Friday, January 31, 2014

Socrates Sculpture Park; 2013 Emerging Artist Fellowship Exhibition

Socrates SculpturePark was an abandoned riverside landfill and illegal dumpsite until 1986 when a coalition of artists 
and community members, under the leadership of artist Mark di Suvero, transformed it into an open studio and 
exhibition space for artists and a neighborhood park for local residents.”

Socrates is certainly one of the more engaging art viewing destinations east of the East River. Di Suvero’s studio lot lurks large adjacent to Socrates. His massive steel sentinels peer in upon the park with an impervious, yet benevolent gaze.
A stroll through it’s relatively unimproved environs features a landscape littered with leftover remnants of industrial detritus. Yet there is an element of quietude that envelops the place. Hidden nooks and crannies are scattered about, and then the grand vista of the sprawling East River, framed by Socrates’ own little beach, contribute to a hushed contemplation at the intersection of art, architecture and nature.
Wandering about the hardscrabble grounds is always an art adventure. The eclectic nature of Socrates’ installations ranges from the overt (politically as well as visually) to the nearly invisible. (As an aside to social stratification, KennethPietrobono has interred innocuous looking plants that blend into the background scenery in his park-wide installation Selections from the Modern Landscapes.)
Celebrating a low-tech revisionist vision of colonialism, and race relations, JustinRandolph Thompson’s tour de force Brutus Jones, inspired by Paul Robison’s boisterous visage, integrates insurgent guerilla theatricality, with a fond sentimentality for the black cultural icon of quilting. 

Dredging up a 1949 Dodge Power Wagon similar to one Robison used in a performance during the Peekskill riots of 1949, the artist invokes all sorts of connotations relating to black rural agrarian traditions, as well as a scathing indictment of racist intolerance.
Quilting installed under a floppy awning serves as a kind of abstract bulletin board or storefront, relating a visual throwback narrative that evokes Gees Bend gentility. 

Thrusting across the ramshackle flatbed is a crossbeam based on a Roman battering ram, encrusted with quilted barnacles, and mounted with the head of Paul Robison instead of the traditional ram horns. 

This configuration could be considered in an allegorical context. Portraying Robison’s visage as an heroic symbol may belie manipulation by Soviet propagandists, but he was indeed a champion of civil rights, and his voluptuously booming voice served as bullhorn for mid century black autonomy.
Although Thompson may have overloaded Brutus Jones with polemic, I’d think that was the point. This is art that revels in a zeal for confrontation; the artist as an impassioned ideologue wherein agenda takes priority. Perhaps if he had embedded a more literal historical narrative, viewers might have taken away a more succinct perception of Thompson’s protest.
But to his credit the artist has avoided overt agitprop, and fashioned a visually compelling sculpture as set design that morphs in and out of stridency. Brutus Jones could work perfectly well purely as an existential jungle jim on a playground derived from the artist’s psyche, and encompass a notion of cultural identity that might trump his earnest activist intent.     
Thompson’s art succeeds from an aesthetic standpoint with a kind of funky outsider look, even though the artist received a formal education. His rejection of traditional art media helps sustain rebel credibility that rubs up alongside a populist pundit sensibility seen in Thompson’s predilection for performance video. His enthusiastic axing of a podium during a performance on the Power Wagon could've been an amusing reinvention of Who guitar smashing.

BrutusJones - Trailer from Bradly Dever Treadaway on Vimeo.

Yet I doubt Thompson endeavors to become an art/rock star. This underground artist seems to inhabit a nether region of the art world mostly neglected by a predominately white collector base. As such its good to see art created by one of the precious few African American descendents in the contemporary art scene.
I hope we will soon be seeing more of Thompson’s uncompromisingly entertaining commentaries on Liberté, Egalité, Fraternité.
You MyungGyun’s monumental dollop of sculpture eschews social dogma for a commentary on nature and the moment. 

This South Korean artist joins the ranks of a burgeoning movement of Asian artists that have injected a freshness of spirit into contemporary art.
Like his compatriot Jong Il Ma’s 2008 installation at Socrates, Gyun has made a large scale sculpture that transforms its bulky architecture into an expansive ode to nature and contemplation.
Fabricated from the ubiquitous blue plastic re-cycling bag, still photos don’t capture the ethereal monochromatic flutter as the feathery plastic coat catches a breeze. The textural nuance gained from such innocuous art supplies infuses the surface with a suppleness that transcends the mass produced matériel.
The ponderous form achieves a kind of lumbering grace, perhaps the way a dinosaur would graze on the upper reaches of a tree. It’s massive frame remains connected to the ground, yet somehow gains lift, perhaps a billowy, airy blue pillow yearning for the sky. 

TamaraJohnson’s sly brand of humor seen in A Public Pool jolts our sense of place into a disjointed perception of where things should/could be.

She is adept at counter-intuitive association; a pool filled with grass, density encroaching on space, or memory impeded by distraction. There could also be a sardonic poke at suburban largess; you can almost feel Dustin Hoffman’s alienated Graduate soul buried in dense layers of dirt and irony.
Johnson’s work recalls the familiar, and then alters our experience of that certain reality by distorting an expected syntax. The concept appears simple enough, but could only have been conceived in a minds eye dedicated to disruption. 
Anyone up for a dip?
Aida Šehović’s Obstacle Course: Patriot Challenge offers a rousing dose of irony and could be symbolic of nationalist fervor. A native of Bosnia-Herzegovina, I’d think she knows whereof she speaks concerning the dangers of ethnic militancy.
There seems to be an interpretive intent going on, the course is set up so that viewers can undertake their own attempts at basic training. Perhaps this is a strategy to humanize the military mindset and help us appreciate the individual dedication and sacrifice of those committed to making the world a safer place.
The artist may also be expressing a cautionary morality tale concerning the risks of social conditioning and violence as a means to an end.

Is it surprising that Thordis Adalsteinsdottir’s woodsy ode to a love bite from nature has created such an astoundingly prudish uprising (pun intended) among the ranks of the good citizens of Queens? Or is the old adage that good fences make better neighbors at work here, or perhaps a case of out of sight, out of their minds? 

Another cliché may also apply; that bad publicity is better that no publicity. Although a Chelsea gallery exhibits Adalsteinsdottir, she is by no means a household name. Revenge may be best served here if this crudely erotic, tempest in a teapot results in her becoming better known.
Disclaimer: I had the adventure of shipping one of her pieces to a collector.  Getting the reindeer into my truck without snapping off one of the delicate antlers was tricky, but the beast never complained and arrived no worse for wear. 

The 2013 EAF pieces are a stimulating bunch of offbeat, oddball selections that amuse as much as inspire. Socrates is probably one of the art world’s most egalitarian and eclectic exhibition venues. New York’s art exhibition hierarchy is anything but a meritocracy, so when a program like the EAF comes along that’s not all about whom you know, authenticity and diversity have a chance to thrive.  
Post Script:
Speaking of diversity, another reason to visit Socrates is their semi feral cat colony. They are not too skittish, and some of them will come right up to you expecting pets.


Sunday, January 5, 2014

Mike Kelly PS 1 MOMA

Kelly is a handful. This exhaustive, and exhausting memorial compendium is akin to an art world colonoscopy. And like the medical procedure, this exhibit examines and purges pop culture dregs inhabiting the art market’s intestinal tract.

Kelly’s unimpeded libido meanders about pretty much aimlessly; indulging in darkly brooding mediations on repressed memory and trauma, then tossing in dumb trivialities like fake vomit and comic book covers. 

Was he an artist without any discernable boundaries, a dysfunctional wild child who was never told ‘no’, exorcising his tantrums and demons? Or was it all an act? From the Kelly Crow article in the WSJ:
“Stuffed animals? Minutes later, a local reporter approached George (Mike Kelly’s older brother) and asked if his little brother had ever been sexually abused. George nearly threw a punch. Their parents were strict and so were the nuns at school, but he knew of no such trauma. George told his brother what had happened. He also apologized for chuckling at first glance. Kelley slapped him on the back: "Good, it's supposed to be funny."
From then on, the art world demanded autobiography from Kelley. Rather than quell the scrutiny, he stepped fully into the role of provocateur—toying with critics and waffling continually between memory and myth in his life. In an essay first published in Architecture New York in 1996, Kelley wrote, "I had to abandon working with stuffed animals for this reason. There was simply nothing I could do to counter the pervasive psycho-autobiographic interpretation of these materials. I decided, instead, to embrace the social role projected on me, to become what people wanted me to become: a victim."
A cynical take on Kelly could be that he was corrupted by big art largess, and ended up producing shock value schlock to generate big returns in the inflated bubble era.
He came from a working middle-class family in Detroit MI. After attending U of M at Ann Arbor, he got involved in the local heavy-metal punk scene. Kelly then managed to get into CalArts, honing his conceptually punked-out performance bad boy persona enough to get noticed by museum bigwig Richard Armstrong, who purchased a piece out of his senior show.
Maybe it would have helped if he’d been in NY. It seems incongruous that such an amped-up, up and coming art star would settle in mellow LA, home of alfalfa sprout and avocado sandwiches. Perhaps the nitty-gritty nastiness of the East Village would have better suited his tumultuous process. 
But once you get past all the ranting, raving, and screaming Mimi’s there may be still enough work of substance in this show to sustain the image of a tortured genius, yet I believe there is also room for reasonable doubt.
The large-scale installation Kandors is a silly, ill-conceived (and probably over-budget in typical Hollywood style) rock opera take on Superman’s home planet which most likely ended up padding the pockets of DC comics, while picking the pockets of free-spending, big shot collectors who didn’t know any better.

Remove your shoes?! Please...

Kelly’s multi-plexed and perplexing video installation, Day Is Done, personifies all that is bothersome about the overwrought, over-stimulated, and under-edited film loop mania saturating up-scale gallery spaces. Particularly amateurish is the oft-repeated scene featuring a trio of slinky leotard-clad mime ‘dancers’, prancing and gyrating about high school hallways for no particular reason other than to flaunt cheerleader sex appeal. They could just as well be selling used cars.
On the flip side there are the inspired stuffed-animal assemblages, his most popular work made early on in his career. Cast-off toys, sewn together in messy clumps, they combine a painterly palette with sculptural mass. Seen in the installation, Deodorized Central Mass with Satellites, they brilliantly bridge the pop/conceptual divide. These inventive pieces encapsulate a visual playfulness within an autobiographical context, springing from the artist’s youthful fascination with sewing and textiles.
Although the hung-from-the-ceiling aesthetic might now seem quaint, this was an innovative concept in the day, and succinctly suits the interaction of viewer and art object.

Kelly’s written screeds document his angst filled, dream-like visions, and are compiled in an unhinged, Burrows-esque sketchbook diary format. His visceral prose lends credibility to the overall context of his oeuvre. He would have fit in well with the Beats, and their anarchic archetype.   

Despite all the distractions, on occasion he managed to settle down and harness his deft comic book illustration influenced draftsmanship abilities. Particularly engaging are the two grey tinted night landscapes. Depicting dreamy quietude, they seem an all too brief respite from the cacophony.   

Kelly’s inclination towards poster art and larger scale silkscreen make good use of his blunt didactics. Text and graphics interface effectively in the tradition of 60’s political protest with a hint of psychedelic. 

His decorative skills are diligently employed in the Memory Ware group. Glitteringly dense, these wall panels transcend the folk tradition from which they emerged. The picture plane could almost have been poured in, but notions of formal abstraction permeate subliminal configurations.

Black Out is a well-intended homage to the artist’s hometown of Detroit. However, clunky execution of the clumsy looking astronaut dilutes most of the pathos. Still, the use of Detroit River detritus is a clever conceit. The most successful section appears as a to-scale, flyover view of urban glass towers. 

This was as close as I came to appreciating Kelly’s architectural modeling efforts. All the foam core cutouts struck me as ill-advised attempts at seeming relevant to minimalist architectural doctrine. I’m assuming none of them were actually made hands-on by Kelly, and even if they were, the whole idea comes off as pandering to some kind of suave urban planning ideology that doesn’t seem to coincide with the artists inherently irreverent intellect.         

Kelly’s over reliance on appropriated imagery comes off as dated. Its one thing to create a montage/collage effect that resonates with irony, but when it’s continually glommed on as a shortcut to meaningful content it quickly becomes tiresome.
Without access to all of Gagosian’s wheelbarrows of gold, perhaps he would have had to become more economical and efficient. Kelly was certainly proficient and prolific, which I think is key to his experimental prowess. However like most artists he was in dire need of an editor. I suspect he rarely heard criticism.
Kelly may very well have been a victim, but mostly of his own success. When fashion rules the roost, slavery is not far behind.