this war against self that the senses can arouse further...

This picture could almost be a pulp fiction paperback cover...

There is always a sense of humor imbedded in Geyra's paintings that makes their sometimes dark contemplations more palatable while sharpening them.  Touch inevitably leads to pain and loss.  But even so Geyra's painted hand yearns for touch and doesn't pull away from it .  One painting in the show loses its way in the darkness ...
"Bowery Staircase, NYC"
It's another of my favorite paintings in the show, a gritty evocation of an urban creative oasis.

Geyra is very interested in the way space can bend and turn, challenging - but not defying - unified understandings.  Sometimes he uses multiple panels to explore that...
There is often a narrative woven into the different views of the same scene, but what I like is the way these arrangements of panels encourage us to see the same things as existing in both space and time.  In this painting, more is hidden than is revealed, and we are made to feel that we may be intruding.  There are some Hopper paintings this reminds me of...
Hopper

Hopper uses shafts of light to fragment the unified space, where Geyra uses separate panels;  this allows Geyra to suggest larger shifts of time.

Another favorite painting of mine from Geyra's show is "The Reluctant Draftsman":
For me, this wonderful painting speaks to the unwillingness most of us have to look at the living world around us.  We are, as the postmodernists predicted, completely spellbound by simulacra, or so it seems at times.  Rather than paint his selfportrait from life, the depicted artist attempts to paint a projected image onto his canvas, which in turn comes from a computer.  Geyra's painting calls to mind a famous Durer...

In Geyra's dystopian vision of what was already an image of separation and alienation and anxiety both artist and model are absent and the simulacra seem to be busy constructing an infinite loop...

Don Geyra's show of paintings at the Bellevue Gallery is a very special show.  His paintings are dark, but also funny.  They are painted with a touch that is gentle and loving, and they show an eye for detail that is thoughtful and alert.  Most of all they have tremendous presence and they create a contemplative atmosphere.  They refuse to surrender to a world of simulacra.



Sunday, October 5, 2014

Adventures of a 'Famous New York Art Critic' in Bloomington

The 'Famous New York Art Critic' did Bloomington again recently.  As always, art was popping out all over.

Some art in public spaces is very extroverted.  Some is less so...
... and some is just out in the middle of everything...
Some art isn't thought  of as art, especially when it's been there for a while...
Store windows can be so amazing...
Take pottery,  add famous art critic and cue photo-documentarian -  it's so arty!
But artists' books makes it even better...
Assessment...
contemplation...
Life along the seashore?




 Museum specimens?



Plants from another planet?
Cosmic paper folds?
to be continued...



Tuesday, July 22, 2014

Velvet Underground in Bloomington

As I was walking with a friend around Bloomington, one hot summer day, I chanced upon the new art complex at the corner of Rogers and Fourth st.   An industrial scale garage door was open, and inside, instead of heavy equipment to be seen, were giant velvet pillows and balloons, all seemingly inscribed with complex diagrams that might be suitable for crop circles...

I couldn't get a better picture, because my camera ran out of card space, but I did notice that the exhibit is going to have a closing reception this weekend ...
... on Saturday, July 26.  The show is by Carrie Weaver and is called Velvet Equilibrium.

Bloomington's   famous NYC art critic manque,  and trend consultant, was intrigued...

Today was a good day for seeing textures while walking.  Sometimes a building looks like it might be more interesting while it is being built...
I especially like the snaky wire wrapping the fence pipe.

Interesting mystery objects are left around on construction sites...

It's interesting too to compare wild graffiti...
... with more tame graffiti (just as fun though)...
Sometimes one cannot resist an impromptu fashion shoot...
Bloomington - not for the feint of art...

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