Tuesday, April 27, 2010

Jan Dibbets, Horizons, Musée d’Art moderne de la Ville de Paris

The great lover of modern painting that I am, means I was destined to be enthralled by the latest exhibition of Jan Dibbets’ work, Horizons, at the Musée d’Art moderne de la Ville de Paris. No other motif has been as important to the modernist search for an understanding of our relationship to the world, especially as it is discovered through the sense of sight, at the horizon. It’s difficult to think of a twentieth-century artist who hasn’t spent time exploring and representing the unfathomable moment of when sea meets land, when sea meets sky. It is the moment when we must cede control to nature, it is the moment when the limitations of our ability to see, to structure, and thus, to make sense of the natural world, is placed in the forefront of our limited self-understanding.

Dibbets’ photographic collages of the horizon are nothing if not unique. While they might be made in and discourse on photography, they take into account all of the mystery and meaning of the horizon as it has been represented in twentieth century painting. The exhibition notes claim that Dibbets is a descendent of Mondrian, as I guess most contemporary Dutch artists must be. But the Mondrian to which he is related is probably a long way from the paintings that come to mind for most of us when thinking of Mondrian. Photographs turned on their side so as to match the horizon between land and water in one photograph with that between sea and sky in another may remind us of Mondrian’s persistent questions of repetition and framing that repetition. Similarly, Dibbets’ experimentation with questions of perception through relationships between color and line, as well as the placement of the image, the geometrical organization, are certainly reminiscent of Mondrian.

But what I recall when I look at Dibbets’ gentle photographic collages is a conversation between nature and the man made that Mondrian engaged in at the very beginning of his career. In works such as Composition II, 1913 we see the young Dutch painter wrestling with questions of the infinite, his inability to master the perfect patterns of nature, and the continual search for new perspectives, new vantage points from which he might nevertheless try. In this sense, Mondrian’s work has everything to do with horizons and infinities we neither understand nor even grasp. That’s why Mondrian does the same thing over and over and over again; as a way of envisioning his belief in the importance of the search, the goal of which sits on a far off horizon.

Seen through the lens of Mondrian’s abstract compositions, Dibbets’ horizons are more ambitious. The precise measurements, the meticulously laid out, mathematically placed collage of photographs would indicate that order and control of the vast natural universe is indeed a possibility. While human perception may be tested through the diminishing sight lines (though not in the ways we would expect) the limits of nature are clearly articulated when they are caught by the photographic camera lens. If the horizon was once a secular icon for modern painters, the photographer who uses Polaroid snapshots has every opportunity to desacrilize it. In this vein, Dibbets reduces (or elevates) the horizon to a geometric pattern, an object used for the representation of something other than itself.

But Dibbets goes further than this. These sometimes exquisite works are not overwhelmed by the rationalization made possible through the photographic camera. Dibbets older works from 1970s especially are poetic, perhaps because they are produced with a Polaroid camera. With all of its implications of randomness and the ephemeral, the Polaroid snap shot also used by amateurs has an everydayness, a personal inflection that makes Dibbets’ images unique and aesthetic. There is also a certain nostalgia that comes thanks to the soft blue and green palette of the horizons he photographs with technology of the past. Although they shift, or rather, the way we see shifts, as we move between distance and proximity to the photographs, their visual appeal remains constant.

In the final room of the small exhibition visitors are treated to a series of Dibbets’ films, apparently intended for projection, but that nevertheless work well on monitors. Once again, tensions arise between the frame and the horizon as the cinematic camera moves vertically and diagonally against extreme horizontality of the horizon. Sometimes the camera moves in an arc, mimicking the meteorite trajectory of the collaged photographs, all the time altering our view of space, the limits of our perception and how the camera both creates and transforms the relations between the two. Apparently, these investigations of the horizon through a camera that has the privilege of vertical as well as at random angled movements, is designed to underline the precarious flatness of the Netherlands. While this was not my immediate understanding of the works, the possibility of this interpretation speaks to the fact that this is complex and layered work that has the potential for infinite meaning, just like the horizons it photographs.

Thursday, April 22, 2010

Vinyl, Maison Rouge

I had a fascinating conversation with a bunch of friends last week when we talked about Writing in Public’s recent blog on What is a Book? James’ story about the students with Kindles not books in the classroom led to various funny stories about how music comes to us today—the fact that we found them funny gave away our age. We couldn’t imagine not knowing what a CD was, and we were in disbelief that so many of the record, CD and video stores in New York City had now closed: no Tower Records, no Virgin. And I recalled the not so young shop assistant in Tokyo who had drawn a blank look when I asked for a tape recorder. I thought it was a language problem, but no, he had no idea of what a tape recorder was, probably because they no longer exist.

When I saw the press communication for the latest exhibition at the Maison Rouge, I was intrigued: the record album cover as art work. We have not only reached a point in time when a whole generation of gallery goers needs a glossary with words such as “record,” “LP” and “DJ” but when these objects have become worthy of museum exhibition. And, of course, this is because we have reached a moment in history when there is no object that comes with music. Perhaps less surprisingly than books because of its non-materiality, music now comes to a digitally, through the internet.

The exhibition is potentially fascinating, but I have to say that much of the interest is probably lost on visitors who are not on the inside of the avant-garde art world. The exhibition is made up of album covers of the collection of Guy Schraenen, a British collector and curator who clearly came of age in the 1960s and 70s, and so, it has a very obvious focus on Schraenen’s interests. The result is an exhibition of album sleeves, that are, for the most part, music that was either composed as art, or to accompany visual and performance art events. There is the odd display of Velvet Underground and Rolling Stones covers (because they were designed by Andy Warhol) and collectors’ items such as the original cover for the Beatles White album, complete with the uncensored poster insert. Again, though visitors of a certain age (the same ones who will be in disbelief that Tower Records no longer exists in NYC) will go down memory lane when they see these rare items, the cover is included probably not because of the Beatles’ renown, but because it was designed by British pop artist Richard Hamilton.

I have no problem with the coherence of the exhibition, and indeed, the collection of album covers raises interesting questions about collecting, obsession, the curator as artist, and so on. Similarly, Schraenen’s collection is a wonderful repository that reflects the history of experimental sound, its relationship to art, how that is visualized in the album cover. Also, it provokes ideas about the adequacy of images to express what artists such as diverse as Yves Klein, Joseph Beuys, Laurie Anderson, Andy Warhol and Hanna Darboven need to express. And the fact that music and sound recording is now so determined by the digital provokes reflection on what is now the historical question of the loss of the art object as it accompanies music and sound. In short, Vinyl marks the death of art form.

All of this said, my real problem with this exhibition is that visitors will not know what they are meant to be looking at. Is it the art of the album cover, in which case, isn’t that compromised by the mass reproduction of the objects that are generally displayed extremely close to each other, at times as if they are no more than wallpaper. Or are we meant to go down memory lane with the sounds and music that are referenced by the presence of the cover? In which case, how many visitors will be excluded from such esoteric musings? Perhaps the focus of the exhibition is elsewhere? Whatever the intention, more context, explanation and historical information would make Vinyl great fun for visitors of all ages, generations and musical tastes.

Monday, April 19, 2010

As You Like It, Théâtre Marigny

Since moving to Paris, my love of the English language has deepened and developed in unanticipated ways. I never thought I would become so acutely aware of and fall so deeply in love with my own language as I have while living in that of another. And, surrounded by a language and a culture I speak, but don't have an identity in, I indulge at any opportunity I can to be immersed in English at its most crafted, its most poetic, its most magical: on the stage. I have seen brilliant performances of Shakespeare in Paris, and indeed, one of the most extraordinary theatrical experiences was the Wooster Group's staging of Williams' Le Vieux Carré. And so, it was with great enthusiasm that I got tickets for Sam Mendes version of As You Like It.

I wasn't so drawn by the Sam Mendes billing as director. Even though I had enjoyed Revolutionary Road and American Beauty despite their flaws, it was Shakespeare and the promise of the English language at its best, that had me get best seats in the house for Saturday night's performance at the Marigny. And so it was with great disappointment that I came away feeling as though I had been deceived by a story, just like the numerous lovers in As You Like It.

There were a number of strengths of the production, most notably the set and the ease with which it moved from ducal court to the rustic environs of the Forest of Arden. Both the set design and the way the actors used the forest were very creative. Some of the acting was outstanding, in particular, the Duke of Frederick who doubled as his brother, the banished Duke, was powerful. I would even go so far as to say Juliet Rylance as Rosalind, and Stephen Dillane as the melancholic Jacques were superb. However, their performances were so strong that they tipped the balance of the play when opposite the mediocrity of some of the other actors. Christian Camargo's Orlando was stiff and lacked passion, and from our best seats in the house, it was disconcerting to watch him as he refrained from looking at anyone he was talking to. Camargo might have a pretty face, but he has a very limited number of expressions to wear on that face. I also thought he lacked the emotional depth and drama of a Shakespearean lead, and was glad I didn't have to watch him play Hamlet as he has done in the past. Shakespeare's great leads are transformed, and so much of the magic of Shakeseare is in the way the characters shift through an array of often incompatible emotions. Camargo's two or three facial expressions (concern, love sick pain, puppy-dog adoration) and his rigid performance neither charmed nor convinced me. And when playing opposite Rylance as Rosalind I kept wondering why she would want to be with him. She got stronger and stronger as the play went along, while Camargo remained stiff. Thankfully, Rylance performed Rosalind/Ganymede's tricks, deceptions, manipulations and schemings with a glint in her eye and a naughty enthusiasm so convincing that being under her spell was a pleasurable place to be.

Dillane was also profound: his voice of irony in As You Like It was powerful and so dark that it cast Shakespeare's cold shadow over the lovers' frivolity and their constant changes of heart and identity. However, Dillane's strength was sometimes brushed aside, or overwhelmed by the time and energy given to the gaiety and celebration of love and marriage. Consequently, there were moments (particularly in the end) when I felt the irony and skepticism of Jacques words were no more than an aside. Shakespeare was deeply suspicious of the fickleness of the human heart, especially when it came to profess love. The doubling, the mistaken identity, the posing, the saying one thing and meaning another, all of which are laid very plain before the spectator are central to the significance of As You Like It. Indeed, darkness and skepticism are just as central to the play as are its charm and sparkle. And yet, I came away feeling as though the celebrations of love and marriage outshone and outlived the reminder that "All the World's a Stage, and all the men and women merely players."

The mixed cast was refreshing, and I didn't find the mélange of accents a problem. However, I was irritated by the acting: the gestures, facial expressions, movements of characters such as Celia (Michelle Beck) were perilously close to those of NYU undergraduates talking on a streetcorner in the East Village. Likewise, I had difficulty imagining Phoebe (Ashlie Atkinson) with her broad accent and untutored acting as anything but a woman on her way to work on the 7 train from Queens. I don't mind if Shakespeare is modernized and brought into the world of the audience, but I do mind when the actors don't interpret their characters to be so different from themselves.

One thing Mendes does very well is that he moves the play along nicely. Unlike other Shakespeare plays, As You Like it is not linear, taking time for new plot lines to be introduced, new characters to enter as sidelines to the main action, pausing for singing. And so I was impressed that at no point in over three and a half hours running time of the play did Mendes lose his audience. This is no small feat, particularly when the acting is not always persuasive and the balance and cohesion on stage is not always held.

All in all, Mendes makes a strong attempt to modernize Shakespeare, works with the form and rhythms of the language in new and exciting ways, as well as keeps the momentum going throughout, not to mention the visual apeal of the stage (which granted, is to be expected from a filmmaker). However, these qualities are not enough to get me back paying top dollar to see the second Mendes-in-Paris installment in the form of The Tempest at the Marigny this week.

Monday, April 12, 2010

Turner et ses Peintres, Grand Palais

I can’t remember ever having been to an exhibition where the displayed influences on an artist were more interesting and more captivating than the works of the showcased artist. And so I was very surprised to find this to be the case at Turner et ses Peintres at the Grand Palais. As I stood before paintings such as Jacob van Ruisdael’s Rough Sea at a Jetty (1665) next to a Turner painting, the title of which I can no longer recall, I was mesmerized by Ruisdael’s handling of paint as light: I was so completely seduced by the drama of a scene that is dark, looming, menacing, structured by the slither of light created by the moon, that I took little notice of the juxtaposed Turner (face to face Ruisdael’s painting is much darker than this reproduction above). Similarly, Constable’s The Jetty at Yarmouth (1823), below, is breathtaking. At least the clouds, with their lightness, their clarity that nevertheless hint at an approaching storm, took my breath away. Here, Constable, and in the previous example, Ruisdael acheive what Turner was striving for. They create dramas of light, light reflected, refracted, shining, diffused, cast, filtered and every other possible behavior of light as it interacts with air, as it is represented in paint. While I would be the first to argue that there are certainly Turner paintings that compare well to Constable’s and Ruisdael’s rendering of air, light and the ineffability of nature, they were not the focus at the Grand Palais. This is an exhibition that shows primarily minor Turner works as he searches for artistic expression. While this is potentially a fascinating project, at the Grand Palais, again and again Turner’s process was eclipsed by the brilliance of the works that surrounded his paintings.

The real problem with the exhibition was the way the paintings were paired. As my friend James remarked, the juxtaposition of Turner with his masters drew the kinds of connections our freshman students make in their writing classes. Because the logic of the pairing and the display of apparent influence was motivated by the content rather than any artistic principle or, given that it is Turner, the atmosphere or mood of the paintings. Even visitors with little knowledge of Turner’s paintings, will surely observe that Turner was not interested in things and objects for the manifest level of their content. In his most celebrated and remembered works, Turner doesn't care for people, buildings, even ships. These figures are included for what they enable in the depiction of light. For example, in Calais Sands, Low Water, Poissards (Fishwives) Collecting Bait, 1830 (below), the fishwife on the right is a compositional element that enables a focus on the effect of the sun as it sets on the substance of sand, water and air as the tide recedes. Turner is not interested in the representation of the figure, and neither is he interested in using the figure as the basis of a narrative. Thus, it makes no sense to juxtapose these paintings on the basis of the figures represented, as is done in Turner et ses Peintres.

It would have been a much more interesting and provocative exhibition if the Turner paintings were juxtaposed with paintings that engage in, for example, similar techniques, similar artistic principles, similar love affairs with landscape, seascape and light. A work such as Snow Storm - Steam-Boat off a Harbour's Mouth exhibited 1842 (below) is a masterpiece that looks to me as though it is calling to the compositional and painterly principles of early modernist painting. The uncontrollable power of the sea is returned to the surface of the painting as it so vividly indulges in the energy of the storm via dynamism of the brushstroke. The intense movement of paint as it is applied to a canvas is surely precedent of the modernist enthrall of the machine in full throttle? Wouldn’t it have been creative and enlightening to put a painting such as this next to one or other of the futurists? This is just one example of the many more interesting ways this exhibition could have been staged. Anything that moved away from placing Turner’s work in the context of classical and academic painting. Especially as he was critical of these schools, a criticism so visually evident in his rejection of issues of composition and the creation of narrative.

There is no doubt, it was wonderful to see some of the paintings, especially the later ones in the final two rooms. However, the curatorial choices ruin this exhibition. Turner's are works that are quite able to speak for themselves, and are perhaps best viewed in their home environments where there is time and space given on either side for their contemplation. My suggestion? Rather than waiting in line at the Grand Palais, time and energy would be better spent on the Eurostar to London to see the Turners at home, in peace in the Tate Britain. If, however, you want to discover some great works by Constable, Ruisdael, Poussin, and Claude, Turner et ses Peintures provides the ideal opportunity.