Friday, February 27, 2015

In Praise of Gwynn Murrill


Gwynn Murrill states:

 “My interest lies in the fact that I use the subject as a means to create a form that is abstract and figurative at the same time. It is a challenge to try and take the form that nature makes so well and to derive my own interpretation of it.”

This duality sets her apart from most of the animaliers of today -- but joins her to many sculptors of the past.

Like ancient Egypt, for example:

She doesn't do wild animals - she does those family members who happen to be dogs, cats, or horses.

Sweet -- funny -- strong
A good combination.


All that's missing is an elegant young lady holding the leash.  (hopefully as nude as her canine companion)


But then, for some reason, a few years back she did a series of coupling human figures.

One reviewer thought they were having sex -- the artist calls them "wrasslers"

Either way (and they could be doing both) they're interesting -- but unfortunately the small image shown above is the only one available on the internet.



Thursday, February 26, 2015

Smart Museum: Objects and Voices

Alfred Kubin (1877-1959) , "A Corpse in the  Countryside", 1919

This small etching with its documentary sense was the catalyst for my project. Without a doubt, it is one of the most haunting images 1 can remember seeing, One wonders why Kubin chose an indirect medium, and one for making multiples? .... Kerry James Marshall

The University of Chicago labors beneath the weight of its intellectual authority, and unfortunately, so does its campus art museum.  Just as with most of the special exhibits at the Smart Gallery, this suite of one-room shows, each with its own curator, privileges concept over visuality..

Except for the 4-piece exhibit curated by Kerry James Marshall, who, unlike all the other curators, is distinguished as an artist rather than a scholar.

Placing two printed depictions of corpses back-to-back in the center of his room, he placed two life-size paintings of nudes on the two walls facing them.  One by Philip Pearlstein, whose nudes are more like furniture than the living bodies of humans, and the other by Sylvia Sleigh, who painted a roomful of buck-naked young dudes as a  feminist retort to the male gaze.

The Kubin lithograph really is eye-catching.   The corpse is so dramatically and realistically splayed out on the ground, it's impossible not to search for whatever details might explain this mysterious scene.  Perhaps some parts of it began as a drawing, but it's hardly surprising that Kubin took it to print. .  Judging from what's up on the internet, his career consisted of making morbid/creepy prints.  This one is more natural and intriguing  than most.

Of course, what's missing from this room is the one kind of nude mostly common in the history of European art: the live, enticing, female.  KJM  steered clear from that most politically incorrect of images.

What's also missing is a good painting.

Miyoko Ito (1918-1983) - "Tamina or Claude M. Nutt", 1974

The Smart has a good collection of Chinese painting -  badly needed since the Art Institute of Chicago  gives so little space to that genre.

There was a roomful on display in this exhibit.   Unfortunately the reflections on the glass display cases made the pieces difficult to see except in detail - but aesthetic appreciation wasn't the topic of this display anyway.  The curator was only concerned with the authenticity of the ownership stamps with which the paintings had been marked. Ho-hum.

But there was also a room of Asian-American art -- and this was fascinating.

My favorite piece is shown above - so glorious, mysterious, and sensual. My internet image does not do it justice.

Leonard Tsuguharu Fugita (1886-1968), "Three Figures", 1918

Leonard Tsuguharu Fugita (1886-1968), "Danse Orientale", 1919-1920

Here's a discovery for me - a Japanese artist who  joined the French avant garde  - and seems to have been inspired by Byzantine or Persian painting.

Qi Baishi (1864-1957)

As a wanna-be Mandarin,  I prefer the aloof posturing of more aristocratic artists. 

But it's impossible not to smile at this robust  sense of immediacy.

Probably because, like Baishi, I remain a peasant despite my intellectual pursuits.

chicken shit calligraphy?

Tosu Mitsunari (1646-1710)

I can't recall what curatorial theme encompassed this pleasant screen.

Very relaxing -- with fresh, vibrant details

Suh Si-Ok, Korean, b. 1929
"Mother and Child", 2007

Here's some contemporary calligraphy that has recently been donated to the museum. It's quite charming - and seems to transition from calligraphy into abstract-figurative art.

It's a piece that took 3-minutes, and 78 years, to make.

I would like to see the AIC do a retrospective on this artist -- but given his distance from post-modernism, that's not going to happen.

Teshigahara Sofu (1900-1979)
"Origin of a Stream", 1950's

Here's some abstract-expressive calligraphy from the founder of Ikebana (a school of Japanese flower arrangement).

It kind of resembles the paintings of Franz Kline from that same decade.  But it's not about personal angst so much as the enjoyment of natural forces - flowing, erupting, balancing.

Regretfully, that kind of positive attitude is tangential to contemporary American art.


 Lee Ufan, born 1936
"From Point", 1976
This piece seems to straddle the worlds of traditional aesthetics and conceptual art.
If you feel that it's tedious or formless, you might be inclined to recognize it as some kind of important inquiry into mental or physical processes.
If you feel that it's beautiful, you might just enjoy it as I do.

Romare Bearden (1911-1988) "The Stroll", 1968

Here's a very nice Bearden collage that's been promised to the collection.  So jazzy, so hip.

It feels like a marching band, even if it's only people walking down the street.


French-Flemish , Burgundy, 1350-1400

A cute piece - resembling a ship in a bottle


French, School of Moissac, 1120-1150

A very lively architectural fragment -- broken but still powerful.

It's  the kind of thing that inspired early 20th C. sculptors like Henry Moore.


Attributed to Kandinsky, 1914

Apparently, there is a break in the provenance, so it's authenticity remains unproven.
But who else could have painted it? 

It's very strong in the areas of detail.


William Turnbull (1922-2012)
"17-1963" (mango), 1963
We're told that this painting recalls an aerial view of a river running through a forest in Southeast Asia.


I was hoping that this area of detail would show the mottled quality of the surface..

But this is another painting that translates poorly in reproduction.


Alice Neel (1900-1984)
"The City", 1940's


Wednesday, February 25, 2015

The Ken Johnson - Michelle Grabner controversy

Michelle Grabner, untitled, 2012

I've never seen a Michelle Grabner solo exhibition.  But individual pieces, similar to the above, have been  shown in a number of exhibition spaces around town.

Not that I have anything against a red-checkered  tablecloth, but I don't  think it belongs on a gallery wall.    Are there too many art exhibition spaces and not enough artists ? 

So, belatedly,  I am among those who appreciate the impatience expressed by  last year's  controversial Ken Johnson review in the New York Times.  He concluded his brief comments with:

Nothing in all this is more interesting than the unexamined sociological background of the whole. If the show were a satire of the artist as a comfortably middle-class tenured professor and soccer mom, it would be funny and possibly illuminating, but it’s not.

The "all this" to which Johnson refers is the video and the installation of family pictures and crushed garbage can lids that accompanies the graphic work.  The video depicts the artist working in her rural studio and  its bucolic surroundings.  There are also peaceful scenes of pies baking, suggesting the artist's other role as happy homemaker.

If Johnson had left out the phrase "soccer mom", he probably would have escaped unscathed. But  it allowed the art critic of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel to assert
that:   "New York Times art critic Ken Johnson effectively called artist Michelle Grabner a dull, middle-class soccer mom"

Then taking yet one more interpretative step, the columnist at Hyperallergic asserted that:

Grabner may make “bland art” (his words), and she may be a “middle-class tenured professor and soccer mom,” but to establish a cause-and-effect relationship between those two conditions, as Johnson does in the paragraph, is sexist (and classist).

This interpretation  has traveled such a distance from Johnson's original words, it is only credible with reference to allegations of his previous expressions of sexism. (which I'm not going to examine)

In a comment to the ARTF CITY  posting on this issue , Grabner herself wrote:

I have no problem that Johnson did not identify David Robbins's didactic video, "A Few Minutes with Michelle Grabner" made specifically for my exhibition at James Cohan Gallery as hyperbolic and ironic My problem is that Johnson's art review was not printed in Thursday's Style section.

If the video was meant to be ironic, to what was it contrary ?  Does it suggest that Grabner does not really lead such a sweet, domestic, bucolic life ?  Does it suggest that such a  life is not worthy of admiration, or is merely a fantasy ? Was the bit about mathematics in the creative process also intended to be ironic?

If the art feels bland, why not conclude that the art was also intended to be ironic?  As if to ironically say "this is the kind of art that contented, domestic women make. (despite their application of mathematics)" 

That was the plausible message that Ken Johnson received, and he did not find it interesting because he did not find a sharp insight into that social context. And, by the way, no sharp insights were suggested in any of the four essays that labeled him a sexist.

Corinna Kirsch Jillian Steinhauer,   and Rit Premnath all emphasized that part of the video where Grabner discussed her creative process. Kirsch even  contrasted Grabner's  "authenticity" in contrast to "bad-boy-postmodern ironic stance", so apparently, she did not find the video to be ironic at all.

Mary Louise Schumacher tells us that the video is;  " a wonderfully droll and camp anti-commercial that's typical of Robbins' work and that invites us to explore ideas about Midwesterness, boredom, intended audiences and serious artistic intention."  --

But how is that  different from just boring an un-intended audience with typical Midwesterness?  What sharp insight has the video offered to initiate a fruitful intellectual exploration?

I wonder whether these four women would have attacked Johnson if they had actually seen the show and also judged it to be bland.

The above images, taken from the exhibition that Johnson reviewed -- appear to be much more interesting than the three pieces that I've previously seen.   Possibly, I would have found this work  as compelling as some of Ethel Stein's geo-form weaving

Here is another show that also works with ordinary, everyday household shapes and colors, but which, upon close inspection,  transcends them with aesthetic delight.


If I had  found the work in this show to be visually bland,  it's success as a humorous or illuminating satire would not  have concerned me. Like Ken Johnson, I would have found the self-satisfaction in the video to be annoying. But the only art that makes me laugh is art that looks really good.  Such achievement is  always surprising.  And good looking art is also the only kind that illuminates me -- because it exemplifies yet one more delightful way of being human.

 Which is where I part ways with Ken Johnson and the post-modern critical community -- all the way back to Duchamps "Foundtain" and the  inception of  conceptual art.

But if  I had found the work, though minimal, to be visually exciting, I would have found the video to be charming and playful.   "Good for her!"... I would have thought ... "She bakes pies and makes good art, too.  Can I have a piece of both?"


The  world  of contemporary art honors both the conceptual and the visual - so possibly, Grabner ambitiously tries to work both ways.  Sometimes, she offers art that is bland enough not to interfere with the conceptualization intended. .  Other times, she may try to make art that can command attention, regardless of context.  Though I have not yet seen her achieve that, and the establishment of context seems to be the most important part of her practice.