Saturday, December 23, 2006

The Institute for Infinitely Small Things

The Institute for Infinitely Small Things’ latest project is “The New American Dictionary (Security/Fear Edition)," in which they’re auctioning off the “exclusive right” to redefine some of the most frequently used words and phrases of the War on Terror. It’s part of an online art exhibition called ebayaday.

The Institute plans to print up the results in a new dictionary, their “compilation of new terms by and for Americans in the new millennium.” The art collective notes, “This dictionary is uniquely democratic: YOU get to define the most important new words in it by purchasing them on eBay!”

The Institute’s main focus has been investigating and interrogating slogans and names, whether they be corporate ads or the name of every single place in Cambridge. At root, they ponder the power of words, of naming, of being able to define the terms of discussion. And they point out how in our capitalist society, money and spending have become a central part of our definition of democracy.

So it was only a matter of time before they took on the Bush Administration’s mastery of semantics – or, more specifically, subversion of semantics. The result is pointed political commentary cloaked as absurdist joking.

The most touchy word up for redefinition is “Torture” -- a direct challenge to the Bush Administration’s assertions that torture is abhorrent to American laws and values while simultaneously narrowing its definition of torture solely to acts that cause “organ failure, impairment of bodily function, or even death.” At a talk at Harvard on Nov. 30, Instituter Savic Rasovic said, “If we live in a society where a bunch of lawyers can get together and redefine torture … why not sell it to the highest bidder?”

Through Christmas day, there’s also the chance to redefine “Alert,” “Axis of Evil,” “Coalition of the Willing,” “Embedded Journalist,” “Exit Strategy,” “Friendly Fire,” “Preemptive War,” “Terror” and “Unmarked Package.” A most important and most debated word noticeably absent from this list of what the Institute calls “the 10 most important new terms of our time” is “Victory.”

Friday, December 22, 2006

Goodbye, Rembrandt

On Jan. 25, Sotheby’s plans to auction off Rembrandt van Rijn’s 1661 painting “Saint James the Greater.” Locals may remember it because it was loaned to Boston’s Museum of Fine Arts from 1991 to 2005 and featured as “The Apostle James” in the MFA’s 2003 show “Rembrandt’s Journey: Painter, Draftsman, Etcher.”

This late Rembrandt (the artist lived from 1606 to 1669) of the sepia-toned saint, with his eyes closed and hands folded in prayer, was owned by the first curator of London’s Victoria & Albert Museum and “Broadway” Billy Rose, among others, before Rose sold it to Stephen Carlton Clark in 1955. That’s the Stephen Clark who was one of the heirs to the Singer Sewing Machine Company fortune and brother of Sterling Clark, who founded The Clark Art Institute in Williamstown. The brothers’ passions for art collecting were compared in Clark Art Institute’s “The Clark Brothers Collect” this summer, which appears at New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art next summer.

Stephen amassed a major art collection, was a founding board member of New York’s Museum of Modern Art, and gave significant works to Yale and the Met. But his Rembrandt remained in the family until they recently gave it to The Shippy Foundation in the Aid of Social Justice, Human Service and Education, which has decided to sell. The painting failed to sell when priced somewhere between $41 million and $50 million (accounts vary) at a Dutch art fair last March. Sotheby’s estimates it will fetch between $18 million and $25 million.
(Photo from Sotheby's.)

Wednesday, December 20, 2006

Best of 2006

Wunderground” at Rhode Island School of Design Museum, September 2006 to Jan. 7, 2007. In retrospect, this survey of the best of the past decade of underground Providence’s obsessive monstery art seemed like a veledictory to an era. Some of the gang ( Jim Drain) have migrated to tony precincts of the art world, while Fort Thunder founders Mat Brinkman and Brian Chippendale have gone to ground, living in another marvelous monster-, art- and bicycle-stuffed loft they’re scheduled to be kicked out of any minute now. The show was big and messy and thrilling and flawed, which, of course, was apt. The new artwork was hit or miss, which seemed more a problem of the curating and artists having off days or not quite being into it, than a predictor of the future. Chippendale and Jungil Hong’s work in the backroom at Providence’s Gallery Agniel in September, and Chippendale’s show and grandiose new comic book there in October were the bee’s knees. Perhaps the RISD show’s most interesting effect was to foreground a generation gap in contemporary art. While youngsters thrilled to the wild sensory overload, wrestled with mixed feelings about who was in and out, and debated whether the hip underground scene was spoiled by institutional embrace, many oldsters didn’t get it (including RISD’s curator), or complained that it was a rehash of the ‘60s, or seemed jealous of its street cred and were all too happy to declare the scene dead.

America Starts Here” at MIT’s List Visual Art Center, February to April. The smartest, most humane conceptual art show this year. The artifacts of Kate Ericson and Mel Ziegler’s work were a frustratingly mixed bag, but their beautiful, witty ideas still resonate. A sample: They painted a house in a historic neighborhood in Charleston with a camouflage pattern incorporating all the officially approved neighborhood colors – interrogating the enforced blending in and teasing it at the same time. This show was the best of political art: thinking globally, acting locally, transcending the cliché.

Paper Rad's "Trash Talking" DVD, released in June by Providence's Load Records. Eye-popping, psychedelic transmissions from some screwball planet of ‘80s nostalgia where Garfield, Pac-Man and Alf are gurus and their manifestations masterpieces. Who knows what it means, but this Easthampton collective, whose international stature is ever on the rise, blows your mind – if the strobing lights don’t give you a seizure first.

The Institute for Infinitely Small Things' “The City Formerly Known as Cambridge” project. The art collective invited visitors to Cambridge festivals this summer to rename the city’s squares, buildings, and streets via an auction system. A brilliant philosophical act of chutzpah, recreating in microcosm the fraught nature of naming places and the money, power and social meaning behind names. (Photo by Jim Manning/The Institute for Infinitely Small Things.)

“David Hockney Portraits” at the Museum of Fine Arts, February to May. The grand old goat (here with MFA director Malcolm Rogers to his left) filled the museum with portraits of friends and lovers. Fun and funny, intimate, bland, overstuffed, messy, mixed, vital.

Dana Schutz at Brandeis’ Rose Art Museum, January to April. A smart, sassy retrospective for one of the best painters of the moment. Led by curator Raphaela Platow, the Rose is the hottest museum for contemporary art in Boston (well, Waltham).

Leslie Hall’s “Gem Sweaters” fifth-year show at the Museum School, April and May. A big, messy, wonderful graduation shrine-installation about the aesthetic glories of all those middle class fashion faux pas that make us so uncomfortable – big glasses, big hair, big gals in too-tight spandex pants and, of course, froofy sequined sweaters. It’s middle class taste reimagined as folk art. Hall (the lady in the red sweater in this Chris Eramo photo of her show) is full of potential. The magic of her sweater photos was diminished when they were shown at Judi Rotenberg on Newbury Street in August without the whole gem context. But I can’t wait for her Traveling Scholar show at the MFA in 2008.

“Secular/Sacred” Medieval art at Boston College, February to June. Boston hosted some great old stuff this year: “Cosmophilia” at BC, Indian miniatures at MFA, Rembrandt etchings at Harvard. But the best was when BC went Medieval last spring – including an astonishing 33-foot-long 15th century French scroll recounting the history of the world. Contemporary art’s obsession with intimacy, pattern, handmade, ornament (see MassArt’s “Crafty”) still can’t match this stuff. BC puts together some of the finest scholarly shows around. And they’re beautiful to boot.

“Body Worlds 2” at the Museum of Science, July 2006 to Jan. 7, 2007. Who could resist a good old-time freak show given the respectable imprimatur of science and edumacation? And after Body Worlds mastermind Gunther von Hagens’ smashing cameo in the new James Bond flick, can a starring role as a sinister genius be far off?

Bernie Toale Gallery. Big, posh, perfectly coiffed, romantic shows. The anchor of the South End. The result: Laura McPhee (at left, her “Dutta House at Chorebagan (Thieves Garden), North Kolkata,” 2001) and Ambreen Butt at the MFA, Sarah Walker at the Rose, Naoe Suzuki in DeCordova Annual, Greg Mencoff and Linda Bond in Fitchburg Art Museum’s biennial. Was there a more direct route for local artists to local museums this year?

Matthew Hincman’s charmingly unwelcoming guerilla art park bench that he snuck into place at Jamaica Pond in May without approval – only to have officialdom embrace it.

An April show in the Brandeis library of drawings and testimonials by Palestinian children organized by student Lior Halperin was kicked out by administrators because the subject – Palestinian views of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict -- turned out to be too touchy. So it was rehung at MIT. The art was only okay, but for such a quick, seat-of-the-pants, student-organized show it accomplished what it set out to do and how. The controversy landed it on the front page of the Globe and for a few days everyone was talking about it. The ripples are still being felt.

Ernie Morin’s Gloucester photos at Gloucester City Hall. Morin (a pal of mine) has spent five years photographing the people and streets of Gloucester in luminous black and white, producing a comprehensive – and often seething – document of what happens when work drains out of a gentrifying working class city. He’s exhibited the result in dribs and drabs as he’s gone along, but on the night of Oct. 19 several hundred people crowded into City Hall for a big coming out party. Somehow Morin turned a PowerPoint slide show into a ravishing aria to the hardscrabble glory of the great seaport – followed by a sobering public discussion of what can be done to preserve it and how to adapt to remain vital. Too often artists pay lip service to community engagement, but here an artist sparked a real community dialogue. Now people outside of Cape Ann need to take notice.

“Painting Summer in New England” at Salem’s Peabody Essex Museum, April to September. The sweetest eye-candy show in the region this year. A lark. But secreted inside this who’s who of 20th century art was another show that spoke about New England vacations as a hidden wellspring of great American Modernist painting. (Above, gallery view showing Neil Welliver’s 1978 “Late Night” from the Herbert Plimpton Collection of the Rose Art Museum, Brandeis University, Waltham. Photo courtesy of the Peabody Essex Museum.)

The new Institute of Contemporary Art, opened Dec. 10. The ICA’s move from the Back Bay to flashy new digs in the South Boston Seaport electrified Boston’s art scene this fall – and months of construction delays wonderfully built suspense. Director Jill Medvedow and her board (Barbara Lee!) aim to put the city on the contemporary art map with a bold new building and expanded programming. The opening shows – and building – were more hype than success. Curator Nicholas Baume’s “Super Vision” was particularly dull and timid. I’m willing to chalk it up to opening season jitters, for now. The ICA’s triumph is that Medvedow and company have raised the stakes for what is expected of Boston art. It’s a needed challenge to all of us here.

See also this list in the Boston Phoenix.

Nan Goldin

Here's my review in today’s Boston Globe of “Fantastic Tales: The Photography of Nan Goldin” at the Rhode Island School of Design Museum, 224 Benefit St., Providence, Nov. 3 through Jan. 14, 2007.

Top: “Self-portrait in my blue bathroom, Berlin,” 1991.
Bottom: “Nan and Brian in Bed, NYC,” 1983.
Copyright Nan Goldin, courtesy Matthew Marks Gallery, New York.

Tuesday, December 19, 2006

Thomas Sgouros

Great skies, thick with clouds as soft as Charmin, dominate Thomas Sgouros’ landscapes of endless, flat marshes and slices of sea brightly reflecting the sky. These are the vast skies that fill the imaginations of coastal dwellers.

Here clouds threaten downpours or begin to break up at the bottom. There they churn and bump together and dissolve. The 79-year-old RISD professor renders everything in lovely soft focus, the way they flattered early Hollywood starlets. One imagines he’s the sort prone to swooning when watching the Weather Channel. Ultimately these are accomplished but conservative oil paintings, still it’s hard not to get caught up in the deep moods he evokes with his palette of violets and golds, blues and greens, that run toward the hues of lollipops.

The canvases are all dubbed “Remembered Landscape,” their fuzziness suggesting idealized memories of places he’s seen in Rhode Island or Maine – though for Sgouros, who’s legally blind, the issue may be just as much a matter of practicality as sentiment. At his best, the paintings bring to mind George Inness’ soft 19th century landscapes, but simpler, sweeter, more nostalgic.

Thomas Sgouros, Gallery Agniel, 120 North Main St., Providence, Nov. 14 to Dec. 30, 2006.

Monday, December 18, 2006

'Wilderland’ at Second Gallery

The inventiveness in drawing – or, should I say, works on paper – trumps most painting on canvas these days. And “Wilderland,” Second Gallery’s seven-artist show, is a sampler of the loose, offhand, sketchbooky, cartoony, obsessively graphic works on paper that have become super hip in the wake of folks like Fort Thunder, Royal Art Lodge, Ron Rege Jr., Marc Bell, Paper Rad and Dearraindrop. Here the artists are distinguished by rainbow palettes, handsome faux amateur technique and lots of untouched paper.

Eric Shaw’s wildly imagined people and monsters (see untitled drawings at top and left) are the best of the bunch. They seem to have sprung from some obsessive adolescent’s notebook or some tribe’s mysterious archive of totems. His intense, fine mark-making has a manic energy, while also suggesting that his characters are heavily tattooed or sporting lavishly embroidered headdresses and capes.

Much of the rest of the work here, though fun, feels like the beginning of ideas and techniques, rather than work fully developed and come into its own.

Boston’s Anna Trzaska (untitled drawing, below left) explores the permutations of a set of motifs -- clouds, industrial chimneys, wood boxes, ribbons that weave in and out of each other – as if they were repertory players. She works between cartoony, hard-outlined clouds and boxes; big flat abstract shapes; and soft watercolory fogs.

Shaun Kessler of Brooklyn combines paper (and computer?) collage of dolphins, shoes, masks and plants with the increasingly popular diamonds, stripes and checkerboard motifs. In one, he fills the coupon boxes of a supermarket circular with rainbow stripes, tapping into the edge of something compelling about middle class trash culture.

Evan Quigley of Toronto contributes clunky sketches of goblets, cups, pitchers and lamps in empty rooms, perhaps dingy art school studios. There’s lots of stray marks and daubs and doodling. It could be the work of some grammar school kid hooked on Giorgio Morandi.

Brian Willmont of Boston renders surreally stacked forms in what appears to be watercolor and pencil (see “Bouancy” at left). In one fairly straightforward example, a boat carries a tree and a house trailer and a hut, topped with a square sail. Often the relationships are even more nonsensical, creating strange spatial disjunctions.

There’s also stuff by Jonah Stern of Brooklyn and Zoe Wright of Portland, Oregon.

The more I see of this style the more it becomes clear how these artists are aesthetic descendents of Saul Steinberg and Henry Darger, who loom ever larger in our artistic firmament. New England was a hotbed of this stuff in the late ‘90s and early 2000s (see the list of names I began with), championed by Cambridge’s now defunct Highwater Books (my former publisher).

“Wilderland: The Second Gallery Drawing Exhibition,” Second Gallery, 516 East 2nd St., South Boston, Dec. 9, 2006, to Jan. 7, 2007.