"Brooklyn Dispatches: An Unobstructed View," Brooklyn Rail by Fredrick Munk

By James Kalm

As a twenty-five year local resident I can unashamedly admit it: I love the Brooklyn Museum of Art.  Like the borough itself it’s big, quirky, and, for the uninitiated, a bit odd.  Try as I might, in the three years since the reinstallation of its prized American painting collection (unique in scope within the greater Metropolitan area), I can no longer remain silent. It’s now obvious that BMA’s decision to hang its masterpieces of the Hudson River School, the Ashcan School, and the Early Modernists, including the likes of O’Keeffe, Dove and an unparalleled selection of Hartleys, in interior “environments,” many behind period furniture like so many decorative chatchkas, is not a temporary, admirable mistake by “well intentioned” curators, experimenting with “new ideas.”  It’s a disaster, a wooly-headed scheme that, either through good intentions or paternalistic condescension, toward the “educational” interest of is constituents, could have been spawned only from an anti-painting agenda. (Exhibit A might be an interview with Robyn Perry that appeared in the September issue of Artillery, in which the museum’s director, Arnold Lehman, states, “I admit that I was also a painter. A failed, badly failed painter … it was clear to me that I was untalented,” adding that “…for a very long time, you would be hard-pressed to find a painting in our house.”) 

This antithetical arrangement is particularly galling with respect to one of the Museum’s choicest possession, Stuart Davis’ “The Mellow Pad” (1945-51).  Unquestionably one of his greatest paintings, and an icon of American Modernism, it occupied Davis for the six years following WWII, a period of fundamental reevaluation during which the young lions of Abstract Expressionism took center stage, and usurped whatever meager attention Davis and his fellow avant-gardists had earned over long and demanding careers.  Despite its small size (a mere 26 x 42 inches), its dense composition harbingers ideas and techniques that will flower in his grand late style, foreshadowing Pop Art, Color Field Abstraction, the Abstract Imagists and Text Painting.  So important is “The Mellow Pad” that when the BMA presented its groundbreaking “Stuart Davis: Art and Art Theory” exhibition in 1978, a full-color illustration of “The Mellow Pad” wrapped around the catalog’s cover.

Now, not only “The Mellow Pad,” but “Pad No. 4” (1947) a stunning study for “Pad,”  are sequestered behind a roped-off platform the size of a small room, with chairs and a vanity table designed by Louis Dierra and KEM Weber, inaccessible for intimate viewing. At this point, short of demanding a total reinstallation of the collection, I’ll just fall to my knees and beg, PLEASE MR. LEHMAN, free these Davis paintings, grant the viewing public a more immediate experience, allow us an unobstructed view.

Back on the streets, unobstructed views are less problematic.  Cruise east on Flushing Avenue, through the Hasidic neighborhood near the BQE, past signs that read, sequentially, Old Reliable Hardware, Mexican Refrigerated Foods and CuchaFrieto Café until you come to the Bogart Street intersection.  Two blocks north is Ad Hoc Art Gallery.  This venue has been in operation for two years yet seems like a vestige of Williamsburg circa 1992.  It shares space with Peripheral Media Projects, a silkscreen jobber that produces tee shirt and poster designs, which may account for the street-hip and punchy graphic attitude of much of the art shown.  If Warhol and Rauschenberg used silkscreen as a means of negating the “handmade paintings” fetishized by the New York School, then Buy:Product (Three Years of PMP Silkscreen), Ad Hoc’s current show, brings the technique full circle.  Works by Ray Cross and Garrison Buxton employ found objects like sheets of plywood and cardboard or anything else they could scrounge as grounds for a mix of paint, collage and screen-print images.  In most cases the photo-screens were produced for other projects, and their images range from eighteenth-century illustrations of exotic machines to directional diagrams for folding origami.  These unrelated depictions become readymade elements for the pictures.  A grouping of small works titled “Bleed Prints” are panel-mounted paper towels that were used to clear a screen after use.  The accumulation of haphazard images and ink stains are cropped then enhanced, creating high-keyed paintings that read like optical static from a world oversaturated with visual media.

Heading off at an oblique angle, a block west on Flushing and not even rating an official street sign (it’s relegated to a black-on-orange wood strip wired to a telephone pole) is Forrest Street.  Half a block south brings you to English Kills.  Directed by Chris Harding, English Kills hosts the highly recommended installation Blind Spot, an extensive architectural project by artist team Andrew Ohanesian and Tescia Seufferlein.  The initial unexpectedness of Blind Spot is a jolting revelation.  Hrag Vartanian’s review in the October 2007 Rail provides an insightful reading.

Pocket Utopia is nestled next to a Chinese take-out joint two blocks east at 1037 Flushing.  Founded by artist/director Austin Thomas, Pocket Utopia is appropriately named, and beyond exhibiting art, it has as its mission an engagement with the community to encourage an interchange between the newly arrived artsy crowd and its longtime multi-cultural neighbors.  As homage to the Williamsburg community, Utopia’s first exhibition was a selection of works from the renowned Pierogi flat files.  Currently on view are the paintings, photos and films of Lucas Reiner depicting the lives of urban trees in Los Angeles

Call it love, or call it naïveté, but at the core of what makes the Williamsburg community unique are the people who sacrifice their time, space and cash to pursue their particular vision, usually with no thought of remuneration.  The ‘temporary Museum of Painting, housed in the landmark Hecla Iron Works Building, is a prime example. Cathy Nan Quinlan has created not only a beautiful exhibition space, but a latter-day salon.  Besides the timely exhibitions, mostly focused on contemporary painting issues, visitors will find a floating discussion group welcoming them to have a cup’o’tea and chat, rap and yak about art and all its ancillary challenges, an activity that has become an unfortunate casualty of our evermore reticent society.  

As a study in inclusion, the current show, The Impermanent Collection V, unites divergent directions whose only commonality is the medium of paint.  A wall-filling Naples yellow triptych, “Tuff Strut” (2006) by Larry Webb, bulges with an abundance of small and medium-sized forms.  These simple shapes, in warm browns, grays, blues and reds, recall a microscopic panorama of zipping amoebas and fluttering protozoa.  Julia Jacquette contributes a pair of hyper-realistic scenes of extravagant consumption.  In “My Houses (View with Yacht)” (2006), we look past a gaudy chandelier and through a satin-draped window overlooking a limpid, sun-drenched pool and a yacht floating in a bay.  Ironically, Jacquette’s glassy surfaces themselves embody a highly polished signifier of an equally luxurious commodity.  The still lifes of Rachel Youens are composed of the stuff of daily sustenance; loaves of bread, wedges of fruit and slices of cheese.  The arrangements imply various narratives, with their casually discarded rinds and architecturally stacked and balanced elements that threaten to topple at the slightest adjustment.  With a tip of the hat to the Metaphysical still lifes of Morandi, Youens incorporates a nubby surface and tonal approach into her depiction of form, but her expanded range of hues and intensities deliver a very contemporary punch to the pictures.  Also included in “The Impermanent Collection V” are Michele Araujo, Suzanne Chamlin, Greg Kwiatek, Susan Mayr and Hilda Shen. If you’re in the neighborhood and you want to talk painting, stop by any weekend.  

"Brooklyn Dispatches: Call it Merde (and They Will Eat It): Ruminations on Crap," Brooklyn Rail by Fredrick Munk

By James Kalm

Be forewarned: those of you with delicate sensibilities please forego this essay; those choosing to read on, please step lightly and roll up your pant cuffs.
As the new art season opens, led by the charge of the market bulls, we’re confronted once again with the latest, the hottest, the chicest.  For this somewhat jaded spectator, who’s experienced our culture's willing desensitization via a plethora of evermore “shocking” gestures, I find myself wondering about its relationship to that most base of all materials: shit, crap, doodoo, poop.  “Inter faeces et urinam nascimur”—“Between shit and piss we are born” to quote St. Augustine: one could say quite literally that for the New York avant-garde (if that designation has any relevance these days) this proctological association of art with excrement is in fact profound. 

A Brief History of Crap

There’s a rich history of scatological imagery reaching back across the millennia.  But for a brief glance at its relationship to Modernism, Post-Modernism, and the avant-garde, we can start with James Ensor, a seminal artist who extended the grand Northern European tradition of feces and urine as elements of satire by not merely depicting them in his paintings, but by also cultivating a palette and texture that has been long compared to dung. Other radical Expressionists followed, but, ironically, it is the cerebral Marcel Duchamp and his “Fountain” to which much of the “Crap Art” of the Twentieth Century owes a debt.  Whether it’s Jackson Pollock (who was quoted as saying that his dribble style evolved from observations of piss holes in the snow) urinating in Peggy Guggenheim’s fireplace, or canned feces cleverly marketed as “Artist’s Shit” (1961) by Piero Manzoni for the price of its weight in gold, we can’t seem to get enough.  To list contemporary examples of piss, poop, bodily fluids and/or functions would take the rest of this essay, but here are a few notables: Wim Delvoy’s “Cloaca” (2000), a contraption exhibited at the New Museum in 2002 that processes gourmet food over a period of days and converts it into synthetic shit, which, like Manzoni’s canned crap, is then packaged and sold to expectant collectors; Andre Serrano’s “Piss Christ” (1987), a photo of a crucifix submerged in what is billed as urine (would it have attained the same notoriety if it were beer, apple juice or water with amber food-coloring?);  Chris Ofili’s “The Holy Virgin Mary” (1996), a depiction of the Holy Mother festooned with porn clippings of female genitalia and standing on lumps of varnished elephant dung, which created a succès de scandale at the Saatchi-sponsored Sensations exhibition at the Brooklyn Museum in 1999 and hyped Rudy Giuliani’s reputation among the Christian Right; and Andy Warhol’s “Oxidation Paintings”, in which Andy and an assistant, Victor Hugo, pissed on canvases covered in metallic pigment, then marveled at the coloristic incidents generated by the subsequent chemical reactions.  In one of the more odiferous projects of recent years, artists Jan Northoff and Benne Ender spent time running around Kassel during Documenta XI in 2002, collecting fecal matter from public toilets and restrooms.   They delivered their pungent harvest to Paul McCarthy and Jason Rhoades, who incorporated the poop into “Shit Plug,” a self-descriptive sculptural form that McCarthy recycled into a twenty-foot-tall commission from the city of Amsterdam titled “Santa with Butt Plug” (2002), which the artist presented at this year’s Basel Art Fair. Kim Jones, in an in-depth interview with Stephen Maine that appeared in the November 2006 edition of The Brooklyn Rail, rhapsodizes about his breakthrough performances as the “Mudman,” in which he smeared his body with mud and his own shit and asked stunned audience members for a hug.  And let’s not forget Dash Snow, who “excreted” last season’s very popular cum-stained newspapers to critical acclaim.

The Avant-Garde Crap-Shoot

In an essay titled “The Trouble With Youth” that appeared August 20th on artnet, Donald Kuspit lays out a thesis that in part draws a correlation between the mentality of the avant-garde and society’s obsession with youth-culture and the desire to remain forever young, hot and audacious.  This overriding desire for innovation and novelty, rather than hard-won mastery, which has dominated the art market for much of the last century, is one of the most blatant symptoms of the syndrome.  Predictably, this Peter Pan impulse has devolved to a ridiculous degree, so that we’ve now gone from mere youthfulness to a state of infancy.  “Progressive” art has prized untainted childlike perception for decades, and for babies, little Duchamps in diapers, feces is the first readymade medium. It’s warm and friendly, smelly and tactile, and admittedly there’s nothing like the straight-ahead unselfconscious urgency of slapping shit on a wall.  With today’s trend toward narcissistic self-documentation, what could be a more personal material for expression than a medium that’s produced by our own bodies? Another hallmark of the avant-garde—subversion and transgression—is facilitated by using crap, the all too obvious highpoint of low matter. Advanced artists employ it not only to undermine our notions of aesthetic beauty, but also to seize the opportunity to grab society by the ears and rub its nose in it, to shatter the viewers’ sensibilities and maybe shock them into a rethinking of standards and conventions. 

The Marketing of Merde

Beyond the physical nature of caca there’s the symbolic condition of its very commonness, its abject worthlessness, which, when tied to economics, raises a more troubling set of questions.  The market is controlled not by piss and shit, but by fear and greed. For cultural mavens, it’s fear of being out of step with the dictates of avant-tastemakers, and a practical desire to possess critically touted baubles that will reap a financial bonanza as well as a social one.  But can über-hipsters actually sell irrational ideas to their devotees as au courant, goading them into behaviors that strain common sense?  Consider the urine-drinking craze noted by Simon Doonan a few years ago, a health-and-beauty campaign complete with celebrity endorsements.  Is this a wickedly cynical joke on trend-followers or a disturbing example of bandwagon jumping that strains notions not only of basic hygiene but “good taste”?  

When modern architects began designing mass-produced housing for their utopian cities of the future, their modular designs (whose standardized proportions are still in use today) and elimination of decoration were based on prisons and workers’ housing.  We all admire efficiency and functionality, and from a production standpoint, reducing construction costs may override aesthetics when it comes to the bottom line.  But how to convince the upwardly mobile middle-class of the glamour of living in a prison cubicle? Easy.  The critics and tastemakers of the day simply told a malleable public that living in a cell is fantastic and modern.  Who needs a ceiling higher than seven feet nine inches or a door wider than seventy-five centimeters?     

In several recent articles and lectures Jerry Saltz has lamented the fact that “we have no economic theory for the art market”.  Not to pick on poor Andy, but despite his relative merits as an artist, he’s Exhibit A of the “Bizarro World” nature of monetary value in the art world.  In early May this year, Warhol’s “Green Car Crash (Green Burning Car I)” (1963) achieved a new auction record for the artist: 71.7 million bucks (what about versions II-XXXV?). There’s a clear disconnect between Warhol’s claim that he “wanted to be a machine”—his use of commercial art technology (silkscreen) and assistants to maximize production while removing virtually any trace of the artist’s hand—and the basic economic principle that rarity and scarceness increase a product’s value. The mind-boggling amounts of product cranked out at the “Factory” (which continues to cause endless authentication problems for the Warhol Foundation) seem to dehumanize it. This reduces the collector from risky cultural connoisseur to mass-market consumer, or worse yet, hedge-fund commodity speculator, hoping to peddle hyped goods at grossly inflated prices to the next unsuspecting rube before the ceiling falls in.  To the unconvinced, this looks an awful lot like a Ponzi scheme, a pyramid scam built from turds. 

The Measure of Merde

Once we’ve accepted the nature of crap, its ubiquity and banality, we then have the tricky assignment of deciding on its relative merits.  Shit is shit.  That’s a wonderfully egalitarian statement, but how and why is some crap beloved—praised by critics, purchased for outrageous sums, and ultimately winding up in museums—while other shit is just shit?  Like every other extreme or experimental concern, whether pornography, kitsch or the grotesque, it’s only a brief matter of time before crap is assimilated by the academy, deodorized, homogenized and glamorized, becoming unrecognizable—alas a pathetic end for anything.  Middle-class society as a whole may still be shocked by poop, but for highfalutin art world mucky-mucks, its historical credentials and cynical connotations make it just another option to consider. Perhaps it’s less about the poop and more about the asshole.  Keep all this in mind the next time someone tries to sell you a diamond-studded $100-million load of it.   Now if you’ve had enough scat, wipe that grin off your face and get back to work.

"Brooklyn Dispatches: Still Crazy: Unveiled Previews Unprecedented Collection at the Denver Art Museum," Brooklyn Rail by Fredrick Munk

By James Kalm

ONE BILLION DOLLARS WORTH OF ART, yeah, that caught your attention, probably more than “great paintings,” “masterworks of Abstract Expressionism,” or “a unique opportunity for in-depth study of one artist’s oeuvre.” But that figure is not hyperbole; it’s an accurate estimate of the value of the Clyfford Still Estate, which will be housed in the Brad Cloepfil-designed Clyfford Still Museum in Denver. We have seen a Pollock go for $140 million, a de Kooning for $63.5 million, a Rothko at $73 million and a Johns for $80 Million. Last year witnessed a new auction record—$21,296,000—for Still’s own “1947-R #7.”  So you could say that this group of more than 2,400 works by one of the founders of Ab-Ex is a “Diamond as Big as the Ritz.”

I’ll admit I’m a sucker for the mythology of the Abstract Expressionists and the New York School but, as a fellow Westerner, I feel a sympathetic nudge toward Pollock and Still.  Clyfford Still (1904-1980), though less known than Pollock to the general public, chose a strategy for dealing with market forces that was as prickly and uncompromising as his paintings.  In “An Open Letter to an Art Critic,” published in the December 1963 Artforum, Still writes “…I had made it clear that a single stroke of paint, backed by work and a mind that understood its potency and implications, could restore to man the freedom lost in twenty centuries of apology and devices for subjugation.  It was instantly hailed, and recognized by two or three men that it threatened the power ethic of this culture, and challenged its validity.”  Whether idealistic or delusional, this level of Old Testament prophet-like conviction emboldened Still to reject the corruptions of the New York art world.  Ironically, he had enough market savvy to show up looking sharp, in a crisply pressed suit, for Nina Leen’s famous 1950 photo, “The Irascibles,” and lateragreed to be “exploited” by Dorothy Miller’s “15 Americans” exhibition at MoMA in 1952. However, just as critical and market interests were taking notice of what would become the first internationally accepted American art movement, Still wrote a scathing series of screeds denouncing many of his old confidants and supporters, including Rothko, who had introduced him to Peggy Guggenheim, paving the way for his groundbreaking New York show in February 1946 at her Art of This Century Gallery.  Simultaneously, Still flipped off the dealers, critics and curators who were packaging him and his peers for worldwide consumption. 

Having seen firsthand the negative impact of commercial manipulation on an artist’s work (most memorably, Pollock’s bad end), in the early sixties he hunkered down in a country house in Maryland and came to believe that the only way to maintain the significance of his work was to control every aspect of its presentation. In the last twenty-five years of his practice he consented to only two museum exhibitions, one at the Albert-Knox Gallery, Buffalo, in 1966, and at the Metropolitan Museum of Art just months before his death in 1980.  Since then, as stipulated in his will, the work in the estate, the roughly 950 oil paintings and 1,600 works on paper—an estimated 94% his total output—has been stashed away in storage, awaiting an offer from a city willing to build a museum to showit. As you might expect, even from the grave Still controls virtually every condition under which his work can be seen, including caveats like: no other artist’s work shall be shown in the museum unless it is in context with Still’s work; no sales or loans from the estate; no auditorium or restaurants on the premises.  Even the heights of the ceilings in the viewing areas are specified.

The deal brokered in 2004 between the artist’s widow, Patricia Still, and Denver’s mayor, John Hickenlooper, facilitated by the Stills’ nephew, Denver resident Curt Freed, calls for an outlay of $12 million to $20 million dollars, raised from private sources, for construction of the museum, which is to be located directly behind the Denver Art Museum (DAM). It’s expected to open in 2010.  All this comes right on the heels of the DAM’s recently completed 30,000-square-foot, $75 million Daniel Libeskind-designed Hamilton Building, which required Denver voters to approve a $62.5 million bond initiative. While I’m heartened by this kind of community support, I’ve got to think that the city fathers and mothers were casting a longing eye on sites like Don Judd’s Chinati Foundation in Marfa, Texas, or James Turrell’s Roden Crater project, and betting on Still’s draw to raise Denver’s standing as a cultural tourism destination.

Clifford Still Unveiled: Selections from the Estate, is a mouthwatering hors d’œuvre of what will, no doubt, be a full course meal when the CSM opens in 2010.  Though limited to only thirteen works, it displays a chronological view of Still’s stylistic trajectory, with revealing examples of his “American Scene” figurative paintings, strange transitional Surrealist works, and various phases of his mature, earthy-hued, jagged abstractions.  A self-portrait, “Untitled (PH-382)” (1940), is a surprisingly competent rendering of Still’s stern, tightlipped face atop a three-quarter-turned torso caped in a long black smock.  The glowing flesh of a half-closed hand at his side foreshadows the light-on-dark flickering forms of the later pictures.  Already predominant are the rusty reds, blacks and putty grays.  And his full-bodied impasto is evident in the boilerplate, Benton-like “Wheat Shockers (PH – 77)” from 1936.

Still’s reputation as a seminal Abstract Expressionist in its most American sense was based to a certain extent on his uncontaminated native approach—at least that was the image he sought to present by destroying much of his early work.  A couple of surviving transitional pieces from the late thirties display a befuddling amalgam of Social Realism and Surrealism tracking Still’s aesthetically complex leap from figuration to abstraction, which he navigated without passing through Modernist abstraction’s gateway, Cubism.  A pastel and charcoal drawing from 1935 shows a long, mask-like face alongside an equally long hand hanging off a pitchfork.  The black outlines, elongated and indistinct features, and brown tonalities render this composition as repugnant and unsettling as some of Guston’s late “Dung Beetle” images but without Guston’s pleasant pinks.  Another stunner, “(PH–343)” from 1937, is a vertically bifurcated composition in which an odd, disquieting figure on dark brown is paired with stark, attenuated black shapes on a white ground that hint at the gothic value contrasts of the breakthrough abstractions.

Arguably one of Still’s first “Abstract Expressionist” paintings is 1944’s “# 4,” a work he completed after moving to Virginia to teach at the Richmond Professional Institute (now Virginia Commonwealth University).  This large canvas (105 x 92.5 inches) is a monochrome field of heavily knifed black.  A crimson line twisting like a stream on a topographical map meanders up the left side and down the right while a white wisp and a pale yellow streak hang from the top edge like Spanish moss.  A thick emerald green “flame” near the lower right corner snaps the composition into coloristic tension.  The simplicity and elegance of “# 4” is astounding, and its reductive composition, grand scale and attention to the physical qualities of oil paint represent a breakthrough that resonated with other Ab-Exers such as Newman, Rothko, and the Proto-Minimalist Reinhardt, and sent out ripples of influence through Stella, Ryman and Marden, all the way down to Schnabel. 

By the late forties, Still had hit his groove. The paintings are less heavily worked, and his employment of raw canvas as both a textural and coloristic element brought a graphic sense akin to drawing on off-white paper, adding lightness and space while contrasting the fat, layered slabs and delicate veins of oil paint. By the time we get to “#2” (1957), the artist is working at full throttle.  The flurry of jagged forms across this mural-sized painting seems to flutter and mesh at the same time.  With its massive scale and brutal fracture of blacks and reds and tiny flames of yellow and magenta at the periphery, the canvas appears formed more by the forces of nature than by pictorial logic.

Although I’d like to see the Clyfford Still Museum open next door, or at least within biking distance, it couldn’t be more appropriate, given Still’s antipathy toward the New York art world, that Denver should win this prize.  Sitting on the western edge of the Great Plains at the foot of the Eastern slopes of the Rockies, Denver embodies the grand contrasts of landscape that inspired Still’s monumental outpourings.  I guess I’ll have to settle for visits to his room at the Met while coming up with semi-believable rationalizations for occasional trips to Denver to get my Still fix.

"Brooklyn Dispatches: Gangs of New York," Brooklyn Rail by Fredrick Munk

“Don’t talk, paint.  If you can express what you want in words you should be a writer or poet, not an artist”.  This was one of the slogans frequently repeated by faculty members in the art department where I studied during the late seventies.  Somehow this vestigial wisdom spread from the kingdom of macho existentialism on East 10th Street, to generations of academic artists whose only contact with the “real art world” was a monthly dose of high-brow “critical theory” indoctrination and gossip from East Coast publications like ARTFORUM, Art in America, and Art News.  With exhibition opportunities limited to faculty shows every other year, and the chance of making a sale slim to nil, life in the American hinterlands during this period wasn’t easy for artist wannabes toiling in the vineyards of higher education.  This situation created conflicted state, on the one hand, these academic artists relied on writers to tell them what was happening in places like New York and Los Angeles while, on the other, they were dismissive of writers for not being practicing artists.   Still, I’m inclined to think that their pedantics were a self-serving device designed to keep students in a repressed state, as idiot-savants in a goof-ball utopia unable to communicate in writing, and biased against anyone who did.  Critics were seen as energy vampires, sucking their sustenance from the creative juices imbedded within authentic art objects and spewing out a perverted literary facsimile that diminished the actual viewing experience.  In short, when I landed in New York and began to establish my own artistic practice, I was lugging a Buick-sized chip on my shoulder

At a well attended panel discussion about Clement Greenberg organized by David Cohen a few years ago at the Elizabeth Harris Gallery, Geoffrey Dorfman recounted the tale of Arshile Gorky’s confrontation with Greenberg.  It seems Greenberg had recently reviewed Gorky’s 1945 show at the Julien Levy Gallery and the review implied a suspicion that, because of his stylistic loyalty to Picasso and Miro, Gorky “…lacked independence and masculinity of character.”  When they met in the street after a group discussion Gorky challenged Greenberg to draw a simple portrait, reasoning that before a critic could be taken seriously they should at least have a minimal level of expertise.  Of course Greenberg copped out knowing he couldn’t hold a candle to Gorky’s legendary facility as a draftsman, and though known as a brawler himself, perhaps he was a bit intimidated by Gorky’s strapping physique.  Eventually Greenberg changed his opinion and admitted Gorky to his pantheon of art stars.  By that time the accolades were delivered posthumously.  Though this account may be apocryphal, it illustrates the energy that made for such scintillating criticism in the forties, fifties, and sixties.  The art world was divided into two camps and critical diatribes were delivered like pot shots over trench berms.  The “Jets” were headed up by Harold Rosenberg and Thomas B. Hess and the “New York School” while the “Sharks” were made up of the “Greenbergian formalists”.  Young conscripts were enlisted on sides, girlfriends, boyfriends, acolytes, and favorites of either team were fair game for attack.  Somewhere the fun went out of the game.  Nowadays we’re way too “civilized” to indulge in anything that might rock the art market boat or rattle the windows of the bureaucracy.  Perhaps things are just too pluralistic for any kind of “critical mass”.  Despite Sandler’s complaint about the diminished prestige of today’s art critics, I’ve personally seen the directorial staffs of New York’s finest galleries snap to obsequious attention when an influential critic drops in for an opening (certainly not me).  Current valuations for a gushing review from one of New York’s top five critics are rumored to be worth in the neighborhood of $50,000 in sales and a life long boost that will be recycled on résumés even after the cold fingers of death try to snatch it away.  The prestige of said critic is usually measured by circulation numbers, targeted audience (up scale trumps hip), and ad revenues generated by their publications. All too often I hear art world types mouthing rehashed views of the two or three hot-shot critics they read. Even though they haven’t bothered visiting the shows, they seem to think talking about the critics views important to dinner-party conversation and God forbid you should confront one of the big three or four critics with an opinion in variance with the current thinking.

Maybe it’s time to stop being afraid, to start challenging the status quo, to ask the critics if they could draw a portrait, paint a hand, make a video or do a performance.  Heck, it’s even been suggested that we turn over art critics, many of whom have been pontificating for over thirty years, as regularly as they turn over artists.  Maybe we should have a critical petting zoo and allow young artists to get up close and personal with the big-time critics. Of course they’d have to be hobbled and muzzled so the newbies realize they have nothing to be afraid of. 

Today, instead of a cultural crisis, we’re facing a paradigm shift.  Thanks to the internet, the monopoly of the elites and the publishing empires they represent are crumbling and if the blinders imposed by the powers that be haven’t yet been pried off, they have at least, for the moment, been bent back.  If you don’t believe in democracy this is a problem.  If you do, then this is could be the dawning of a new golden age.  Anyone who visits websites like artnet.com, artforum.com, or our own brooklynrail.org, is aware of the vast amount of valuable content on the net.  Within the past few years individual art blogger have appeared.  As a confirmed contrarian, committed to opposing what ever power structure that pops up, the idea of a venue where the only limitations are an individual’s intellect, energy, and time is very appealing.  Though the list of people writing and creating forums for discussions in cyberspace, is long, indeed very long, for the purposes of this article I interviewed three who have made unique innovations.

As you might assume from the name, “Paintersnyc” is a blog which concentrates on painting. That’s what brought it to my attention about a year ago after reading about it at artnet.com. Log-ins can leave comments on the posted paintings de jur, in short a free-form critique not unlike what might have occurred at the local artists bar a decade or two ago.  Thus far paintersnyc has posted 391 works with some artists repeated.  It’s run by a young Greenpoint based artist who’s racked up a track record that includes several group shows and a solo exhibition with a hot young gallery that has recently pulled up stakes in Williamsburg for the big time in Manhattan.   Painterpaparazzi (to maintain her anonymity here, she’s chosen to use her blog moniker) joined the blogosphere almost by accident in November 2005.  “I didn’t get the idea originally.  I didn’t even know what a blog was until someone told me to look at Nicole Eisenman’s “A Blog Called Nowhere”.   Then I signed up to get a blog.  I had a group of photos of friend’s works that I started up-loading just to see how they would look together.  I didn’t think there would be much of an audience but people started showing up.  No one commented at first.  Someone might ask a question like ‘where can I see this painting?’  Then a couple of people with blogs came and started posting comments and connecting it with other blogs and then everybody started showing up and leaving comments.”  With that, paintersnyc took off.  Now, with an average of 1,500 views a day and about 40 comments, painterpaparazzi has seen the blog take on an independent character at odds with some of her original intents.  “Things have changed considerably.  For the first two months I participated a lot, posting comments and trying to lead the conversation.  There are no personal comments allowed, if they show up they’re deleted.  At first I wanted to show the paintings of people who were working in New York, then it was people who showed in New York.  Now I just pick what I think is best and most interesting.  There are so many comments posted these days that I can’t even read everything, I just scan it.”

With a project like paintersnyc there’s always a danger that it might take over your life and detract from studio time.   Painterpaparazzi has had some doubts, “I feel like I’ve learned a lot about other painters, but sometimes I don’t want to look anymore.  It’s hard to look at and search out paintings all the time when you’re a painter yourself.”  It was the critical aspect of painternyc that intrigued me.  Here was a blog where anyone could be a critic, and your value was based on the merit of your argument and its relevance to the work.  “I don’t think of the posters as critics”, said painterpaparazzi, “It’s good that people correspond but they don’t have to be professionals.  You have to realize that you’re looking at a blog, not an art publication.  Some of the contributors are just as smart or insightful as the critics, but mixed in you might have someone writing about last night’s dinner.”  When asked about the future of art blogs, painterpaparazzi was less sanguine.  “I’ve created a forum, and I hope it’s a positive service.  I don’t have an agenda, it’s not about me, but sometimes I worry.  The blog format is flawed, and the anonymous nature of posts a problem.  I think it might evolve into something like TMZ.com, a celebrity stocking site, or perezhilton.com, where they just deal with celebrities”.  Perhaps art world blogging will morph into just another version of B grade Hollywood celeb watching.

As honorees at the recent Nurture Art benefit at Chelsea’s CUE Art Foundation, James Wagner and Barry Hoggard have become legendary with young and under-recognized artists and their upstart galleries in both Chelsea and Williamsburg.  With a pair of the longest lived art blogs in the New York community, jameswagner.com, and bloggy.com, as well as the listings site, artcal.net, James and Barry have trekked to and reported on darn near every new and emerging space in town.  As true enthusiasts with extraordinary eyes for quality, and daring confidence as collectors, they are pioneers in the arts blogospohere.  James explained the beginnings of jameswagner.com, “It started after 9/11.  We were feeling overwhelmed by what was happening and I began to send out e-mails to friends trying to express our distress.  Barry set up a blog site for me without images.  A lot of it was political, but we were also interested in emerging art, performance, and music.  As it progressed we became more discouraged with the ineffectual nature of our political activism and so we began to concentrate more on the arts, though we still comment on politics.  Since we both had digital cameras it was natural for us to begin to add photos which has become very important”

Because they’ve come to their appreciation of art without benefit of formal art educations, both Barry and James feel that their critical stance is more akin to fandom, so there’s an aspect of friendly documentation that informs their blogging.  “I think what we do is important for small galleries.  Sometimes we’re the only people who write about these unseen artists.  Occasionally we’ll go into galleries and see copies of entries from our blogs on the reception desks.  We’ve had artists tell us that they were noticed and invited into other shows because of our little blogs.  It’s exciting to be able to help those artists,” mused Barry.  James added “I write these entries out of a sense of intimacy.  Technically we’re not critics, we don’t criticize anything, but we only write about the things we like.  We live in Chelsea so I can visit a gallery even on the last day of a show, and sometimes almost accidentally l can document the artist’s work and get immediate response, and once you put something on the web it’s there forever. The magazines can take six months, sometimes longer.”  To this point, between them, James and Barry have written about over a thousand artists.

Because of Barry’s computer expertise I was able to delve into some of the demographics of the sites.  “Well artcal.net gets between 1,500 and 2,500 page views per day.  As of April 1st, jameswagner.com had 5,000 views and bloggy.com had 1,500 per day.  Generally the distribution for artcal.net is 85% in the US followed by Canada, the UK, Germany, Japan and France.  Last week jameswagner.com had six views from the Sudan!”

The potential for art blogs seems more positive to James and Barry:  “Everyone is so independent that I don’t see the bloggers joining an association, but I’d like to see museums and some galleries relax their policies concerning photographing the work.  This is a chance to get a wider availability of images out there, to introduce the public to more artists and their work.  What could be wrong with that?”, questions James.  Barry would like to see the blogs “become more interactive, perhaps with guest editors or even containing mini-blogs.”  He’s even considering on-line surveys that would allow frequent users to vote on exhibitions or artists they would like to see covered. 

It’s a glorious new world.  Now not only can everybody be an artist with the potential of a world wide audience but a critic as well, and it’s all just a click away.  Take that Dinosaur Art Media.

"Brooklyn Dispatches: Family Matters," Brooklyn Rail by Fredrick Munk

By James Kalm

At a jam-packed lecture delivered at the New School in 2000, Dave Hickey, the bad boy of contemporary criticism, presented an idea, profound in its breadth, that it’s memory—not taste, not fashion, not even aesthetics—that determines the “staying power” of a work of art.  Moreover, it is the work’s ability to remain vivid and to morph in memory that shows its strength.  Heady stuff, especially in an age when we’re surrounded by theorists and pundits who encourage short memories, even a state of art-world amnesia.  They believe that one should “deconstruct” history and approach a work of art with a mind uncluttered by the sordid residue of the past (and thus assuring an unchallenged sales pitch).  All art comes from art; its history is its DNA.  Every artist and art viewer carries within him/herself a mini-version of art history.

Søren Kierkegaard is quoted as saying “Life must be understood backwards; but... it must be lived forward.” Therefore, if we’re interested in understanding art, we must also have an understanding of memory and its role in solving the mystery of art.  And if we seek more than just a coexistence with art, we must know the history of art.

If you were to ask me whose artistic vision I would trust for an accurate, or at least honest, reflection of the past, I would unhesitatingly have to answer Jonas Mekas.  With a flurry of recent exhibitions, including an expansive overview at Maya Stendhal Gallery and a mini-retrospective at PS1, Mekas—a longtime denizen and chronicler of Williamsburg—has become something of an unexpected poster boy for artistic perseverance.  Like a hyper-hip, underground Zelig, Mekas has popped up next to, and has trained his camera on, some of the most electrifying people of the past sixty years.  A stroll through the exhibit at PS1 was akin to hanging out at the most perfect Sunday afternoon party imaginable, with a guest list that included John Lennon and Yoko Ono frolicking on stage, Alan Ginsberg, the bard of the East Village, chanting antiwar verse and rhythmically drumming the table with his fist, Salvador Dali squirting shaving cream on a nude woman in a vacant Manhattan lot, his bravado with a spray can foreshadowing the antics of graffiti writers thirty year later, and a young Andy Warhol in black-and-white, still content to be a member of the cast.  The list goes on and on, but Mekas also casts his eye on ordinary people, rendering the pathos of their lives into cinematic gold.  With his films, videos and still photos, Mekas has unselfconsciously blazed a path toward the future with flickering remnants preserved from the past.  He has validated the premise that the observer does affect the outcome, that there is a power in SEEING.  It’s at moments like these that I thank providence for the happenstance that led the lighthearted and whimsical hand of Jonas Mekas to pick up that first movie camera and start the shadow play that is still fascinating us fifty years later.  Oh yes I remember it well.

Within our far-flung and dysfunctional creative tribe, family is another structure that facilitates and preserves memory.  The artist Ward Jackson must surely be smiling as he looks down from what ever rung of the heavenly realm artists are allowed to enter.  “Ward Jackson: A Life In Painting 1928-2004” at Metaphor Contemporary Art is a show that focuses on the seminal work of a painter who was in the thick of the action in New York’s art scene for half a century.  This gem of a show was lovingly curated by the artist’s nephew, Julian Jackson, and charts the stylistic arc of a career that began as a precocious teenager in Virginia.  After reading an article in a national magazine about Hilla Rebay and her activities at what was soon to become the Guggenheim Museum, Jackson took the audacious step of sending Rebay a letter of introduction, followed by examples of his workfor the “Baroness” to critique.  After a period of correspondence and a summer spent studying with Hans Hofmann in Provincetown, Jackson moved to New York and continued his relationship with Rebay and the museum, becoming its archivist and the head of its viewing program, positions he would continue to hold for forty years.

Beginning with a youthful self-portrait, in which the artist is seen holding a flower or paint brush beside his easel, hints of his interest in overlapping planes are already evident in the rendering of the back of the canvas and its stretcher bars.  “Rite of Spring” (1951) is a jazzy little vertical picture, its jagged black and white forms floating over a thicket of hot reds and pinks, demonstrating a dramatic “push and pull” that he no doubt picked up from Hofmann.  From the mid-50s a series of painterly abstractions upped the scale and introduced the freewheeling brushwork that displays a solidarity with the 10th Street School and a pared-down, post-Cubist faceting of space that will become the main subject of the breakthrough paintings he would produce in a few short years.  The decade of the sixties, with its ambition and confidence, also brought artists to a junction of intent between the more emotional and “expressive” content, as exemplified by Kandinsky and much of the New York School, and the austere intellectual geometries of Mondrian.  Jackson chose the latter. His adoption of the diamond format (a square tilted at 45 degrees) was an homage to Mondrian, and he would, with his unique vision, explore it extensively for the remainder of his painting career.  Across the rear wall of the gallery, we are presented with a stunning example of his lozenge-shaped paintings; a group of six precisely calculated compositions, hanging in two horizontal rows with tips nearly touching, evinces a hard study of Neo-Plasticism.  The black-and-white palette and strict symmetry of several of the works are prime examples of artistic gambits that would result in the ascendancy of Minimalist and Post-Painterly painting by mid-decade

With the seventies, a sunny “Pop” optimism appears.  Brilliant, highly keyed color becomes a major component in his compositional design.  Returning to a square format with the Virginia River Series, Jackson, in pictures like “Chillihowie” (1971), arranges wedges of hot red and kelly green to create zigzag divisions of the canvas that read as luminist landscapes reduced to their essence.  Returning to the diamond, the late paintings are a handsome merger of elegant form and luscious color.  In “Chords” (1990) the white ground is bracketed by broad color bands that extend to the 45º edge on one end and terminate at a lesser angle within the framing edge on the other.  This visual discordance delivers a whimsical yet sophisticated riff on the strict horizontal and vertical doctrine of Neo-Plasticism, and with its colors of light green, purple, navy blue, and deep yellow, reveals a sensuality that does not distract from its formalism.

Besides his work as a painter, and his long-term involvement with the Guggenheim Museum, Jackson was a past president and archivist of the American Abstract Artists group, and a vocal champion of emerging and established artists through his publication of the original ART NOW New York,a portfolio of reproductions and artists’ statements that has become the art lovers’ pocket guide to the New York scene.  Yet, even with his total immersion in artistic and community activities, it is the painting that one senses at the core of Jackson’s attention, an example worth heralding.

"William Powhida “This is a Work of Fiction” At Schroeder Romero May 11- June 9," Brooklyn Rail by Fredrick Munk

By James Kalm

Not only does the emperor have no clothes, he’s bloated, vulgar, ignorant, complacent, drooling bile colored spittle at the corners of his mouth and wallowing in historically unprecedented mountains of cash.  This being New York, we’re talking about the art world, and those mountains of cash intimidate and /or seduce most observers into biting their tongues and staying close enough to scoop up a few handfuls of green while the grabbing is stillgood.  A few bitchy diatribes from “old school” critics are expected, even self congratulatory in a soul-searching “success is so painful” kind of way.  But only an innocent or a fool would be so self-destructive or naïve as to rip off his or her own clothes and prance, mince and mimic the “emperor” in a loudmouthed, over-the-top, piercing parody that comes just a little too close to being true. 

Enter William Powhida.  I first stumbled across his work a couple of years ago, noticing a set of drawings as funny as they were disturbing.  Reminiscent ofa graphic novel, the storyline followed a night of hard drinking, bar fights, hanging off the side of a moving car and eventually falling into a stupor and passing out.  I took it seriously, having known guys who started down similar paths and came to bad ends (they’re all dead now) and decided to offer Powhida some big brotherly advice on sobriety.   The story was a ruse.

Then I saw his video, “Persona,” a medley of twitchy alter-egos spliced together with jump cuts of all his various Williams, Bills and Wills whining about their jobs, their fears, and the shenanigans of the art world.  That upped the ante. 

Before his one-man show at Williamburg’s Dam, Stuhltrager Gallery in 2005, I stopped by for a studio visit and saw a work that in its ambition and commitment, elevated it into a realm I’ll call “meta-drawing”.  Called something like “Everyone I’ve Ever Known,” it comprises a chronological diagramming of over three hundred small head studies of everybody but everybodyPowhida could remember having known in his under-thirty years, a feat of memory that was not only artistic but psychological as well.  It stretches out over eight feet and includes brief poetic texts paired with most of the heads, things like, “He was the first kid I knew who died.  Cancer’s a bitch.”   A project like this is the kind of stoner idea that lots of folks might have in the flush of a fresh buzz or after waking up on a particularly good morning, but most wouldn’t do more than just note it in their sketch books; who’d actually be dumb enough or have enough time to try it?  See your bet and raise you.

Now with This Is A Work Of Fiction, we see the latest Powhida “persona,” a megalomaniacal “successful” artist, someone who has gorged himself on the media buffet of glamour and debauchery with all its titillating bombast, trendiness and extravagant vacantness and pukes a double dose of it back in our faces.  This character, like a social transistor, is so attuned to the latest bullshit hype job, that he amplifies its impulses, and transmits its latest batch of absurdities like a dysfunctional rescue beacon.

There is no sparing of targets. In “The New York Enemies List” (2007), we’re served the usual “real world” suspects, including Donald Trump and Rudy Giuliani, along with a healthy dose of art world denizens like Zach Feuer, Bellwether’s Becky Smith, Dana Schutz and of course Dash Snow.  Rumors have it that some subjects have taken umbrage at their inclusion and have gone out of their way to make Powhida’s life and career difficult. 

In “The Bastard” (2007), Powhida creates his own version of the gushing hipster human interest story, the kind that was recently delivered about Dash Snow, a current lampooning favorite.  Simulating a New York Magazine spread, the “artist” places himself on the cover between two naked models under the headline “Genius.” A hand-lettered facsimile of a celeb profile follows, running several pages and a couple thousand words with pull-quotes like “I want to destroy the art market,” and “I don’t have a circle. There’s not enough room. I AM THE CIRCLE.”.  To those who consume the daily art world media mix, the references and insider jokes are obvious.  To those who actually have lives to lead, this level of self-absorption would seem comically absurd... but.  For all of Powhida’s haranguing and clichéd “Rich people suck” outrage, there is floating, just off stage, a creepy but all-too-human obsession of desperately wanting to join the “beautiful people,” to have the army of assistants, to have the Gagosians and Boones of the world fighting for his attention, in short, to transform himself from an actor into a player.  Mixed into the Hogarthian satire, fitting of a twenty-first century “Rake’s Progress,” Powhida seems to be walking a razor’s edge, deriding the “avant-garde elite” to maintain his underground/outsider credibility while stroking the fragile egos ofthese very same people.

The “Notes,” a series of small drawings that depict pages of lists and ideas are typical. Rendered in an illustrative trompe l’oeil, the pictures show dog-eared blue-ruled sheets with yellowing tape and smudgy shadows, as if they were hanging on the studio wall.  These notes, with their faux intimacy, are an abbreviated device that allows Powhida to delve directly into the wacky ego-driven self-consciousness behind so much of our celebrity art culture.  “Things to Do,”  “Proposals,” “Reasons” all seem normal until you read them and get smacked by a comically distorted worldview that is only partially a joke: “If you don’t BUY IT the person BEHIND you or the person looking at a JPEG will!”  Though most of the punch of the smaller works comes from their textual rather than visual content, there is an effective melding of the two, though a more challenging painterly approach evidenced in the large colored panels wouldn’t hurt.

It’s been said that being an artist is like playing chicken with the speeding hundred-ton locomotive of obscurity.  In the case of Powhida, we’re riveted by the spectacle of a guy with the pedal to the metal, and if things don’t break right, there’s going to be one hell of a crack-up, and a nasty stinking mess for some one to clean up. 

"Critical Wrongs," Brooklyn Rail by Fredrick Munk

By James Kalm

Wrong, wrong, wrong.  Let me be the first to admit it, I’ve been wrong. 

Recently, within the “art critical establishment,” there’s been near-hysterical teeth gnashing and hand wringing over the diminished state of contemporary criticism.  In an open letter, A Call to Art Critics, published in the December/January Rail, Irving Sandler lamented this “crisis of criticism” and its seeming irrelevance, a position that was echoed by several respondents in subsequent issues.  The recently published Critical Mess,a collection, edited by Raphael Rubinstein, of essays by some of New York’s most esteemed writers, ponders this and related challenges.  And, in a controversial address given at the New York Studio School on February 22, 2007, Donald Kuspit stated that “Both art and criticism have been defeated by money…” essentially accusing critics of becoming the jailhouse punks of the big money dudes from the art market.   

Blame for the perceived decline of the relevance of current art criticism runs the gamut with all the usual suspects: too much money in the market, no government support, societal decadence, lack of appropriate education, the failure of artists to follow the dictates of their muse by selling-out to entrepreneurial collectors, and maybe even global warming. 

It’s time to stop the Chicken Little whining and come clean.  The purpose of art criticism (and all philosophy for that matter) is to be WRONG.  It’s that simple. Rather than constructing ornately designed arguments and lambasting the decadence of the art world, the market, and the rich, critics and theorists should simply realize that it’s their job to be wrong and to be brilliantly provocative at it.  This is not to say that that they’ve failed in their calling.  Rather it is the realization that as we evolve from one stage of thought to the next with few “eternal truths” to count on, inevitably the preceding levels become, if not obsolete, then at least accepted and institutionalized.  In our brave new world of the Internet, with 24-hour art blogging and online magazines, ideas trends and fashions spread with the speed and invasiveness of computer viruses.  Today’s brilliant insight is tomorrow’s tired cliché.  Once we critics accept our job as being wrong, we can then get down to the serious business: how do we make art criticism relevant, if not to 95% of humanity, at least beyond the walls of our tiny, effete and elite intellectual ghetto?

The primary problem facing art criticism since Duchamp is the question of just what is art?  It follows that if you can’t really define art, your ability to criticize it becomes even more difficult, if not debilitated.  Let’s cut to the chase and assert that the purpose of criticism is to examine and elucidate a work of art in order to derive greater pleasure, enlightenment, and satisfaction from it.  Interpretation, description and judgment all have their places, but are invisible if if the way they are conveyed isn’t compelling for the reader.  I think our worthy task is to make art criticism engaging, challenging, even fun.   

Having been rejected by the AICA (International Association of Art Critics) and as someone who has always considered himself an artist first, I may not be the guy to opine on this dismal state of affairs.  The following are not value judgments, just observations.  A quick scan of the major of critics in general doesn’t reveal a wide swath of social diversity.  Nearly everyone is highly educated, middle-aged (being generous), and white.  Many are academians and most are leftists, some, stone-cold Marxists. A number of the academic critics couldn’t give a rodent’s rear-end whether anyone outside the institution pays any attention to their writing; they’re satisfied to keep their dialog confined to a small circle of fellow professional specialists.  Finally, just as art styles are rapidly changing to keep pace with new media and technology, criticism is undergoing a fundamental shift as its venues migrate.  Those who can’t adapt will end up as sun bleached bones along the cultural highway.   For art criticism to avoid the same fate as the Shakers, we should seek out the widest divergence of opinion and diversity of voices, demographically, politically, and philosophically.  Most of all we should look for a good story, a unique perspective, an unexpected twist on the standard formula.  The critical practice will keep chugging along because, as Clement Greenberg said, “If you can’t criticize it, it ain’t art.”  I may be wrong, but you know I can’t be more right than when I’m wrong.

Sherman, set the Wayback Machine for 1978 where we’ll find…an America at the tail-end of one of the most tumultuous periods in recent history.  The Vietnam War came to an end three years previously, and many of the social changes shepherded in during the sixties had run their inevitable course, being replaced by ambitions closer to one’s father’s version of success.  The “Essentialist” stage of Feminism had peaked, but a summing-up of its accomplishments, at least in the arts, was still awaiting the energies of a driven personality, someone like Judy Chicago.

Few works of contemporary American art have achieved the iconic status of essentially existing through their documentation rather than their actuality.  One is Robert Smithson’s “Spiral Jetty” on the high desert shore of the Great Salt Lake.  Another is Judy Chicago’s “The Dinner Party.”   As an avid peruser of art publications, I’ve probably seen dozens of reproductions of it over the years, though never in person.  So it was with genuine curiosity and a mediated sense of late ‘70s nostalgia that, during the last week of March, I visited the Brooklyn Museum’s newly dedicated Elizabeth A. Sackler Center for Feminist Art and its centerpiece “The Dinner Party”.  Advertised as the first public space dedicated to the presentation of “Feminist Art”, the Sackler Center marks the Brooklyn Museum’s ongoing efforts to preserve unique works that might not find permanent homes in New York’s “mainline” museums. 

Hand-woven tapestries emblazoned with Feminist utopian slogans like “and then everywhere was Eden once again” hang overhead in the hallway approaching the pavilion, which was designed by Susan T. Rodriguez of Polshek Partnership Architects in consultation with curator Maura Reilly.  Seeing “The Dinner Party” for the first time I was struck with its sheer size.  Dramatically lit in a darkened room to enhance its ritualistic aura, each side of the triangular table is at least forty feet long and seats thirteen women. The entire ensemble is mounted on a low platform tiled in glistening white ceramic inscribed in gold script with the names of 999 other women of distinction.  The individual place settings include a painted/sculpted ceramic plate, chalice, knife, fork and spoon, along with a richly embroidered table cloth with the name of each honoree as well as motifs relating to her legend and culture.  Advancing chronologically from ancient goddesses to the mid-twentieth century, each effigy becomes progressively more extravagant, and the plates develop from mere paintings to voluptuous, full-fledged sculpture.  Stylistic allusions become more blatantly decorative.  There is no question that “The Dinner Party” is a major artistic statement reflecting major aspects of Feminist thought in the late seventies.  Complaints regarding its simpleminded bombast, exaggerated reliance on vaginal imagery, and dated references actually enhance the “trip back in time” experience implicit in the installation, and reestablish a connection with some of the salient issues that made this phase of Feminism so provocative. 

While studying art at a college in the northwest in the late seventies, I knew a female grad student who was coaxed into leaving her studies, going to California, and spending a year and a half working on “The Dinner Party” at her own expense.  She came back chastened and bitter, feeling like she’d been used.  Relegated to one sentence at the bottom of the second page of the press release is the fact that “The Dinner Party” is a collaborative work involving over 400 artists who freely volunteered extensive amounts of their time and energy.  Admittedly a work of this scale may require a communal effort and a kind of maniacal commitment, and for a great work of art some of us can forgive a certain amount of bad behavior.  That Chicago has kept these contributors anonymous while supposedly spotlighting other anonymous women is in itself an irony not lost on those keeping score.

For another take on women and time travel, a quick stop by Figureworks Gallery and a peek at Meridith McNeal’s “Keeping Room” is in order.  Step inside the gallery and you’re transported into a Victorian parlor with pea green walls, maroon velvet curtains and gold brocade tassels.  A pair of matching ruffled and pleated gowns, one adult, and one,  a little girl’s, have been painstakingly stitched together from a collection of subway maps (both outdated and current) anddisplayed on classic seamstress forms.  The walls are hung salon-style with cut-out silhouettes mounted on antique wallpaper and period gilt frames.  A dollhouse resembling a miniature stage set mimics the layout of the installation.  This simulacrum is complete down to a teensy version of itself, which throws yet another scale of perception into the mix.  (If we could see the past would it be in miniature?)  McNeal has stated that she longs to maintain a connection with the past, to see time compressed, not unlike the built environment of New York, which is a commingling of elements from various periods of its history.  “Keeping Room” is her chance to “keep” a little bit of the past, and an invitation for us to join her there.

"Philip Pearlstein at Betty Cuningham Gallery March 29, - April 28," Brooklyn Rail by Fredrick Munk

By James Kalm

For the sake of brevity let me dispense with old bromides about dogs and tricks.  What I’ll simply say is that Phil Pearlstein is an American art treasure.  Whether you appreciate his stubborn pursuit of “New Perceptual Realism” (how many of us can say we’re actual founders of historically recognized movements?) or your teeth are set on edge by his seemingly academic and traditional rendering of the naked (as opposed to nude) body, Pearlstein is a living example of what it means to be a vital and enduring presence on the New York art scene.  You’ll never read about him being arrested for drunkenness, buying dope, indecent exposure, or making “art” with body fluids.  While fashionable magazines and tabloids lionize misanthropic twenty-somethings, Pearlstein has practiced a daily concern with a more risky and ultimately more profound challenge, that of trying to make “good” paintings, and just as often as not, succeeding.

The basic story is that when Pearlstein began painting his rigorous form of realism in the early sixties, his compressed space and snapshot-like style of cropping disposed many critics to group him with other realists, both Pop and photo, who were breaking free of Abstract Expressionism’s death grip.  Pearlstein’s commitment to sharply rendered form expressed mainly through the classic nude model, without reliance on mechanical aids, (a preoccupation of artists since the Renaissance, and beautifully depicted by Dürer in engravings of an artist peering through a frame with a wire grid—a kind of proto-camera—to measure a foreshortened nude). Cameras don’t lie, but that’s not to say that they tell the whole truth.  Look closely at a Pearlstein painting and you begin to see glitches and anomalies in the foreshortening.  Features like hands and feet seem to waxen and increase in size as well as detail and visual heft.  In “Two Models with Large Whirligig” (2006) a reclining woman’s head appears visibly larger than her hip, which is closer to the viewer.  Likewise, the propped-up ankle of the model on the painting’s left edge is disproportionately thick in comparison to her slender, foreshortened foot.  Yet, due to the seamlessness of Pearlstein’s stylistic approach and attention to surface nuance and shadow, despite these illusionistic warps, everything seems to fit together pictorially.  By shifting one’s viewpoint in front of the painting, these “distortions” slide in and out of proportion, not unlike the anamorphic skull in Hans Holbein’s “The Ambassadors” (1533).  At this point the question of abstraction crops up.  Is this effect the consequence of a deliberate sequencing of abstract shapes, or a type of myopia, or the sly scheme of an intentionally unreliable observer?

 A requirement of setting a good example is the wisdom to follow great examples.  As an expert in and early champion of the stylistically peripatetic Francis Picabia, Pearlstein appreciates the importance of remaining open to new challenges and social shifts, and of avoiding formulaic cul-de-sacs.  Several recent pictures depict models whose bodies are lit by a neon Mickey Mouse, a visual double entendre and wicked pun.  In “Two Models, Neon Mickey Mouse, African Chair and Ladder” (2006), the synthetic glow and striated shadows across the models’ skin tones cast by the neon insinuate a crass amusement park/shopping mall glare into the Pearlstein’s familiar warm and natural-looking world of wood furniture, faded Indian carpets, and weather-worn antique toys.  Symbolically, the support struts of the neon sign even appear to impale the model on the ladder, a sort of brash modernist crucifixion.

If art is a reflection of humanity, then Pearlstein has accomplished his mission not only by portraying his subjects as contemporary humans, casually and unapologetically naked, but by literally painting the reflections and shadows of the accoutrements of modern life on their skin.  With these new works, the modernist dictum “what you see is what you see” is no longer an assured declarative statement.  Pearlstein transforms it into a philosophical question with implications that challenge not merely our vision, but our perception as well.

"Brooklyn Dispatches," Brooklyn Rail by Fredrick Munk

By James Kalm

It’s over, it’s peaked, it’s sooo yesterday.  Never fear, the “art fair mania” bubble has burst.  We’ve reached “Post-Art Fairism.”  While standing in a line stretching for blocks to get into The Armory Show, an elegantly dressed European gentleman was asked if he’d seen anything that stood out during this trip.  “Well there was the piece in the park where they give you drugs and whiskey, perform oral sex on you, and then steal your wallet.”  “That wasn’t part of the fair, they were just local whores” responded the questioner.  “Maybe, but at least I came away somewhat satisfied, and they didn’t put me on a waiting list.” But seriously, as a passionate fan, I’m not saying that the art fairs will go away (I wouldn’t want them to), only that the seemingly endless proliferation phase has reached a tipping point.

To bolster my argument I offer a few observations.  While scuttling between Pulse, Fountain, the Armory Fair, Scope, and The Art Show, I couldn’t help but notice several gallerists, who had participated in several recent extravaganzas but were sitting out the shindig this time around. Some, looking twitchy, seemed to have a serious case of art fair “jones.”  Talking to them, they sounded like recently reformed drunks still not quite over the Florida bender, swearing never to indulge in that kind of self-destructive, déclassé behavior again.  Though they all insist through clenched smiles that they’d done “really fine” in Miami, I had to believe that they’d be participating now if they weren’t fried both emotionally and financially.

Although I’m not exactly the power broker type that art world bigwigs seek out for advice or comment, I must have chatted with no less than five individuals in the process of organizing even more fairs, an enterprise that happily forgoes the dirty job of actually having to sell art.  Fair organizers, instead, tap an income stream dealing in the potential  opportunity to deal.  Add to this the bad timing of New York’s art fair week (too soon after Miami, with lousy late-winter weather almost guaranteed), crowded aisles, booths stuffed more like flea market bazaars than “artistically tasteful” presentations, and some just plain “Day of the Locust” bad manners displayed by a number of would-be visitors (in one case, fair management stationed a security guard to protect a performance artist who was aggressively poked and prodded by the pointy toes ofhigh heeled viewers). You know we’re due for a change.

As a veteran of dozens of fairs, sprinting through this year’s New York offerings (350 booths/gallery displays and counting) I’ve found that marathon viewing induces a state of visual overload that diminishes sensitivity to individual works and evolves into a meta-view of the artistic trends.  Like watching a zoetrope, the increasing speed of multiplying images makes apparent the latest shifts and tendencies through  dynamic, animated movements: cardboard and packing tape sculptures, computer-aided abstraction of architectural space with lots of masking-tape lines, and soft-core porn, an old fave, dressed up as the new transgressive feminist avant. 

Despite my grousing about the Armory Show’s lack of risk, extravagant gestures, or crazy subversive installations that scare, insult, befuddle and challenge, there were some standouts.  Imagine a dollhouse for a dysfunctional Barbie who’s an incorrigible packrat strung out on meth, and you’ll be able to picture “Tantamounter 24/7” (2005).  This miniature re-creation commemorates an installation/performance project undertaken by the European art collaborative Gelitin at the Leo Koenig Gallery in 2005.  Another presentation worth seeing, thanks to an exception to the fair’s policy of exclusively featuring living artists, was Öyvind Fahlström’s “Life Curve No.1, Ian Fleming” (1967) at Galerie Aurel Scheibler.  This influential artist, who died young, should be better known here, and his work, a personal gloss on Pop, which commingles collage, photography, and painting, looks like it came out of the East Village yesterday. 

At PULSE, Fred Tomaselli’s “Echo, Wow and Flutter, Sideways, Flopped and Mirrored” (2006), a wallpaper design at Art Ware Editions, raises many questions, not the least of which is: why does this look so right?  A large silver-leafed canvas by Tood Pavlisko, featuring bold script spelling out “Cocaine” in tufts of white plastic tabs at Monique Melocke made my nose tingle nostalgically for the big bad Eighties.  Works by Ted Victoria are always a thrill—half-magic, half-science project.  A small low-tech projection of overlaid images at Schroeder Romero was poetic in its simplicity.  Brose Partington’s “Tide,” an elegant black wave of undulating fabric 75 feet long, sponsored by Dam, Stuhltrager, that literally lapped at the feet of passersby entering and leaving SCOPE was one of the few installations that broke out of the booth box and created a state of solemn awareness through its own unpretentious presence. 

Capping off a Saturday night of fair hopping, the Design Industries Fighting AIDS (DIFFA)’s Dining By Design benefit was a surprising treat for a very worthy cause, and the creativity of its installations challenged anything at the art fairs.  Each participant produced a fantasy table setting that was auctioned off to benefactors as a seating for luxury dining.  Memorable tableaus included Continental Airline’s dining niche overhung with a virtual upside-down garden of fresh tulips.

Don’t throw out that extra-wide tie, those ankle-length peasant skirts, or your six-inch platform shoes.  Like your Aunt Agnes admonished, “Just wait, they’ll come back in style.”  The fashion wheel has turned and, at least for the moment, we’re given permission to consider various types of abstract and experimental painting again.  The critically well received “High Times, Hard Times: New York Painting 1967-1975” at the National Academy of Design will hopefully raise awareness and appetites for abstract painting.  Curated by Katy Siegel in consultation with David Reed, “High Times” (reviewed in the March 2007 Rail by Ben La Rocco) is a look back at the not-too-recent past when, as Robert Pincus-Witten explains in his brief catalog essay, an anti-painting jihad had been proclaimed, spearheaded by October magazine and a cadre of Downtown deconstructivists.  Of course, like the cockroach, painting survived, but its most advanced manifestations evolved in response to other art forms, such as performance, video, process art, Conceptualism, and feminism. 

If “High Times” illustrates painting’s limitless adaptability, then a spate of current abstract painting shows in and around Williamsburg demonstrates its appeal to new generations of practicing artists. In a curatorial career that’s spanned more than twenty-five years, Larry Walczak of “eyewash” finally decided to put together his first painting show.  “I‘d been making my usual studio visits when it became apparent that there was a synergism happening with several artists.  There was a freshness and a natural vocabulary that included hard-edged, optical, gestural and even computer animation.”   “Brooklyn Abstract” at Supreme Trading features thirteen painters from all around the “biggest borough,” and, as with “High Times,” it demonstrates the broad gamut of recent abstract investigation.  When questioned about the sudden resurgent interest, exhibitor Don Voisine, responded, “I’ve been working abstractly for twenty-five years so I’m glade people are looking at it.  I think abstraction is more open to interpretation.  Maybe it’s a reaction to all the figurative work being shown in the galleries now.” This diversity of approach includes the “all over” fields by Jesse Lambert composed ofzippy brush strokes, drips,  and in high-keyed colors cartoon images, fractured and repeated to the point of unrecognizability.  Peter Barrett has crafted interlocking painted reliefs that operate somewhere between the early black paintings of Frank Stella and diagrams of chemical compounds.  Peter Fox contributes an ambitious wide-framed diptych completely covered in a pointillist swarm of primary color drips.  By contrasting the manipulation of the physical properties of paint with its coloristic nuances, Fox achieves luscious results that tweak accepted notions of paint/painting.

Other abstract painting exhibitions in and around the nabes include Cynthia Hartling at Galeria Janet Kurnatowski.  These new works demonstrate Hartling’s continuing development of a solidly colored, simplified, almost naïve, design.  With techniques as varied as staining, knifing, sanding, and glazing, these small to medium-sized pictures display a newfound confidence.  The duration of time in fabricating the pictures has worn and polished the imagery like stones on a beach or the armrests of an old chair, eliminating non-essential elements and distilling content to a satisfying frankness.

Also intriguing is the scruffy, nonchalant elegance of a group of paintings by Jonah Koppel at Klaus von Nichtssagend Gallery.  Looking like finger-painted slabs, centrally positioned blocks of textural paint (a mixture of synthetic polymer and pigment) are haphazardly overpainted in neutral monochrome tones of earthy greens, browns, and yellow.  The low-keyed color, velvety matte finish, and laidback presentation exude a casual though comfortable rigor.

Artist, writer, and curator, Joe Fyfe, a well-known Brooklyn art advocate, has recently been working in Cambodia and Viet Nam as a Fulbright Research Fellow.  His uptown show, at James Graham & Sons, is a selection of works inspired by his travels.  Although Fyfe has a reputation as a prickly and “serious” abstractionist, these sensuous collaged paintings reveal a “serious” sense of humor.  Fyfe’s signature burlap supports are cut, spliced and glued back together with narrow hunks of intensely colored felt and fabric functioning as compositional cross members.  The lightness and supple character of the paintings are reiterated by their loose attachment to their supports, more draped than stretched.  Because the hues of the added fiber elements are dyed rather than applied, they contrast intensely with the washy, white-stained burlap.  Accumulations of skuzzy lint, stray threads and patched holes imply a kind of hobo chic aesthetic while carrying material analogies to the drips, splatters, and smudges of Abstract Expressionist painting.  These works feign an austere formalism while remaining as endearingly shabby as Charlie Chaplin’s “Little Tramp.”

"Fair Market Values, Art Basel Miami et al," Brooklyn Rail by Fredrick Munk

By James Kalm

“Ladies and gentlemen, in approximately five minutes we will open the doors on Art Basel Miami Beach 2006.  On behalf of public safety we ask that you not charge the gates.  There is plenty of art for everyone.  We will be open until eight o’clock this evening, so everyone will have plenty of time to buy all the art they want.  VIP card-holders please pass through the gate on my left, all others through the gate on my right.  Once again there is plenty of art for everyone, do not charge the gates.”  The white cordons are lowered and the crowd surges forward.   

The above pre-amble is not satire.  It’s a fairly accurate paraphrase of a statement made by a security supervisor to a mob of anxious fair goers at the Thursday, December 7 opening of Art Basel Miami Beach.   In what, over the last five years, has become the greatest art world gathering in the Americas, Art Basel Miami Beach focuses the art world’s enthusiasms, angst, and passion like no other event.  With the participation of over 1500 artists, 200 of the world’s most prestigious galleries, and scores of glamorous and important collectors, curators and critics, ABMB is the Academy Awards and the Super Bowl all wrapped up into a nice convenient package, and that doesn’t even include the ancillary fairs, private gallery space projects, and gorilla/freelance art happenings. 

The beginning of December draws close, there seems to be a convergence of factors intent on whipping up the fervor of the art market.  The economy is robust with Wall Street bonuses at record levels, real estate is still strong, and the weak dollar makes recently soaring auction prices seem like bargains to European and Asian collectors. 

Denial and exclusion just inflame desire, and the organizers of ABMB have perfected the technique, with over 600 galleries applying for inclusion, and only 200 being accepted, 40 more than last year.  After a fifteen minute interrogation, mug shot, and background check, I finally charmed my way into a set of credentials.  The press-room is stocked with gourmet coffee, bottled water, and high speed internet connections.  The press packet includes the beautiful six pound catalog, half a pound of maps, guides, schedules, notebook and pen, all packaged in a white designer “man-purse” with fluorescent logo and elastic strap, (meant, I suppose, to alleviate shoulder pain from lugging the hefty tome around).  During the pre-opening tour, I made it a point to check out the collectors lounge, and was astounded by its extravagant elegance (taffeta drapes, scores of white lilies, and internally illuminated Lucite tables).  After seeing what I’ve been missing, I’ll never settle for tourist class again!

By assimilating any competing impulses, Sam Keller, the head organizer of ABMB, has done a brilliant job of expanding the scope of offerings.  Within the fair itself there is Basel Nova, a selection of younger more experimental galleries located around the peripheral walls of the convention center.  In this group, New York’s Spencer Brownstone Gallery displayed a floating loop of magnetic tape held aloft by the breeze from a pair of facing pedestal fans.   This piece by Zilvinas Kempinas was as simple as a pocket comb but imbued with the whimsical aerodynamic physics of a Mr. Wizard demonstration.

Spread throughout the fair were the Art Kabinett galleries, specially commissioned selections of works by individual artists which amounted to mini museum shows.  My vote for most historically relevant exhibit was the Rudolf Schwarzkogler show in conjunction with Galerie Krinzinger, Vienna.  For years I’d heard the legend of Swarzkogler, the twenty eight year old Viennese Actionist, rumored to be a major influence on Chris Burden, and how he’d ritualistically sliced off his penis and jumped or fell out his apartment window to his death in 1969.  Though the myth was refuted, the exhibition did include a varied selection of his unforgettably disturbing performance photos, notebooks, and drawings. 

Art Positions, a shanty town collection of about twenty freight containers located right on the beach three blocks east of the convention center, provides a chance for a younger crowd to frolic in the sun, stroll in the sand, and view “avant” art in a less sterile more alternative venue.  Though limited by the dimensions, a convincing Puerto Rican social club with a Tito Puente theme was created in the Anna Helwing Gallery booth by Mario Ybarra Jr.  Unfortunately neon lighting in the Zach Feuer container was not conducive to view paintings, but works by Christopher Ruckhäberle and Dana Schutz seemed to come off despite it.  The opening night celebrations at this beachside location featured a concert with Peaches singing a selection of songs including “Shake Your Tits, Shake Your Dicks,” and “Fucky, Fucky,” which left me humming their catchy tunes to myself for days after.

With the final tally of transacted business surpassing $400 million, ABMB is unquestionably the King Kong of art fairs, but how ever big it is, it’s only part of the Miami art fair story.  One could even say that, with the way things are divided up geographically, this is a tale of two very different cities.  ABMB acts as the epicenter in Miami Beach, a group of smaller “hotel” fairs are located along Collins Avenue, close enough to benefit from the foot traffic to and from the convention center.  Just north, housed in the Dorchester Hotel, probably the nicest facility of the “hotel” fairs is INK Miami, the print art fair.  I made the mistake of letting a lady at the reception desk apply a “temporary” tattoo with the INK logo to my bicep.  The damn thing took weeks to wear off.  Other prints that stick with me are a Chris Johansen etching of a utopian solar system titled “This is a picture of space”, at Paulson Press.  With examples of works by Juli Mehretu, Laura Owens and Richard Tuttle, Crown Point Press also impresses with its commitment to younger artists and experimental techniques.

Moving south we come to FLOW and BRIDGE which, though unaffiliated, were none the less housed next door to each other and seemed to function like Siamese twins.  At Roy Boyd’s, I enjoyed the epoxy resin paintings of Markus Linnenbrink. The pieces always have a spirit of pushing the limits of just how far you can go with lots of paint and a nice selection of power tools (drills, sanders, and routers).  Some of the hallways and spaces were claustrophobic, but a video presentation of swimming polar bears in the lobby reduced anxiety.  Next door at the entrance to BRIDGE, “ACQUIRE ME” a fourteen foot tall inflated text sculpture by Brooklyn artist Tom Broadbent, greeted visitors.  Miniature river environments in trunks by Kate Vance and a grid of color Polaroids of women’s breasts culled from various movies by Emily Roz caught my eye at Front Room’s room.  A group of “sled” sculptures, accumulations of exotic ethnic brick-a-brack by Newark New Jersey artist James A. Brown at Rupert Ravens Contemporary, were raw and demanding and seemed to challenge the slick “easy listening” work that is endemic to many of these affairs. 

Situated a couple of blocks south of Lincoln Road was AQUA.  This two story hotel with open central courtyard is acknowledged as the cream or the hotel fairs, and its mellow vibe made it a destination for after hour partying.  London’s Keith Talent Gallery presented small paintings of misanthropic snowmen by Dave Humphrey and a near life size sculptural tableau called “Fascist Fruit Boys”, a group of rampaging vegetable-headed cartoon characters stomping a poor bag of fries kid, by Saun Doyle and Mally Mallison.  If coloristically complex abstract paintings that riff knowingly on accepted representational devices is your bag then works by Daniel Sturgis and Gary Stephan at Cynthia Broan fill the bill.

At the far south end of the Collins Avenue art strip is POOL, the only fair with rooms booked by independent unrepresented artists.  It included everything from eccentric ceramics to wind blown ink drawings and lots of photography, but lacked the kind of over the top self deprecating humor that made last year’s FRISBEE fair such a memorable goof.  Across the street DIVA (the digital and video fair) took a page from Art Basel Positions and circled the wagons, setting up a village of freight containers on the beach.  Between the glaring sun and the high temperatures of the baking cubicles, this venue is perhaps the most unforgiving environment for a mid-day video viewing I’ve ever seen.  Still, Adam Bateman’s book washing tape at Boreas was choice as was Jillian McDonald’s zombie on a subway, Adam Simon’s video portraits and Marcin Ramocki’s “ 8 BIT”  at artMoving Projects.

So much for Miami Beach, the Miami fairs NADA, PULSE, PHOTO Miami, and SCOPE are another matter and require a mile and a half road-trip across Biscayne Bay.  Generally located in the Wynwood district north of Downtown Miami this is a marginal neighborhood of low rise industrial parks and ramshackle Cubano bungalows and when compared to the Collins Avenue vicinity, exposes the other side of the Greater Miami’s social matrix. 

NADA has again set up shop in the Ice Palace Film Studios, a labyrinth of high ceiling bays, with the attractive bonus of a front yard with hammocks and an open air café.  With over 80 galleries from 20 countries, NADA still exudes a New York attitude with its tough internal politics and focus on Chelsea fashion trends.  I liked the urgent griminess and all inclusive notational drawings of Dominico McGill at Derek Eller.  Drippy broad-brushed portraits of vamping glamour models on dark grounds create a dichotomy of means in a work by Katherine Bernhardt at Canada.  I bumped into fellow Brooklynite art-head Chris Martin at the Ben Kaufmann booth.  We both had out sights set on the muscular abstractions of Berlin painter Matthias Dornfeld which echoed the innocent urgency of Tel R with out the sweetness. 

A light grey shuttle van was provided for the five minute jaunt north to PHOTO Miami, a fair as slick as a glossy photo finish.  Business looked brisk at Bernard Toale where I contemplated a large photo of a butchered haunch of elk hanging from a tree in a rugged mountain landscape by Laura McPhee.  Joe Fig’s recreation of the famous Hans Namuth’s picture of Jackson Pollock painting from underneath a pane of glass includes a miniature Pollock action figure dribbling paint on glass attached above the photo.  Anthropomorphic monkey portraits by Jill Greenberg at Clamp Art were riveting and a particularly pensive baboon with a Kramer hairdo provoked an out right belly laugh.  Of the alternative “tent” fairs, PULSE seemed to be firing on all cylinders.  Nick Lawrence of Freight Volume was overwhelmed with demand for collage books by Brian Belott, large drawings that mimic wacky junior-high notes by Michael Scoggins, and the unusually vibrant free-standing collage sculptures of Pepe Mar.  The proliferation of quirky figures in landscapes shows how ubiquitous the shadow cast by John Currin is today.  Large painterly female heads by Cornelia Schleime at Michael Schultz though of a related sensibility, diverge on a different trajectory through her tactile facture and sensuous use of the medium.

SCOPE, the seminal force that launched a dozen satellite fairs, this year ups the anty by moving out of the Townhouse Hotel and into its own huge tent in Roberto Clememte Park.  Though this year’s version is bigger and shinier, SCOPE maintains its mischievous punk nature.  Because of the number of galleries showing video, digital and mechanized art, there’s a constant din at SCOPE like the production floor of a factory.  Rodney Dickson’s circa 1968 Vietnamese snake bar, the “Queen Bee” has a strangely attractive presence and is a great place to hang out and have a drink during breaks in art viewing.  Notable offerings included: scruffy target-like paintings by LA artist Mark Dutcher at Solway Jones.  Eerie photos of a pair of hooded girls in Children of the Corn type landscapes by Christa Parravani resonated at 31 Grand.  A full sized Hummer carved from recycled Styrofoam by Andrew Jung was impressive and was presented in the art-yard by Lincart Gallery.  Raunchy Abstract Expressionist conglomeration paintings that stuck in my head like lint on polyester by Dona Nelson were shown at Thomas Erben.

Though I made a point of visiting every fair listed as well as several freelance/guerrilla projects that weren’t, there are just way too many to mention.  Some worth note were: Pierogi and Ronald Feldman, Grendal, and Fountain.  Pierogi and Ronald Feldman’s space on North Miami Avenue featured along with a roster of gallery regulars, a stainless steel and plate glass freezer in an open bay displayed a 4.5 ton “ice cube”, which artist Tavares Strachan traveled to Alaska to have cut from a frozen river and sent back to the tropics.  There’s got to be an easier way to chill our Chablis. 

“Grendel”, a collaborative guerrilla exhibit organized by Williamsburg provocateurs Jack the Pelican, Dam Stuhltrager and Newark’s Rupert Ravens showed works too big for fair booths and featured a massive mangrove tree fashioned from colorful knotted fabrics by the artist team Guerra de la Paz, and a room sized installation of light activated gizmos by Mark Esper.  Around the corner capitalizing on the success received from confronting New York’s Armory show was the Fountain crew.  Daniel Edwards’ realistic sculpture of Britney Spears giving birth was the centerpiece of this collection from Capa Kesting.  Galeria Janet Kurnatowski’s selection included gem like examples of small works by James Biederman, Ben La Rocca and Shane McAdams.  Other contributors were McCaig-Wells, Front Room and Neil Stevenson.

Putting my poor abused feet up to rest after this marathon I begin to sort through the various tendencies, trends and implications of what all this art fair mania means.  1) Money: whether we admit it or not, artists and galleries run on money and ambitious ideas can get expensive.  Miami brought out the hedge fund types and they were throwing shit-loads of cash at some very “speculative” offerings.  2) Exposure: several dealers told me that they were being seen by more potential clients in four days than in four years in their home spaces.  3) Contacts: this was a chance not just to sell and meet clients, but to catch up with fellow artists, dealers, writers, and collectors.  People’s guards are let down briefly and there’s an incredible leveling when no one’s ensconced in their multi-million dollar architectural fortresses.  4) Measuring up: it’s always good to compare just how well you’re presenting yourself and your ideas, and whether new influential concepts are popping up above the horizon that might require attitude adjustments.  This is especially important for New Yorkers since, as the art market capital of the world, we’ve become paralyzed with financial considerations, and money doesn’t like change.  5) Gossip: damn, you could hear and see enough juicy stuff to fill ten check-out-line tabloids.

 Finally, how will all this effect art?  With an ever higher percentage of yearly gallery income derived from fairs, will dealers pressure artists to design work for the “quick kick”?  (One “scientific study” states that for art fair visitors the initial decision between “looking” and “seeing” a work is made in 0.4 seconds.)  Will this kill support for more sublet work that might require a few moments of quiet reverie? 

“You will be assimilated” like this threat from Star Trek’s Borgs, Art Basel Miami Beach has become so rich that they can buy the good graces of darn near anyone, whether influential critics (we’ll fly you down first class, limo you to the convention center, and put you up in a four star hotel, just show up for your half hour lecture) to museums and institutions, (funding is abundant) to collectors, (the only amenity missing from the collectors lounge were Nubian slaves with ostrich feather fans) to dealers (bring bushel baskets and pitchforks to scoop up the cash)!  Is the whole Basel Miami 2006 thing an anomaly?  Has the saturation point finally been reached, or will 2007 see 50 fairs?  I doubt it.  We’re seeing Darwinian economics at its most unregulated, a true force of nature, human nature.  Love it or hate it, that’s what makes this scene so incredibly frustrating and fascinating.  Welcome to our brave new art world.