Friday, February 23, 2007

Maria Magdalena Campos-Pons

Here’s my profile of Brookline artist Maria Magdalena Campos-Pons, whose retrospective “Everything is Separated by Water” opens at the Indianapolis Museum of Art on Sunday – and unfortunately still doesn’t have a New England venue. (Maybe Brookline Booksmith will have her in for a public talk based on the catalogue?)

Campos-Pons is one of the most inspiring people that I’ve met around Boston. She’s a great artist, but beyond that she’s generous in her encouragement of other artists and dedicated to making the Boston art scene a more exciting place. And she’s driven and stubborn enough to make things happen. She founded Gasp gallery, below her studio on Boylston Street in Brookline, in 2004. It specializes in group shows of young experimenting artists and stars from the international art circuit that her own stature attracts. It’s one of the rare galleries in town that isn’t primarily commercial or institutional – which in itself is a telling indicator of the conservativism of the local art scene.

Campos-Pons sees the transformation of Miami over the past decade into one of the major art hotspots of the Americas as a model for what could develop in Boston with the right combination of local determination. (I'm not sure if Miami is a great model to emulate, but...) She notes all the big-deal institutions and museums here and wonders why the intellectual energy they attract doesn’t create more local sparks.

“The plan is to put Boston on the map,” she tells me. “The ICA is already putting Boston on the map, but you need more than that.”

“Maria Magdalena Campos-Pons: Everything is Separated by Water,” Indianapolis Museum of Art, Indiana, Feb. 25 to June 3, 2007.

From top to bottom: “Elevata” (2002), “When I Am Not Here/Estoy Allá” (1994), and “Spoken Softly with Mama” (1998).

Sullivan vs. Capasso!

Camellia Genovese of Genovese/Sullivan gallery keeps telling me that Boston’s art scene needs more taking-the-gloves-off. This came to mind the other day when I received an invite from her gallery partner, David Sullivan, that began with these thrilling words: “The exhibition at Genovese/Sullivan this month came into being as a reaction against the newly opened exhibit [“Big Bang”] at the DeCordova Museum.” As he went on it only got better.

DeCordova curator Nick Capasso’s premise for “Big Bang,” as he told me a month ago, was that “Abstract painting was really moribund, really boring, particularly in Boston” during the early 1990s. But over the past 15 years, as he gushes in the catalogue, it has come “back with a bang – a Big Bang!” How? Apparently by mimicking the look of science and technology.

“Unfortunately in my perception of the 15 artists on exhibit, only three were of interest, the others lacked the tension for compelling work,” Sullivan complains. “Rather consistently in the case of these artists elements were simply rather evenly dispersed within the base shape, which was in most cases a square. Done with more or less care, the way one might distribute rock-salt on a sidewalk, arrange ornaments on a tree, or plant bulbs in a garden."

Sullivan continues: “Good abstraction seizes and makes the form that it chooses. The seizing and shaping is the vital life-blood of the work. Because lively abstraction of this sort was actively being made during the ‘80s and ‘90s but not very well shown, my partner & myself decided to open a gallery. It seemed important to exhibit a few painters on a regular basis so the public might follow the permutations of their work.”

And so we arrive at Genovese/Sullivan’s new show, “Other Abstraction,” which Sullivan insists, “in spite of this reactive beginning it is anything but a negative show.” Shown from top to bottom are “Other Abstraction” works by

Bostonian Bert Antonio; Boston native Calvin Brown, who grew up in Andover, Massachusetts, and now resides in Princeton, New Jersey; Robert Hooper, formerly of Methuen, Massachusetts, and now living in the Chicago suburbs; Jake Grossberg of Milan, New York; Mary Boochever of Long Island, New York; Jeremy Gilbert-Rolfe of Santa Monica, California; and New Yorker Christian Haub. Also included is Boston native Craig Stockwell, who now resides in Keene, New Hampshire.

The more I think about “Big Bang,” the more I agree with Sullivan. You could cut the show down to Cristi Rinklin, Barbara Takenaga, Julie Miller and maybe Laurel Sparks and I wouldn’t miss anyone. Still "Bang" leaves me with the nagging feeling of things being left out (which I wrote about here), so an exhibit in response is just what’s called for.

And I love Sullivan’s rant – we really do need more of this sort of mixing it up around here. But here’s my problem: I saw “Other Abstraction” the night it opened, nearly a month ago now, and, except for finding Haub’s bright geometric paintings (at left) vaguely amusing, none of it sticks in my head.

Other Abstraction,” Genovese/Sullivan gallery, 450 Harrison Ave., Boston, Feb. 2 to March 17, 2007.

Thursday, February 22, 2007

Deval Patrick and the arts

News from the Massachusetts Cultural Council this week shows Governor Deval Patrick beginning to put his stamp on the Commonwealth’s top arts agency.

The Democrat announced Tuesday that he had promoted MCC board member Elyse Cherry to president of the 19-member board. She replaces Peter Nessen, who served as chairman for 11 years. Patrick also appointed Barbara Grossman to serve as vice-chair. Cherry, as chair, will lead the search for an executive director to replace outgoing MCC chief Mary Kelley, who plans to leave at the end of March after leading the agency for 11 years.

Eleven years and eleven years – is it just a coincidence that this is roughly the length of time Republicans ran the state’s executive branch? “You’ve seen too many Oliver Stone movies,” MCC spokesman Greg Liakos teases me.

Cherry, CEO of the nonprofit financial organization Boston Community Capital and a former partner at the Boston law firm Hale and Dorr, began working with the MCC nearly a decade ago as a panelist reviewing arts and economic development projects.

Grossman, an associate professor and chair of the department of drama and dance at Tufts University, has served as a presidential appointee to both the National Council on the Arts and the U. S. Holocaust Memorial Council.

Ladda, Estrada, Shubuck, Miracle 5

There’s a number of fun shows on Harrison Avenue that close this weekend.

Mario Diacono presents New Yorker Justen Ladda’s 2000 “Tree of Knowledge” (at left), an elaborately crafted 7-foot-tall clear glass bead tree with red bead apples and a blue and black bead serpent slithering up the trunk and eyeing you. The whole serpent in the Garden of Eden thing is lame, but the tree is wonderfully sparkly and fabulous, like a tree of ice. Using crystal petals from a chandelier as leaves is an especially nice move. It needs more of that sort of material invention. (Add white Christmas lights maybe?) But what terrific shadows.

At O·H+T Gallery, Reanne Estrada, who studied at Harvard and now lives in L.A., draws nervous psychedelic images resembling radiating suns, trees, veins of marble, and the pulses of electrocardiograms on geometric groupings of erasers. The drawings are just okay, but using erasers is an excellent idea. It’s like a kinder, gentler riff on Frank Stella’s 1960s shaped canvases. The pink, yellow, orange and blue erasers are a great, weird material – quite thick in proportion to their surface dimensions, with a smooth rubbery surface and rounded edges. Some are opaque, some are beautifully translucent.

New Yorker Simone Shubuck has an obsessive 2005 drawing “Shell Monster” (shown at cockeyed angle at left) and cycle of lithographs in the group show “Love in a Cold Climate” at Allston Skirt. There’s lots of this girly, doodley flowers-birds-Muppet-heads-floating-in-abstract-paradise stuff these days, but she does it nicely.

The talk of Harrison Avenue this month has been the Miracle 5 show at Rhys Gallery. The work by this Boston-area collective has lots of feisty aesthetic pyrotechnics, riffing on cartoons, tattoos, and religious art. It’s brighter, more playful, more badass than a lot of stuff seen hereabouts. Perhaps it has something to do with the blatant Roman Catholic influences. (Before I go on, I should note that these folks are pals of mine and I’ve shown with them.)

The collective doesn’t present collaborative works here, but rather a selection of stuff by folks with the same turn-ons. Elaine Bay assembles wild, furry, sparkly sacrilegious constructions (above). I’m especially taken by her sculpture that looks like a giant fab furry green purse. Aimée LaPorte riffs on tattoos and Mexican wrestling (left). Ken Boutet uses the iconography of comics – thought balloons, bubbles, sweat droplets – as the vocabulary of his bright, layered abstractions (below). Dave Raul Gonzalez presents cartoony robot paintings (further below) mulling fame and money. Dave Ortega has a superflat robot painting and animation cel drawings (at bottom).

Some of this stuff feels too close to its sources, not digested and reinvented enough, but you can feel the artists’ excitement. My favorite piece is LaPorte’s shrine celebrating miracles attributed to Santa Claus – part Xmas decoration, part holy reliquary, with a heart of all American consumerist plastic.

Justen Ladda “Tree of Knowledge,” Mario Diacono at Ars Libri, 500 Harrison Ave., Boston. Feb. 2 to 28, 2007; Reanne Estrada “Eraser Drawings,” O·H+T Gallery, 450 Harrison Ave., Boston, Feb 2 to 24, 2007; “Love in a Cold Climate,” Allston Skirt Gallery, 65 Thayer Street, Feb. 2 to 24, 2007; “The Miracle5 Attack!” Rhys Gallery, 401 Harrison Ave., Boston, Feb. 1 to 24, 2007.

Tuesday, February 20, 2007

Bradford Washburn

Bradford Washburn’s mom, an amateur photographer, gave him his first camera when he was 13. By age 16, the Cambridge native had scaled New Hampshire’s Mount Washington and Switzerland’s Matterhorn. Somewhere in there these two interests combined, leading him to become a pioneer of high-resolution, large-format aerial landscape photography.

“Colossal,” organized by Waltham’s Panopticon Gallery and now at Boston’s Museum of Science, presents 20 of his breathtaking aerial landscape photographs dating from the 1930s to the ‘70s. He belongs to Boston’s tradition of scientist-artists, including folks like Harold Edgerton, Gyorgy Kepes, Berenice Abbbott, and today Brian Knep.

Washburn, who died in Lexington, Massachusetts, on Jan. 10 at age 96, hung out the sides of airplanes clutching gargantuan World War II-era military surveillance cameras as he buzzed over mountain peaks at altitudes of 18,000 feet. The results are elemental vistas of jagged rock and snow wreathed by swirling clouds. Pictured from top to bottom are “Top of the Matterhorn from southwest in western cloudstorm, Switzerland” (Aug. 20, 1958); “Clouds rising after blizzard at the Great Gorge, Alaska” (1978); “South Crillon Glacier and canoe, Alaska” (1934); and “Twilight, Tokositna, Alaska” (1978). They’re awesome in the old sense of the word – wonder and reverence in the face of the unfathomable sublime.

The textures of water, stone, ice and snow are picked out with startling clarity by raking light and shadow in these stark 3-foot by 4-foot black and white digital prints. They echo the photographs of his friend Ansel Adams.

Washburn was founding director of the Museum of Science (he ran the museum for 41 years) as well as a renowned explorer and cartographer, whose adventures took him to the Grand Canyon, the Alps, Mount McKinley and Mount Everest (he lead a survey team in 1999 that used global positioning devices to determine its height was 29,035 feet – 7 feet taller than previously thought). His photos and essays about his travels were published in Life, National Geographic and numerous books

Looking at the photos here, I wonder what global warming has done to Washburn’s ice and glaciers. Turns out Boston photojournalist David Arnold had the same idea and has been following Washburn’s trail. He’s finding that in a generation or two much has melted away.

“Colossal: A Special Exhibit of Bradford Washburn’s Aerial Photographs” at the Museum of Science, Science Park, Boston, Jan. 28 to April 22, 2007.

Photos courtesy of Panopticon Gallery, copyright Bradford Washburn.

Monday, February 19, 2007

Update: New 'Pollocks'?

A Williamstown, Massachusetts, researcher has completed examination of more of the paintings Alex Matter claims to have found that look like they could be previously unknown Jackson Pollocks, but is being barred from releasing his results by Matter’s attorney, according to a Feb. 9 scoop by Steven Litt, an art critic for The Cleveland Plain Dealer. (See here and here for background.)

James Martin, a Williams College chemical research scientist who runs the Williamstown firm Orion Analytical, told Litt that he was hired by Matter’s art dealer to examine 23 of the “Pollock” paintings in 2005 with the agreement that he could release his findings when he was done, but now that he’s completed studying the paintings Matter’s lawyer has told him that he is “not authorized to release or disclose any analysis, findings or conclusions concerning the Matter paintings until further notice." Yikes.

Litt carefully notes that Martin doesn’t reveal the specifics of his research, but that Martin emailed him: "I am delighted that colleagues at Harvard and the Museum of Fine Arts Boston are confirming Orion's findings.” This suggests that his results agree with a recently released Harvard study of three of the Matter “Pollocks” that concluded that the paintings include paints not made until after Pollock’s death in 1956. And that the study Boston’s Museum of Fine Arts is doing on four of the “Pollocks” is headed toward the same conclusion.

Strangely, Geoff Edgers’ story in yesterday’s Boston Globe about Boston College’s plans to exhibit Matter’s “Pollocks” this fall doesn’t mention anything about the Williamstown study – and mistakenly suggests that the question of the authenticity of the Matter “Pollocks” remains much in doubt.

"This whole question of Pollock attributions, and the different reasons for believing or not believing, is so complicated," Edgers quotes Pepe Karmel, a New York University professor who co-curated a Pollock show at New York’s Museum of Modern Art in 1998. "It is so highly subjective, and personal investments are so high on both sides of the issue that it's hard to have a rational discussion on this subject."

The question of attribution here isn’t “highly subjective.” In my interviews and reading, I’ve found nothing that seriously challenges the credibility of the Harvard research. Ellen Landau, the chief Pollock authority still supporting the authenticity of the Matter “Pollocks” and who is helping organize the BC show, theorizes that the problematic paints came from Europe, where they could have been available during Pollock’s lifetime – but, as I noted here, the Harvard study directly refutes this claim.

And I’m troubled by the shoddy thinking of the BC physics professor Andrzej Herczynski that Edgers quotes saying: "I think Harvard did a beautiful job on the report. … But do you see that it is very hard to conceive of a scenario whereby 24 paintings or 32 are faked on the proper board with some paints that are OK but others that are not and somebody said, 'All right, I'm going to take the world for a spin but I'm not going to do one, I'm going to do 32?' And not only this, suddenly these things appear in the storage in a wrapper signed by a friend. I don't understand what this is."

It’s pretty easy to conceive of a scenario in which the paintings – worth millions if they turn out to be by Pollock – were faked. Imagine someone who knows their claim will be given credence because his or her parents were friends with Pollock. And so imagine this person looks at all the old cardboard and paint in his or her parents’ garage or storage locker and figures the stuff probably dates to Pollock’s lifetime – and most of them do, but unfortunately a few don’t. And imagine that this person practices Pollock’s technique until he or she gets it just right – maybe he or she refers to the 1999 MoMA conservation reports for tips. And imagine that while he or she is faking Pollock’s technique, that he or she fakes Pollock’s friend’s handwriting too to invent a note claiming the paintings to be genuine Pollocks. And imagine that this person thinks he or she can get away with it because art conservation science is not refined enough to discover the fakery – but conservation science catches up with him or her.

I’m not saying the little fantasy I just outlined is what happened. But until someone refutes the Harvard study (and perhaps soon the MFA and Orion Analytical studies too), the scientific evidence says these can’t have been painted by Pollock. I’d like to believe that the reason for Matter’s apparently mistaken claim is something innocent – maybe the paintings were done by students of his mother and for some crazy reason mislabeled by his father. Edgers blogged on Feb. 4 that Matter’s “reasoning, which we'll detail soon in the paper, might make more sense that you would expect.” But Edgers has yet to reveal it.

(Thanks to Harvard conservation scientist Narayan Khandekar for pointing me to Litt’s report.)