Thursday, October 27, 2016

Carl André, Sculpture as Place, 1958-2010 @ Musée d'Art Moderne de la Ville de Paris

Carl André, Tin Ribbon, 1969 (Proposition), 1997 (realization)

How exciting that Paris has its very own Carl André retrospective this autumn. And even better that the exhibition is to be savored and treasured. Carl André: Sculpture as Place 1958-2010 will be known to New Yorkers who saw the same exhibition at Dia Beacon last year. Although inevitably there are some different works, and the layout is different.

Carl André, Sculpture as Place, 1958-2010
Installation View @ Dia Beacon
As often happens with abstract art of American postwar artists, I was amazed at how exciting and sensuous the work is in the flesh as opposed to its austerity in photographs. I don’t know why this should surprise me because I went to the exhibition knowing that André’s minimalist works are all about the disruption to and reorganization of space in their midst. So of course there will be something very personal about being with them. They are also about challenging our bodies as we move through the space of the exhibition. The works block our paths, direct our movement, entice us to circumvent them, walk on them, touch them.  So how could any of that be understood from a photograph? At the same time as the sculptures are textured and physically compelling, as is often the case, with André’s work there is very little to look at. The sculptures are not particularly aesthetically appealing or gorgeous, and often, there is nothing much to see. They work so powerfully at the level of physical engagement successfully eschewing all contemplation. All of which is to say, they have to be experienced in person.

Carl André, Uncarved Blocks, 1975
In a body of work that challenges the conception, process and experience of sculpture in mid-century USA, Carl André’s work is surprising for its humanism. The wood is beautiful, and there is always a warmth and tactility. In a work such as Uncarved, the split in the wood, the gap between blocks and the sensuous pleasure of the knots, fill them with life and meaning. In a further challenge to the notion of sculpture as an aesthetic object to be contemplated, the blocks in a piece like Uncarved can be pulled apart and put back together in different ways, like a puzzle with infinite solutions. Inspite of the resilience of the materials he uses, the works are transient, and embrace an ephemerality in their very composition, that reflects that of the visitor’s engagement with them.  This is art to be walked on, around, over, looked down at, and navigated like a garden without paths.
See original image
Carl André, Lament for the Children, 1976 (destroyed), 1996 (remade)
 in Palacio Velazquz, Museo Nacional Centro de Arte Reina Sofia

André’s sculpture is most often understood as minimalist because of its removal of all decoration from the artwork. It also erases all annexation, reduces, or elevates sculpture to the material it is made of and the experience that it makes possible. Minimalism comes at the time of social and political unrest in 1960s America. So with chaos all around him, the “minimal”-ness of the sculpture effectively counters the world outside it. For this reason, minimalism is often accused or critiqued of inward-looking self-referentiality. 

But the challenge to counter the political climate of the late 60s/early 70s comes when these works as blocks, squares, shapes and tiles reveal over time that they are all about connection. Connection and community comes on so many different levels in these works. Each of the pieces is comprised of multiple blocks, it’s never just one. And as I say, in a work such as Uncarved Blocks, they all fit together like a jigsaw puzzle giving this notion of being meant for each other. In Redan, the combination of elements is what redefines the space and suggests our motion through it, creating new connections between us and the space. 

Carl André, Sculpture as Place, 1958-2010
Installation View @ Dia Beacon
Showing Breda, 1986 in foreground, Pyramus and Thisbe (1990) background left
The most moving of the articulations of belonging together came towards the end of the exhibition in a work titled, Pyramus and Thisbe  (1990). We will all remember the story of the lovers who were separated but able to communicate through a chink in the wall from Shakespeare’s comic rendition of their affair in A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Here, in André’s version of the lovers, the blocks of wood on either side of a wall are heart wrenching, it’s true. But it’s also a piece that becomes about the wall. The wall is what separates them, and the wall is what they draw attention to through their clinging to it. Just as it becomes personified in Shakespeare, so for André, the wall becomes a beating heart to join to otherwise separated lovers. And it’s all the more poignant here because Pyramus and Thisbe sits on either side of one wall of the room where Lament for the Children is laid out, a piece that suggests a graveyard filled with stones to mark the tombs of fallen children. 

Sunday, October 16, 2016

Sean Scully, Metal @ Galerie Lelong

Image de l'exposition
Sean Scully, Wall Bloom, 2016
In yet another wonderful exhibition at Galerie Lelong, this selection of works by the Irish-American artist Sean Scully’s gleams brightly as we approach the gallery space. The distinction of these paintings is their support: steel, aluminium and copper. I had no idea how radically the support can change not just the substance of painting, but the context, meaning, and understanding of the medium applied to it. This is to say nothing of the veritable luminosity given to works in which steel and paint merge on the surface.
Scully’s work is often talked about for its reference to natural landscapes and/or built environments. This is because it’s the discourse he gives to the vertical and horizontal colour bands, blocks and stripes that have filled his canvases for more than fifty years. While these narratives may explain Scully’s vast body of works on canvas, everything changes with the use of metal supports. From the start, when paint is applied to metal, the result is always about speed, surface, and transparency. Standing before the paintings we see paint and steel coming together to create something that exists nowhere but on the surface of the paintings – unless we want to call them painted sculpture. We see brushstrokes sliding across and over the surface, turning, changing their minds, abruptly stopping and moving elsewhere.

Image de l'exposition
Sean Scully, Wall Brown Pink, 2015
The resultant effect of paint on steel are works in which the paint becomes distilled to strokes that reminded me of Roy Lichtenstein’s giant brushstrokes. Somewhere between abstract expressionism and pop art, paint on metal in Scully's works is luscious and simultaneously empty. I never got the sense that there was anything behind the strokes. Gone are the order and symmetry that so often forced the viewing of Scully’s works on canvas, and in their place, a whole different set of rhythms and movements are introduced by steel, copper and aluminium.

While on the one hand, metal reduces paint to sliding strokes, on the other hand, the two, sculpture and painting become fused. The merger of sculpture and painting in the works on the walls is confirmed by the sumptuous colours of a rusted corten steel column in the middle of the exhibition. The sculpture is made of layers of steel placed one in top of the other, each panel clearly having lived a different history from the others. Each horizontal strips of rusted steel is quite different, and thereby, becomes like the building blocks of paint on the works on the walls. Paint and steel thus are fused, interchangeable.

Image de l'exposition
Sean Scully, Figure, 2013
Lastly, I have to say, my favourite piece in the exhibition was a stunning work called Figure from 2013. Grey of varying darkness and density blocks are hastily painted on an aluminium ground. The dripping paint at the bottom of the painted area, the uneven edges, and the luminosity of grey on aluminium made paint as colour float above what appeared to be rubbed metal. There was something Rothko-like in the tension between three-dimensional shapes on a two-dimensional surface without Rothko's fastidious working over. The effect is one that shows Scully’s ability to create absence of all reference to substance, to anything behind the surface, removing all depth to the image, and simultaneously, filling it with movement, drama and dimensionality.

Sunday, October 9, 2016

Kate MccGwire, Scissure @ La Galerie Particulière

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Kate MccGwire, Covert, 2014

I had resisted going to see this exhibition because the image in the publicity material (Covert) is so creepy. The feather-covered organic form curling around and under itself reminded me of a swan with its head tucked inside its plumage, busy cleaning. Why is that creepy? Because there is no head, claws, or any other body part that might make the form resemble a bird. Add to this that what I thought was a bell jar, but is actually an antique glass dome, is placed over the top and appears to suffocate the “bird.” Face to face, the object is no less unsettling, but it is also infinitely more complex than my response of repulsion would allow for. The meticulously made feathered object sits on a bed of bones that are—somehow—at one and the same time comfortable and violating. The feathers are so sensual that I wanted to stroke them, and yet, as the press release suggests, they are so alive and fresh that it feels as though the creature will break out of its glass dome any minute. I couldn’t help being reminded of Hitchcock’s Birds: the threat that always looms large in the presence of these uncanny creatures.
"Scissure (Chasm), (breach)", 2014 de Kate MccGwire - Courtesy Galerie Particulière © Photo Éric Simon
Kate MccGwire, Scissure (Breach), 2014
To me, MccGwire’s work is not only erotic, but another dimension that makes it both compelling, disturbing, frightening and powerful is that it is all about violence and subjugation of women. There’s nothing written about this in the material I glanced at, but it’s difficult to look at Pelt or Sissure and not see vaginal imagery. The small cut bones that line the incision in leather or a feather down are vagina dentate, about to consume whatever comes near them. But even the less obvious imagery reminded me of women being beaten. The soft sensuous curves of other pieces, tightly coiled to protect themselves from their oppressor, or cowering in the face of abuse—it’s hard to tell which—have titles such as Submit, Succumb, Pervade, and Acquiesce. To me the impossibility of the forms, the resilience of the feathers, the holes and incisions, the purity of the white figures, are all qualities that reveal the complexity and irresolveability of what it is to be a woman faced with violence. Even the squashing of Covert with the dome is a case of the making small and the oppression which can only be made to women. The forms are so obviously birds that cannot fly, whose wings have been cut, whose energy has been contained. The beauty and disgust of women’s body – the splendour and the fear of its power—are quelled again and again in MccGwire’s sculptures.

See original image
Kate MccGwire window display in Ginza Maison Hermès
The forms also fly between science and art, between culture and nature – never settling on one side or the other. Unsurprisingly, MccGwire’s work has been exhibited at the Musée de la Chasse and Natural History museums. These spaces would seem ideal locations for work that transgresses all boundaries between museum display and scientific curiosity. As objects in a gallery they are most strikingingly sculptures, but in their antique domes, they are also scientific displays or even curiosities. And the fact that she had a piece in the window of the Hermes store in Japan sees it move into discourses on consumerism as a mass of feathers spreads like a monster into the display window. Although very different in their movement and delivery of the threat, their monstrosity raises the Hitchcock reference again. However, unlike Hitchcokc’s birds MccGwire’s are still trapped, caught in the moment of anticipation where we are sure they are about to morph.

Kate MccGwire, Spill, 2016

There is something about the liveness of the feathers, that makes them always transforming. I think it’s also the coil like nature of the forms, the way they wrap themselves into knots as though they are in pain, contorting their bodies out of fear and anxiety. We too then feel this anxiety. MccGwire also talks in interview about wanting to make us see the birds differently: pigeons, crows, geese, and other birds we love to hate to varying degrees are all transformed here. By showing their brilliantly coloured or perfect white plumage, we are attracted to creatures we otherwise detest. And in the viscerality of our response, we cannot forget them, and yet, we don’t want to keep these uncanny creatures hanging around in our conscious or unconscious minds for fear of what they might turn into at any moment.

Images Courtesy The Artist