Thursday, March 26, 2009

Gerhard Richter's Portraits, National Portrait Gallery

The final piece of the National Portrait Gallery’s Gerhard Richter Portraits, is a mirror. Great fan that I am of Richter’s paintings, I am not so enamored by the portraits, primarily because I believe he says all he has to say in other works. To my mind, Richter is an abstract painter and it is when he lets loose with the brush, the squeegee or the palette knife that his relationship to painting is at its most virtuosic. We could argue that his conception of the portrait is unique and disturbing to convention due to the insistence on the apparent impossibility of accessing an individual through painted (or photographed) representation. Accordingly, these are portraits that have very little to do with the sitter, and everything to do with the private and inaccessible, contemplative world of Gerhard Richter, and in turn, his relationship to painting. We know this already though, from his other extraordinary works, the Overpainted Photographs being the ones that come to mind.

And so, even though it was good to see so many portraits in one space, I wasn’t so excited by the small exhibition. That is, until I got to the end. The exhibition is organized in five rooms, each with its own theme, each opening out from a shotgun corridor. At the end of the corridor is a mirror. As we walk down the corridor, the mirror appears as a fixture of the National Portrait Gallery. I thought they had placed it there to extend the space, and to give the impression of a much larger exhibition. But once we get to the final room, we realize it is actually the final piece in the exhibition. The first theme, in room 1, entitled "The Most Perfect Picture" announces Richter's constant refrain of the non existence of any such thing. And yet, when we reach room 5 "Personal Portraits," in typical Richter contradictory fashion, we find "the most perfect picture." In the same proportions, but not dimensions, as a polaroid photograph, the mirror mimics the size and shape of the other portraits in the room. If the exhibition is about the deception of painting in its claim to represent the world, and the impossibility of representation even to estimate the object before it, then the mirror both challenges that claim, and simultaneously reinforces it. As I stand before the mirror I see my own image, but for Richter, what I see is not what the man standing next to me will see. And so “the perfect picture” is one in which my distorted view of myself is objectively replicated, but not. It is only ever a representation.

Richter’s work always creates a conversation with and in its viewer. Typical of twentieth-century modernist painting, and of Richter’s most profound works, the portraits on display here simultaneously seduce and disturb me. The signature Richter blur ensures a sense of nostalgia, discomfort, and intrigue all at once. And the mirror does the same. Face to face with my own mirror image, my portrait, in close up and at a distance, I cannot look away. I am drawn to the image – does my hair look okay? I admire the outfit I am wearing, I feel empowered by my command over my own image … until, sensing I might be being watched, my vanity exposed, I laugh nervously, look away, step back, and watch the next visitor proceed to engage in a similar performance before the mirror. Just like the painted portraits, there are many obstructions and veils to the truth of who I am when I look at my portrait in that mirror. But unlike the painted versions, there’s no space for contemplation in my mirror image, and neither, can I as its viewer fall into the unfathomable beauty that lies behind the veil of paint on a canvas such as Selbstportrait (1996).

Looking at myself in the mirror has never been so fascinating!

Saturday, March 21, 2009

Daguerre paints

Louis-Jacques-Mandé Daguerre, Interior of the Chapel of Saint-Philippe in the Eglise des Feuillants in Paris, 1814

This is a poor reproduction of a striking painting by Daguerre. Who knew he painted as well as invented photography! That said, this painting is all about photography. In the flesh, the painting is also very dark. The light from the window above the door streams into the chapel, and even though it creates a chiaroscuro as it falls on the right hand wall, somehow, it manages to delicately illuminate the whole chapel. The painting has little to do with a rendition of the chapel, and everything to do with the camera obscura effect of the light coming into the darkened interior to create an image on its walls. If it were not for the title, the interior space might as well be a high-ceilinged stable or hall; there is nothing ecclesiastical about it. Even though we can see the outline of paintings on the arched ceiling especially, they are not the focus of the painting. And the curious architectural form of the space also appears to be in the service of the magical illumination through what is presumably the east window. This is a painting about the representation of light as it enters the dark interior - all in preparation for an invention Daguerre was clearly mulling over in 1814.

Wednesday, March 18, 2009

Sophie Ristelhueber at the Jeu de Paume

As so often happens, I went to see one exhibition and ended up at another this afternoon. With full intentions of going to the Robert Frank, I wandered into the Sophie Ristelhueber and was pleasantly surprised. Her photographs are usually, somewhat cautiously, referred to as very subtle war allegories. They are, in so far as they represent the traces of war, sometimes in places where the landscape of war is shockingly reconceived. If we look at her photographs as war allegories, some of the most compelling and disturbing examples depict the consequences of wars waged on the human face and body. In this exhibition at the Jeu de Paume, a man’s face (Everu One no. 8, 1994) and the entire length of a woman’s spine (Every One no. 14, 1994) bear not only the scars of the violent trauma that beset them, but their wounds are roughly stitched with thick black thread, a stitching that multiplies the brutality and aggression that marks these bodies. I found these battlefields to be way more compelling than those of the wastelands of bombed out buildings in Lebanon (Beyrouth series, 1984) or deserted checkpoints in the West Bank (WB series, 2005).

What captivated me most though were a series of diptychs on memory, the domestic sphere, and the private, secret, traumas of childhood and the family home: Vulaines, 1989. Each diptych consists of two images, one of an old black and white family photograph of children in their innocent games, and the other, a color print of the artist’s family home today. Both are blown up and juxtaposed. One of the three paired images exhibited here depicts a little girl having her hair washed by presumably her father in the back yard. It's an image of complete safety and love, trust and in it we see a special relationship. This is juxtaposed with a shot of an empty house, under the stairs, through a yellowish-brownish filter as if to echo the nostalgia and loss of that same childhood. The emptiness of the silent spaces, in hues that echo the deterioration of the image as it might be in the mind of the woman who was once the little girl having her hair washed, makes them haunting, awaiting the distortion of memories, both pleasurable and frightening. Similarly, the stasis and silence of the empty hallway open up a space into which we project our own memories of childhood as they might be secreted in the walls and floorboards, under the stairs of our own childhood homes.

There's also a photograph of four young children lined up peering through a wrought iron gate. The image evokes notions of children always looking at the forbidden, the out of bounds, and yet simultaneously, the spying and children’s seeming ability to see everything no matter how much their parents try to stop them. This double edge, the contradiction of childhood is only fully realized through the image which sits next to it: from a child's point of view, in a low angle, we see two immaculately made beds. They are separated, and what comes to mind as we see them is all of the secrets held in the space between the two beds, under the perfectly tucked covers. Children are not meant to see those secrets, to know what goes on in such spaces. And yet, together the two photographs reinforce that children see exactly what they want to see, however unique the perspective. Again, Ristelhueber’s provokes our own memories as they are linked to similar places and spaces from our past, most notably the family home as a repository for memory. It is here that the photographs become profound and even disturbing — for what they do not show, but encourage us to imagine.

While the image of the West Bank, Beirut, Iraq and so on are somewhat familiar, the enlarged diptych form of the photographs, the childhood perspective, the juxtaposition of color and black and white, and other elements such as frames painted with fabric patterns that might be found on the family sofa, make the Vulaines series innovative and fascinating. It is on the landscapes of domesticity, whether it be the body or the family home, that Ristelhueber shows her greatest potential as a photographer.

Tuesday, March 10, 2009

Anselm Kiefer's books

Anselm Kiefer has been making lead sculptural books for over thirty years now. In the 1970s and 1980s, Kiefer’s monumental lead libraries became immoveable fixtures in the museums and galleries that owned them. Characteristic of Kiefer’s oeuvre, the intransigence, fixity and immobility of epic lead books was thrown into conflict with the ephemerality and ineffability of the organic hair, straw, sand and earth written on the pages of Germany’s troubled past on which these books discoursed. Kiefer’s books are monumental not just in size. They embrace an infinity of materials, meanings, media and histories. They are about painting, about sculpture, books, indeed images and texts of all kinds. They blur the line between the symbolic and the real, the past and the present, heaven and earth, death and regeneration, violence and serenity and on and on. The scale of these works is inconceivable, and it is not only their size and their ambition. But unlike any other artworks in circulation and on exhibition today, Anselm Kiefer’s books hark back to the possibility of the redemptive power of art, and in particular, of a marriage between landscape painting and the book as an evocative metaphor for the communication of collective knowledge.

In the lead sculptural books of the last 15 years — eg. Dein und das Alter der Welt and Fünfundzwanzig Jahre Einsamkeit (1998), Buch mit Flügen, 1992-1994 — Kiefer moves outward from his earlier concern with the traumas of German history, the charred landscape of Germany and its cultural manifestations, concerns at the heart of his monumental lead libraries of the 1970s and 1980s. He books begin to embrace the world of our present relationship to images and books: he instantiates a complicated marriage of image and word, image and object, a marriage that becomes the most evocative metaphor for the communication (and lack thereof) of collective knowledge, memory and myth today.

The sculptures and sculptural paintings turn to the past, to the decaying and dilapidating history of worlds, artistic media and forms, places and things that apparently no longer matter. Kiefer’s books reflect on the dilemma of images and words, seeing and knowing, the real and the symbolic, the mystical and the scientific in the historical world that surrounds them. The books of paintings, painted books, books on canvas, dishevelled (usually lead) leaves hastily bundled together and left as if to rot on the floor of a museum, are placed in dialogue with a world in which we no longer respect the integrity of images, objects or words. It is a world in which images assume the philosophical characteristics of documentary texts, texts are rendered imagistic – on the World Wide Web, on the television nightly news, on advertising billboards that litter our roads. Likewise, we no longer read books, we look at them, they are objects for display in a library, they are metaphors for the understanding of a grand, secreted epistemological weight – written in lead, of the past. The apparent grace and elegance of Kiefer’s lead books simultaneously sees them fly; they are weightless and ephemeral, sacred altars to the possibility of spiritual fullfilment. They hold within them the redemptive power of art in an age when such a promise has long been abandoned.

Friday, March 6, 2009

My Brother’s Wedding, dir. Charles Burnett, 1983

A.O.Scott’s observations on Charles Burnett’s My Brother’s Wedding (1983) on the occasion of its theatrical re-release in 2007 were spot on. He so asserts that “at a moment when the term independent film is taken to refer either to midbudget studio projects anchored by Oscar-soliciting performances or to the aimless navel-gazing of under-stimulated hipsters … Mr. Burnett’s work is an indelible reminder of what real independence looks like.“ Made on an $80,000 budget raised in part by Channel 4, with a host of non-professional actors in the Los Angeles ghetto pre-2002, My Brother’s Wedding also boasts the urgent politics of true independent film.

Everything about this film is enabled by the fact that it wasn’t scrambling for Oscars or box-office, financial, even critical attention. Most impressive is the way that Burnett takes reveals the complexity of his black urban characters, and the troubled social fabric into which they are folded. In a neo-realist aesthetic, Burnett carves out the time for Pierce Mundy (Everette Silas), a post-civil rights urban black guy to saunter down the street and be held up by giggling teenage girls wanting to attract his attention. There is also time for Pierce and his friend Soldier (who cannot stay out of trouble) to wrestle in the front garden of a neighbor – a scene which lovingly demonstrates the tight bond between the two men. And when they are caught in the middle of their playacting by the habitant of the garden, he goes back into the house to get his gun. Again and again throughout the film, characters reach for their guns at the slightest hint of violation of their territory. Even grandfather has the gun ready when he hears a knock at the door. There is no fuss, no swelling music, no rapid editing at such moments, it’s simply a gesture that is repeated as part of the everyday humdrum of life in South Central Los Angeles where the film is set. And it’s a gesture that tells us everything we need to know about the tenor of African-American working-class life.
And like neo-Realism at its best, My Brother’s Wedding is peppered with humour – yet again, I found myself the only one laughing in a theater full of French people. When an obese man visits the Pierce’s family-run dry cleaning business wanting his torn pants sewn back up again. Pierce’s mother examines them from all different angles and there’s clearly no fixing these pants. But she agrees to fix them with the private plan of trashing them, claiming they got lost and giving the man a pair of unclaimed pants. There are also some wonderful telling moments such as, the quietly revealed drama of a bottle of vodka beneath a woman’s chair without a cut to her face.
The film’s central dilemma is also layered with significance. Pierce has promised to be best man at his brother’s wedding and yet it falls the same day as his best friend Soldier’s funeral. Torn between his loyalty to a biological family who alienates and disrespects him, and his deep ties to his buddy and the community about the two of them, his attempt to attend both at once ends up in his not being present at either. But the real tension here is not so much the pull between the two "families," but it is telling of the deeper tensions between generations, and social classes.

What I loved most about the film is that there is nothing aggressive, angry or violent about it. When Spike Lee broke onto the commercial circuit with Do the Right Thing in 1989, I was so disappointed with all the yelling and screaming. It was as if this was the only way that African-American’s express themselves and communicate with each other. The focus on thugs in films such as Boyz n the Hood (1991) and other black urban movies, worlds commonly filled with drugs and violence, has dominated Black American cinema. So what stands out in My Brother’s Wedding, is the depiction of a community that both cares for each other, and creates its own problems and expectations. The camera work is also gentle and, at times, poetic, again so that Pierce and the characters he comes into contact with have a chance to express themselves in ways other than anger. There is an observatory tone to the film which both makes it a pleasure to watch, and means it’s not going to have mass market appeal. The same could be said of Pierce who is gentle and generous, hardworking and loyal, and for these reasons, he wouldn’t last a minute on Spike Lee’s streets.