Monday, July 25, 2016

The Dreaming

Ithaca, New York, July 24, 2016
stain glass window

From my top floor in Ithaca, we look out over a garden through to trees and other homes and businesses and I like to take a few photos through the stain glass window when I'm there.

We are having a little family re-union and then all of us go up to see the exhibition at the Herbert F. Johnson Museum of Art that features modern Australian Aboriginal art - which is a tradition now carried on with materials on canvas rather than sand painting, carving wood or applying colors to the body ( although these practices may continue today they are not included as examples in this show).  I have seen a few exhibitions of artwork from these Australians from time to time, and the artists included in this show called "No Boundaries" are considered to be the most creative and widely recognized for their art.

"No Boundaries" Aboriginal Australian Contemporary Painting
The Herbert Johnson Museum of Art
Cornell University

If you have never seen modern Aboriginal Art you are in for a treat, and it might be possible that you could mistake this art for paintings by an American Abstract Expressionist like Richard Pousette-Dart for example.  Looking over the balcony into the first floor of the show, one can see paintings on the wall and floor and they have stylistic similarities (lines and dots of paint are frequently applied ) and there is also an introductory video running at the museum that shows a painting session in progress amidst the scrubby land where the artists call home.  In the video you see a group engaged like a quilting bee - people sitting, talking, and painting on their canvases.  There is a market for this work and the art dealers that set them up with materials are eager to take the freshly finished paintings off to the next show and sale.

Mr. Tommy Mitchell, "Warlpapuka", 2009
Synthetic Polymer paint on canvas, 40" x 60"

The artists artwork might resemble the patterns on your finger tips when you make a finger-print, or the patterns could be paths found on a topographic map.  In fact there is a description on the wall in the museum that suggests the paintings might be a kind of map that would help lead one to food and water.  There is a hallucinogenic quality to these paintings, not necessarily because of their colors which are quite restrained by Western standards, but because of the pulse-like repetitions and wave patterns these artists prefer.

"Wiringurru Painting" by Tjumpo Tjapanangka

One of my favorite paintings from this show of Aboriginal Art had forms that looked like tendrils- the little leaders that grow from plants seemingly searching for light and nourishment.  This painting is made by the artist Boxer Milner Tjampitjin who gives it the title of "Oolaign", painted in 2000,(using synthetic polymer paints on canvas) his composition is a ladder of these tendril-like forms painted with a fresh application of little dots of color on a black ground.

"Oolaign"  by Boxer Milner Tjampitjin

If you read the catalog written for this exhibition the interpretation of what is being represented in this painting is definitely related to the forces of water, the way it can shape the land and effect the lives of the people living there.  Water is the source of life.

Paintings by Ngarra

Though the artists we see here work in a varied style that never becomes purely representational, the art is suggestive and one can make associations with the images as presented.  The artist known as Ngarra has a suite of paintings on paper that could be colorful diagrams of social interactions, or games people play.  Another one of the artists featured in this show, Mr. Tommy Mitchell, constructs more elaborate compositions using a wider array of colors, and these paintings can rival some of the best artwork done anywhere in the last century.  Self-taught painters- mostly instinctive painters, such as these artists really give you something to think about 
 when contemplating visual culture.

"Crossbow" by Matthew Schreiber

Around the corner from the Aboriginal Art is an installation of laser lights by the artist Matthew Schreiber which he calls "Crossbow".  Stepping inside a darkened room the laser lights resemble the strings of an instrument.  You interact with these lights if you move around the room.  There are people in the room with you but you will be concentrating on the red light lines drawn by this weightless material, and needless to say- it is a spectacle.

Japanese prints by Kuniyoshi

Also on view at the Herbert F. Johnson Museum is a collection of things Japanese, including prints, decorative arts, photos and calligraphy.  This is one of the attractions to the museum - it has a fine and varied collection of the arts of Asia, and a most enjoyable show to go and see, and savor.

Tuesday, July 19, 2016

I'll Take Manhattan

The Whitney Museum of 
American Art
99 Gansevoort Street
New York City, New York

Though I was born in Manhattan, I don't get to visit my city often since I moved my family upstate years ago, but when I am there I like to make the most of it.  

When I was a teenager I would walk everywhere in the city and I usually brought my camera.  I frequently decided to walk through the "Meat Packing" district which is way over on the west side along the Hudson River just above the West Village.  I would love to make photographs and contemplate the scene; there was a railroad trestle that snaked through buildings and freight trains would roll in and unload their contents into the giant refrigerated buildings in the area.  Trucks would come and distribute these goods all over the five boroughs and beyond.

Now many years later the texture of life has changed along this area in Manhattan.  The railroad trestle has been turned into the highly successful High Line which is a great attraction, and the new Whitney Museum of American art opened last year to much acclaim.  Their building by Renzo Piano
we would see in various stages of construction, but now we were parked a block away and we walked over to the new Whitney Museum for an in depth look.  The building is bulky like some of the container ships that make their way into the N.Y. Harbor, but when you get inside it is spacious and open and doesn't detract from the experience or distract you like the curvy Guggenheim.

Virginia Overton's water gardens
Fifth floor at the new Whitney Museum

The Whitney Museum presents a different profile from every vantage point outside and there are a series of balconies facing East where once you are in the museum and need a break, you can walk outside and sit and have a drink or just take in the skyline ( which has changed dramatically in the last few years ).  Over this summer a series of water gardens in metal tubs by Virginia Overton are on view.  She lets nature take its course and we get the benefit of seeing water lilies bloom on the fifth floor of the museum ( Monet would be jealous ).

Stuart Davis, oil on canvas, 1921

The main attraction for us at the new Whitney, is a show with the work of Stuart Davis called: "In Full Swing", and it did not let us down.  Stuart Davis went through a number of early stages not represented in this show which is dedicated to his mature style which one could claim is part cubist design and part hard-edged proto-pop art.  Stuart Davis paintings stand out in that they are also a kind of representational abstraction - symbols of an industrial culture with an inflection of jazz music in there for good measure.

"Swing Landscape" by Stuart Davis, 1938

The Whitney Museum presents a spacious selection of Stuart Davis's most commanding art including large scale mural works sponsored in part by the WPA ( Workers Progress Administration ) which put artists to work during tough economic times.  I wondered whether Davis's left leaning politics got in the way of his success after these mural commissions came to an end.

"The Mello Pad" by Stuart Davis

"In Full Swing" starts off with semi-cubist works incorporating graphic designs of cigarette packages and detergent, and this theme of packaging re-surfaces later on in his career when he received an assignment from Fortune Magazine to create paintings about the packaging of goods that we take for granted in advertisements everywhere.

Rapt at the new Whitney
Stuart Davis

Elsewhere in the museum they are presenting a collection of portraits from their archive, and this is a sprawling group show which reminds me that figurative art is in the ascendant today.  I stopped to look at Edward Hopper's portrait, Robert Bechtle, and Fairfield Porter's work to name just a few of the items in this selection.  Something that stood out for me was the Rochester-born artist Florine Stettheimer and her carved wood frame and upbeat color that looked so tropical.  This is an unusual artist that deserves more attention.

Florine Stettheimer, Sun, 1931

I should also stop to say that the inside of the new Whitney Museum is an open layout, the wood floors are attractive, and the lighting is sufficient.  I found nice surprises at the museum but the day was so beautiful we decided to go for a walk on the High Line downstairs.

Walk along the High Line

Today, the trains are gone, but in some places the train tracks remain, and if you have yet to walk along this elevated park - you owe yourself this great pleasure.  It is a way to see New York City that you just haven't done before, and on this glorious sunny afternoon it was a pure pleasure.  Along the route there are little cafes, and even a water feature to cool your feet. I can't say enough about how I enjoyed this jaunt to my old home town.

Monday, July 4, 2016

A Print Collector and the Hokes Archive

Beauvais Lyons, lithograph, "Female North American
Raccoon Crow"

"Conceivably Plausible"
a two person show featuring
Beauvais Lyons and Jennifer Scheuer
The Ink Shop
330 East State Street at the CSMA Building
Ithaca, New York

I'm back in Ithaca, New York, where one can go around on Gallery Night, on a Friday in July, and see a wonderful exhibition that just opened at The Ink Shop at 330 East State Street in the CSMA Building on the second floor.  The gallery show is a two-person affair with artists Beauvais Lyons from the University of Tennessee and Jennifer Scheuer from Cornell University.  If you are not familiar with either artist, this is an opportunity to get to know two very creative printmakers, whose artwork looks to history and science with a sly glint in their eye.

Beauvais Lyons, lithograph, "Fresco Fragments Depicting
Aazzudian Ball Players"

If you have read my blog before, you may know that for many years I made my living as an artist and illustrator - making representations of natural subjects for publishers of books and magazines ( The Total Book of Houseplants, Horticulture Magazine, Birds Do The Strangest Things, etc. ).  So, when I opened the door to their new show at The Ink Shop - I was surprised to see prints of flowers and animals that had a real historical look without actually being very old.  As for Beauvais Lyons - his images are part of a deliberate deception to get you to think and look a little bit deeper.

His take on his artistic subject is a sort of parody of what I used to make my living doing, but his effort to make something "Conceivably Plausible" has a bit of magic ( sleight of hand ) along with some fun, and this gives him a rich vein to work in especially with his use of lithography - heavily based in a realist drawing style.  Jennifer Scheuer works in Ithaca at her images ( she is an Ink Shop member, and Cornell University employee ) and her prints look like plates from the old books one could collect ( I would have loved to buy her fern image at the entrance to her part of the show but it was not for sale ).  Jennifer studied with Beauvais Lyons so they seem to be on the same page when it comes to the studied quality of their image making.

An image from the Association for Creative Zoology

The thing about humor in fine art - if I can backtrack a bit here - is that a laugh can put you in a good mood, or it can detract from what the serious artist has to say.  See the contradiction? - serious artist - funny artwork, and the viewer can get swept up in the joke and loose the perception of how the artist brings you to this point.

I can see the temptation in Beauvais Lyons' work, as I said - having worked on the natural subjects myself, I always felt the need for some humor to give the academic stress of zoology a more human perspective.  It should be said, that when you are at the show, and see the lithograph of the adult Raccoon Crow above at the top of this blog, it only takes a second to see how absurd the image is.  There is a tradition of farce in the theatre, but not so much in the fine arts of painting and sculpture.  I guess that in modernist terms the art object is what it is, and what I see here is an art that is trying to reduce academic constraints but in the process becoming just as academic in the parody.

There is another question lurking here, and it is at what point is this art a pure illustration and does that matter?  Over the recent history of contemporary art, maybe there is less open hostility to illustration as an art than there was say forty or fifty years ago.  Maybe  it is a distinction without a difference, and art is art, you know it when you see it.

Jennifer Scheuer

Getting back to the show at The Ink Shop, Jennifer Scheuer is also experimenting with 3D printing ( there are two rows of what look like teeth in the first room ) and she also works with older techniques like photogravure.  In a series of sepia toned monotypes we get some fine small images of ginseng roots, which are treasured for the medicinal values.  When I saw them I thought that Jennifer should meet Jappie King Black ( who I reviewed a couple of weeks back ) and the two of them would have something in common - especially because of Ms. Black's root like sculptures she has on display at The Dyer Art Center.  Jennifer is a bit more direct in her art than Beauvais Lyons, and she gives her art a look from the past that I hope doesn't distract from the art she has made.

Jennifer Scheuer, trace monotype

With  the previous discussion aside, the art in this show is considerable, and it highlights the aims and goals of these working artists today.  To give your art a deliberate archaic look - does that help in attracting an audience for what you want to say?  It might, and maybe it also brings up the question of what the viewer expects from an art show these days.  One can expect to be challenged in the best sense, and also not to be bored in the worst case.  Ideally a great art show leaves the viewer with a distinct impression and these two printmakers certainly do that.

Beauvais Lyons on left, Jennifer Schemer,  on right
The Ink Shop 
July 28th, 2016
Ithaca , New York