Friday, May 11, 2007

‘Urban Landscapes’ at Brown

Here’s my review of “Urban Landscapes: Emancipation and Nostalgia,” a three-person show at Brown University’s Bell Gallery organized by curator Vesela Sretenovic.

The highlight is London artist Catherine Yass’ 2006 video installation “Lock” (above), which puts you on a barge entering the great concrete maw of the 1.3-mile-wide Three Gorges Dam on China’s Yangtze River. Footage is projected on two ends of a darkened gallery. On one side you see the front of the boat, on the other is the view behind; the room in between becomes, in effect, the barge itself.

The lock’s giant gates hem in the vessel as water pours in. Metal squeaks against metal as the boat rises. Bells ring, a voice squawks from a loudspeaker. Tiny sailors meander the decks. After a blackout, gates slowly open in front of the boat, revealing a narrow channel to daylight. The barge chugs out into calm green water that disappears into mist upriver. Behind, boats line up, waiting their turn to enter the astonishingly humongous stone gates. Lock is a cool ride, a meditative version of one of those IMAX films that put you in a jet plane’s driver’s seat.

“Urban Landscapes: Emancipation and Nostalgia,” Bell Gallery, Brown University, 64 College St., Providence, April 18 to May 27, 2007.

Catherine Yass’ “Lock” reproduced here with the very special courtesy of Galerie Lelong in New York.

Thursday, May 10, 2007

2007 DeCordova Annual

Here’s my review of the DeCordova Museum’s “2007 Annual Exhibition,” the institution’s annual roundup of 10 of the “best, most interesting, and visually eloquent artists who work in this region.” Yippie!

As I wrote in the review, for me the standout is Jungil Hong of Providence. Affiliated with that city’s punky Fort Thunder art gang, she makes eye-popping psychedelic screenprint collages of Hieronymus Bosch-style apocalypses by way of Terry Gilliam’s Monty Python animations. (Pictured at top, “Tree Top Trading Post,” 2006. At left, “Miami Haze,” 2004.) People dressed in chain-mail armor gather eggs and vegetables and hang leaves to dry in landscapes dotted with windmills, malignant clouds, wolf-headed birds, black armies brandishing boomboxes, a leaf woman, a beehive, and giant gulls and crows. A wavy red pattern filling the ground makes the earth look to have been flooded with fire. Her work seems a mysterious allegory, a dream of scratching out an existence in the shadow of looming environmental collapse.

Another highlight is Fitchburg artist Jeff “Jeffu” Warmouth, whose 2007 video "Spudnik" (below) mixes animation and puppetry to tell its fractured tale of a Soviet-styled nation of potato people and their quest for the stars. “The desire for space exploration among the Potatoites has a long and delicious history,” the narrator declaims in that optimistic march-of-progress tone familiar from newsreels and science documentaries. Warmouth’s installation includes rocket models and photos “documenting” the Spudnik program — the “Unmanned Foil Satellite” is a ball of tinfoil with three metal legs that exploded on re-entry because “engineers had neglected to poke holes in the foil to prevent steam build-up.” Warmouth’s project is a light goof on museum displays, filled with groan-inducing puns and charming Sesame Street–style humor. Sometimes it’s too light and silly, but he keeps everything short enough that it doesn’t wear out its welcome.

“The 2007 DeCordova Annual Exhibition,” DeCordova Museum, 51 Sandy Pond Road, Lincoln, May 5 to August 12, 2007.

Erik Levine

One of the best gallery shows in Boston right now is Erik Levine’s “More Man” at Space Other gallery, which viscerally explores one of the chief rights of male initiation in American society today: high school football. Levine, who splits his time between Boston and New York, presents arty documentary photos of a coach looming over a benched player and the shadows of players stretching across the field juxtaposed with slogans splashed across T-shirts and embroidered on hats. They read: “Respect all, fear none,” “Those who stay will be champions,” “The strength of the team is the player, the strength of the player is the team,” and “We turn hatred into motivation.”

The main event is Levine’s 2005 video “More Man.” It’s a grainy color video chopped into staccato floating images. A coach hollers at boys: “Go hit somebody.” A boy tries to rev up his teammates: “Act like they killed your mother.” Coaches shove and punch their players. Players smash into each other in practice. They chant and clap and dance – with associations to clan, tribe and gang rituals made apparent. The violence and anger are ritual – just like the truce after the game when opponents politely slap hands. A coach yells: “This is not how you play football. This is not how you gain respect. This is not how you become young men.” A coach tells boys: “You let this team down.” A coach says, “I will go to the wall for you. I will die for you … but when the year is over decide what you want to do with your life. … Be more man than the next man.”

Here’s the dark heart of manhood as it’s popularly defined in America, where tradition requires adults to be assholes to kids, to shame and humiliate them. It’s a zone where slogans like “There’s no I in team” are not about working together for mutual benefit, but about the obliteration of individuals. It’s an examination of the man in the word “manhandling.” It twists my stomach into knots.

Levine’s editing tricks – like cheap imitations of early music videos – are kind of gimmicky, but the video seeps under your skin. It makes you wonder why indoctrination into manhood, as we often define it, means indoctrination into a code in which “respect” means unquestioning submission to brutal authority. It’s the code of behavior that trains hazers to believe in the righteousness of their cruelty because they’re just reenacting what was done to them coming up. It’s tradition, and tradition is how we maintain and protect our society. It’s such attitudes that make it so hard for our nation to analyze and address, say, the bloody mismanagement of our Iraq war. It’s such attitudes that portray torturers as strong, as clear-eyed, as noble. It’s a sad and sorry state of affairs.

Erik Levine, “More Man,” Space Other, 63 Wareham St., Boston, April 12 to May 12, 2007.

Pictured from top to bottom: “Respect All Fear None,” giclee print, 2006, and “Hatred into Motivation,” giclee print, 2006.

Sexy Joseph Cornell?

One of the striking things of the Joseph Cornell retrospective at Salem’s Peabody Essex Museum is the sexy collages and boxes he began making in the late 1950s with photos of naked ladies clipped from National Geographic, Playboy and art photography journals.

It's striking because Cornell (1903-1972) is often described as a chaste fellow, an impression promoted by a tale he liked to recount of the time in the 1920s when he tried to make the moves on a cashier who sold tickets in the booth in front of a Queens movie theater. Too shy to actually approach her, he threw a bouquet of flowers to her. Fearing she was being attacked, she screamed, and the manager ran out and tackled Cornell.

“Untitled (Ship with Nude),” pictured above, from around 1965 is among the more modest of his nudes. I don't have any pictures of the real salacious ones, but one features a nude from behind, snipped in half, and pasted into a photo of autumn trees. Another shows a naked lady laying on her side in ocean surf. Cornell added only a little star to her necklace and a bit of ink wash.

Deborah Solomon’s exhaustive and exhausting 1997 book “Utopia Parkway: The Life and Art of Joseph Cornell” reports that late in life Cornell hired pretty young assistants in hopes of sparking "office" romances. This tactic finally paid off when he hired the Japanese artist Yayoi Kusama, then in her mid 20s, to model for figure drawing practice in 1964. Solomon reports she
was happy to disrobe in his basement workshop so that he could sketch her. … Yayoi was the hardly the first woman whom Cornell envisaged as his feminine ideal. Yet she was the first to harbor any sensual interest in him. … She encouraged him to act on his impulses and apparently gave him his first true taste of sexual bliss. He was sixty years old, and finally, at last, he kissed a woman on the mouth and explored a woman’s body with his hands, an experience he described in his diary as gratifyingly “erotique.” … “Cornell was deeply impotent,” Kusama noted. “To have sex with him, therefore, was impossible." (pages 293-294)
Solomon also reports Cornell’s circa 1971 liaison with the writer Leila Hadley, a twice-divorced mother of four, “a radiant and spirited young woman in her thirties. A small, alluring beauty with long brown hair.”
She felt honored to be the object of his desires, and it did not bother her that his needs were unconventional. On one of her visits, Cornell requested that they take a bath together, and she obliged. On another occasion, she treated him to oral sex, reporting years later that he was “fully capable of having an orgasm.” Nonetheless, Cornell had no intention of consummating their relationship the conventional way. He apparently remained impotent, which is to say, incapable of penetration. … Though he recorded “wet dreams” in his diary and apparently enjoyed fellatio, sexual intercourse was out of the question.

Or so he confided to Leila Hadley, offering a rather quaint reason for his abstinence for intercourse. “He felt he would lose his ability to be an artist if he had sex,” she said. (pages 355-356)
Pictured from top to bottom: “Untitled (Penny Arcade Portrait of Lauren Bacall),” 1945-46, and “Taglioni’s Jewel Casket,” 1940.

Joseph Cornell

Here’s my review of the terrific exhibit “Joseph Cornell: Navigating the Imagination” at Salem’s Peabody Essex Museum, which assembles 180 of his bewitching, dreamy collages and signature glass-fronted shadow boxes, including 30 works that are being shown for the first time.

Joseph Cornell (1903–1972) was the quintessential odd duck, meek and manipulative, a bookworm and a packrat, afraid of eye contact, scared of his own shadow, a Francophile, and a creepy panting celibate voyeur who idealized girls and mooned over Hollywood starlets and 19th-century ballerinas. He was both a recluse and a pal of art stars like Marcel Duchamp.

Cornell’s boxes, so particularly arranged, tap our mind’s insistence on putting two and two together to create narratives even where none exist. Some correspondences are easily deciphered, but the boxes’ power and pleasure lie in how they never fully give up their mysteries.

Cornell has a slight Massachusetts connection. He was a lifelong New Yorker, except for four years he spent studying – and failing to graduate – at Phillips Academy in Andover.

While the MFA’s Edward Hopper survey has lots of flash, the Cornell retrospective is a quiet stunner. Cornell’s work is rarely seen hereabouts – I think the Addison owns something and maybe Harvard.

I’m intrigued by the parallels between Cornell and Henry Darger, Ray Johnson and Andy Warhol – the repeating motifs, the appropriated images. In particular, Darger and Cornell both focus on children, and copy and enlarge appropriated images to assemble elaborate compositions (Darger traced his appropriated images).

These two pages detail some of Cornell’s sources.

“Joseph Cornell: Navigating the Imagination,” Peabody Essex Museum, East India Square, Salem, April 28 to Aug. 19, 2007.

Pictured from top to bottom: “Medici Slot-Machine: Object” 1942; “Untitled (Soap Bubble Set)” 1936; and “Untitled (Cockatoo with Watch Faces)” 1949.