Friday, November 30, 2007

New chief for London’s National Gallery

and it ain’t Malcolm

A month ago I reported on rumors that Malcolm Rogers, director of Boston’s Museum of Fine Arts, was a “top candidate to lead London’s National Gallery.” However the job will apparently go to Nicholas Penny of Washington’s National Gallery, according to reports in the Guardian Tuesday and in today’s New York Times.

The Guardian says:
Nicholas Penny is expected to be confirmed as the new director of London's National Gallery, following the abrupt departure of his predecessor, Charles Saumarez Smith. A selection panel has submitted their decision to the prime minister, Gordon Brown, who is expected to make a formal announcement next week.

Wednesday, November 28, 2007

National Heritage Museum chief retiring

John H. Ott will retire from his position as executive director of National Heritage Museum on Friday, according to an announcement today from the Lexington institution.

Ott has lead the Mason-founded museum of American history and culture since 1999. "After 40 years of museum work, I feel it is time to allow someone else the pleasure of running this wonderful institution," Ott said in the announcement. He was formerly director of Hancock Shaker Village, the Atlanta Historical Society and the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad Museum in Baltimore. Ott and his wife Lili, who leads the Concord Art Association, plan to continue residing in Groton.

A search committee is expected to be named after the start of the new year. In the meantime, Richard Travis, a museum trustee and the institution’s chief financial officer, will serve as acting director.

Denise Marika

A body (or something resembling a body) tied into a shroud rolls down a long stairway, in Brookline artist Denise Marika’s jarring and powerful new video installation “Downrush” at Axiom Gallery. The scene is projected twice, from floor to ceiling at both ends of a darkened gallery, but the action doesn’t synch up. I watched seated on one of two wooden benches running the length of the room. They resemble the stairs in the videos, and somehow implicate us in what’s going on. The body – bound and helpless or maybe dead – tumbles down with a gut-wrenching thump, thump, thumping.

Unless you touch the gallery walls you might not notice that three of them are dotted with braille. The wall under the projection at left apparently features passages from the Jewish Torah. The wall under the projection at right is dotted with passages from the Moslem Koran. And the empty wall running the length of the gallery between offers text from the Christian Bible.

In a side gallery, which has the feeling of a tiny monk’s cell, you can peruse the sacred books. Marika cites much of the book of Genesis, with its tales of creation, the great devastating flood of Noah, the tower of Babel, murder and trickery. She references Leviticus with its codes of behavior, punishment (“Anyone who inflicts an injury on his neighbor shall receive the same in return. Limb for limb, eye for eye, tooth for tooth!”) and atonement. The Biblical Gospel of Matthew offers a tale of an ungenerous man “handed … over to the torturers until he should pay back the whole debt.”

I didn’t read everything, but besides the violence and codes of behavior, I noted repeated references to blindness as a metaphor for those whose judgment is more true because they are less easily distracted and deceived. In the Biblical Gospel of John, Jesus miraculously gives sight to a blind man, who as a result recognizes Jesus as a “prophet.” The Biblical letter of Paul to Christians in Rome reports: “in hope we are saved. Now hope that sees for itself is not hope. For who hopes for what one sees? But if we hope for what we do not see, we wait with endurance.”

The reading becomes tedious though, like trudging through extensive footnotes.

Back in the main room, a wall text explains that Marika is mulling our complicity in and passive witnessing of war, genocide, violence, death. But to put it that way feels reductive. The power of the piece is visceral: that relentless heart-sickening thumping.

Denise Marika, “Downrush” in “Witness” exhibit, Axiom, 141 Green St., Oct. 12 to Dec. 1, 2007.

Related: I wrote (briefly) about Marika’s work previously in this preview of the 2007 Boston Cyberarts Festival.

Tuesday, November 27, 2007

Todd McKie

Cambridge artist Todd McKie’s new cartoony flashe paintings at Gallery NAGA return us to his world of happy and sad galoots with goofy grins plastered across their simple faces. The characters' pleasures are straightforward – flowers, dogs, art, wine, home – the stuff of a contented middle class life.

In “The Terrible Burden of Beauty” (2007), a grinning buffoon balances three flowers atop his head. He seems to be made of a pile of sticks and stones (which brings to mind McKie’s assemblages that are actually made of sticks and stones). The balancing act and the fellow’s expression seem a needy plea for affection. “Bird, Interrupted” (2006) is one of McKie’s signature visual gags. Two birds try to perch on a stony birdbath, but the one on the right has missed, its feet dangling in empty air. Its eyes open wide as it recognizes its predicament, like the frozen moment when Wile E. Coyote realizes he’s run off the cliff and hovers frozen above a chasm.

These pictures are incredibly visually charming with their jaunty vocabulary of flat doodley lopsided forms – descendents of early modernist abstraction – arrayed on impressionist fields of color.

But sometimes McKie’s art feels so light – like cocktail party banter – that I’m left wanting more. His work brings to mind the French painter Jean Dubuffet, New Yorker cartoonist William Steig, the Cobra painters who came out of the Netherlands in the 1940s and ‘50s, and the cartoony painters who came out of Chicago in the ‘60s and ‘70s and have become known as the Hairy Who and Chicago Imagists. They all seem to draw inspiration from folk art, particularly the art of children, which they tap for both its formal invention and its fun. But these other artists often have more oomph (for lack of a better word) than McKie. Maybe it’s because the others have more sex or bawdiness or melancholy. Maybe it’s because their compositions are often more dense. I can’t quite put my finger on it.

In this show, McKie’s strength is his terrific moody use of color – often a narrow range of similar hues punctuated by an opposite. For example, “Truth is Stranger Than Non-Fiction” (2006), which depicts a person in a beret whose nose is a pipe, is predominantly crimson and rose punctuated by little passages of green. “Please Pass the Sake” (2007), which depicts a person among a selection of jugs and vases, is rendered in lots of blues and greens contrasted with moments of orange and brown. The many similar colors smolder, until the opposites make them spark.

Related: Here’s a previous post on McKie.

Todd McKie “Decent Paintings,” Gallery NAGA, 67 Newbury St., Boston, Nov. 9 to Dec. 15, 2007.

Pictured from top to bottom: Todd McKie’s “The Terrible Burden of Beauty,” 2007; “Bird, Interrupted,” 2006; “Truth is Stranger Than Non-Fiction,” 2006; and “Please Pass the Sake,” 2007, all flashe on canvas.