Tuesday, September 23, 2008

So, Who Are These "Beautiful" People ?

Trailer for Beautiful Losers, a documentary about a group of artists loosely associated with Alleged Gallery (NYC) during the 90s.

I'm just guessing, but I'm sure I saw a lot of you people at the Beautiful Losers screening at the Plaza Theatre last Thursday. You know who you are. : )

I didn't know what to expect, but I came away glad. You could feel by the energy in the room, filled with students and artists of various ages, that people identified with the artists in the film. I spend so much time trying to "bring the serious" that it's easy to forget why I started: I saw people around me creating personal, inspired art and, acknowledging a power I could never achieve, I wanted to support them in what ways I can.

So, I suppose I should start learning who these "beautiful" people are...
Artists from the movie, new to me:
Aaron Rose
Barry McGee
Chris Johanson
Ed Templeton
Geoff McFetridge
Harmony Korine
Jo Jackson
Margaret Killgallen
Mike Mills
Deanna Templeton
Stephen Powers
Thomas Campbell
Cheryl Dunn
Now where do I start...?

Thursday, September 18, 2008

"Search for Truth . . . Promote Socialism"

Detail, Slogan 7 by Zhang Dali.

Striking the eyeballs like so many of those infamous hammers-with-iron-sickle, these ideograms form a static compositional grid. Baffled—with my face hovering a mere breath's distance from the vinyl surface—I attempted to "read" from left to right, and, quickly realizing my predictable, "amateur" error, I tried again vertically.1

But… I was still missing the point. Yes, the paintings are made of Chinese characters. (Each line spells out a slogan of Communist propaganda.) I realized, though, that the most dominant visual element here is the background void of solid black.

And this is what the full image looks like. What a sad, sad little boy... Zhang Dali opened his Slogans series at Kiang Gallery last Friday.

The color black. All other shades of value, including subdued hints of blue and brown, are contained, exclusively, within the tiny brushstrokes of Zhang Dali's lettering. What a potent statement: the figure can only be seen through the intermediary of state ideology.

We can only express our opinions with the vocabulary we're given:
And you don't have to experience the Cultural Revolution to sympathize. Just turn on the radio—the talking points repeat themselves over and over. Simply replace a single party with two.

Slogan A.4, on the other hand, has slightly more color.

The content interests me, but I'm more inclined to treat these as a study of the human mark. Names like Chuck Close come to mind. While the grave subject matter demands an unfortunately limited color palette, the meticulous labor that went into each stroke does make the in-gallery experience more meaningful than simply viewing these photographs.

I'm reminded of Jonathan's thoughts on Local Ephemera about the significance of "duplicating text by hand." I'm still chewing on the question.

So begins "My Self-Education in Beijing Artists," Part 1…

Navy/Army/Airforce by Shen Jingdong (photo taken at China Square's exhibit booth at Art Santa Fe). Click for closeups of each panel: Navy, Army, and Airforce.

Compare Zhang's disciplined sobriety to Sheng Jingdong. Like the tarnished backside of a silvered mirror, Zhang shows us the emotional reality beneath the shiny surface. His portraits are a far cry from those well-fed, beaming faces of yesteryear. But Sheng's military renderings (above) have their own subversive charm. Those deadpan, bubblegum colors can't be serious.

Is this a generational difference between artists? Or simply a stylistic choice? I have so many questions. For example…

Demolition: Time Plaza Beijing, 1999. Reminds me of Banksy's "transparent" designs on the Israeli West Bank barrier.

Why does Chinese art cost so much?

Zhang made a name for himself creating activist graffiti in Beijing. These profile silhouettes (above) marked buildings slated for demolition, drawing public attention to the effects of "progress" on the city's anatomy.

Touted as "the only graffiti artist in Beijing" during the early 90s, Zhang's pseudonym was "AK-47." The tag appears in one of the Kiang Gallery pieces, repeating like a deadly postmodern sutra over some poor child's face.

But now Zhang's framed Slogan pieces sell for $52,000 each…

Of course, everyone's favorite graffiti artist, Banksy, just broke the $500,000 mark last year. His Space Girl and Bird (above) sold for "only" 288,000 pounds, roughly $576,000. However, that still doesn't put "the Beijing trend" into perspective.

I suppose I shouldn't consider it a serendipity that, less than a month after the Beijing Olympics, ARTNews magazine's cover story this month focuses on China's art market. To illustrate some of the recent incredible leaps in value, Barbara Pollack cites the case of Zheng Fanzhi: "Five years ago his works sold for under $50,000. Today he commands prices on the primary market closer to $1 million."2

Zhang's Chinese Offspring, an installation meditating the plight of migrant labor. Click here for a detail. Zhang's range is impressive; he completed this two-year sculptural series in 2005 before moving on to other media.

I don't mean to challenge Zhang's integrity. I just don't want to live in a world where the sex appeal of "graffiti" outstrips the word's credibility. And though I can certainly see the value of individual Chinese artists, the recent lust for "anything Beijing" should be treated for what it is: a trend.


1 I don't speak or read Chinese. Fortunately, technology amplifies my normal powers of deduction. The repetitions in Slogan 7 seem to indicate horizontal orientation. Slogan 13, judging by the placement of key words 社会主义 (Socialism) and 十七大 (the shortened name of the 17th National Congress), reads vertically, although from the bottom to the top instead of what you'd expect. The choices vary according to aesthetic. Correct me if I'm wrong…

2 Pollack's article is an excellent resource, especially for the illustrations in the print edition. It saves me the trouble. : )

Monday, September 15, 2008

McCloud Speaks at Agnes Scott

From Understanding Comics by Scott McCloud (1993). ISBN# 006097625X.

15 years ago, Scott McCloud introduced Understanding Comics, a comic book about comic books that, in an easy-to-digest form, discussed the medium with a smattering of art history and theory and, above all, a desire for stories with something more than just explosions and bad dialog.

McCloud's clever little diagram, for example, is a pretty original innovation. Plus I'm young enough to admit: reading McCloud in the 90s "got me into" René Magritte's Treachery of Images.

McCloud lectures on "A Medium in Transition" tomorrow night, 7:30PM, at Agnes Scott.

Thursday, September 11, 2008

My What Big Eyes You… Have?

Eudora Welty Suit for My Cat, Toby—part of Linda Hall's show, The Beast in Me, at Young Blood Gallery. Now, just a little closer, dearie…

While Linda Hall's cat-costume monstrosities make me smile, her 2D works effectively ruin the experience. Her watercolors attempt a kind of children's book aesthetic that, while playful, feels forced and more than a little didactic.

Here's an excerpt in Hall's defense, written to accompany the show's signature costume, We Are What We Endanger (below):
Assuming the bear identity is my playful yet poignant way of forcing empathy… not unlike ancient rituals where a human assumes the spirit of the animal by wearing its skin. Here the viewer is invited to complicate entering the body of the Florida Black Bear, inhabiting its spirit, its power, and its plight. [emphasis mine.]
So… animals connect us? Sorry: somewhere between Hall's bird of prey and its aerial buffet of rodent-and-snake, I got completely lost.

The Black Bear homage, on the other hand, makes more sense. Its ragged textures and big, watery eyes suggest the neglect and malnourishment of a vagabond. As the artist intended, the bear looks pathetic.

But does it hold up to the craftsmanship of, say, the Center for Puppetry Arts? And, although the bear is fun, I wonder if its cartoon features hold it back, anesthetizing its inspirational power. The poles are contradictory—a "beast within" should have teeth, right?

Overall, I liked the "costumes" fashioned after Nick Cave, Eudora Welty, and, especially, Toby's Bird Watching Suit with its raised textures and play of gold-on-cream. But the watercolors really do suffer. The mounting, for instance, is dismal.

Effective naiveté certainly has its examples. I'm sure Linda Hall is a fan of Kiki Smith's folk tale series (e.g., Untitled, 2007 and Lying with the Wolf, 2001). Smith isn't my favorite, but her stab at the genre rings with a little more truth.

We Are What We Endanger. Sorry for the poor photo quality, but you get the idea.


Monday, September 08, 2008

"What We Endanger..."

Linda Hall, Bird Watching Suit for My Cat, Toby.

Conjuring Change.

Nick Cave Suit for My Cat, Toby.

Crow Stomach.

Animals Connect Us.

The Beast in Me
Young Blood Gallery
9.6.08 - 9.28.08


Friday, September 05, 2008

I'm told

that Japanese gardens were once called shima (島), a word that means "island," rather than the common word used for "garden" today.

Portland's Japanese Garden. You can view the webgallery here.

Languages change and spread, as if commanded to frustrate their physical containers—on the atlas and in our clumsy vocal cords. Fortunately, translations are still possible.

Try typing "japanese garden" into Google: Portland is actually the top hit. Although firmly locked within the continental US, the landscaping is faithful to the wabi-sabi aesthetic originated over on "that island."

Things I like:
1. This rock garden
2. This lion statue, also known as Mr. Grumpy
3. This contemporary sculpture by Jun Kaneko.
Context changes everything. Though these ordinary, Crayola hues usually put me to sleep, the contrast of bright-pastel-on-earth makes for a surprising seamlessness between old and new. The glass is just a little translucent.

Can we have more art outside?

Wednesday, September 03, 2008

Upper Playground

Deadly Towers 1, 2 & 3 (acrylic) and Asteroids (multi-media installation) by E*Roc. Click here for artist statement. I'm reminded of 1) Matt Relkin's towers and 2) Bean Summer's recent installation at MINT...

Photos by Sara Padgett: Watermelons, Miami, FL and Multitubes, Savannah, GA. Artist statement here. Those colors are exquisite. Padgett, an Arkansas native, confirms the sensation that Portland is also a "town of transplants."

Upper Playground is a design studio based in San Francisco. They also run two art galleries: Fifty 24SF and Fifty 24PDX. Kudos to Mike Germon for pointing the way.

I visited their Portland, OR, location this summer, and although I've delayed the photos for some time, I'm proud that I was able to attribute the artist to each and every work. It was a rare show for the space; instead of showcasing "established" talent from the California art scene, Seven was exclusively dedicated to rising artists in Portland. Fifth and Couch posted some photos of the opening here.

Feel free to browse the Picasa webgallery here

Comments appreciated!