Sunday, April 23, 2017

Whistler's Mother

I  first saw an image of  "Whistler's Mother" as printed on a bubble gum wrapper when I was about ten years old.  Apparently that association seemed unlikely enough to have stayed in my memory ever since.

About fifteen years later I vaguely recall seeing the original in Paris -  but in a museum with so many exciting Impressionist  paintings, it was far less impressive and did not get much of my attention.

Now the original "Arrangement in Grey and Black" has finally followed me to Chicago - so I can contemplate it at greater length.

And as it turns out --  I really don't like it.

That may be the result of it being hung beneath protective glass whose reflections destroy most attempts to feel that careful arrangement in gray and black which the artist wanted us to appreciate.

But even without the glass -- it would still probably feel leaden and creepy to me.

This lonely, morose old woman is about to fall through the bottom of the canvas and sink beneath the floor.

Visually, all that keeps her afloat is the framed white print behind her -- announcing the brilliance of the talented print maker - her son.

As a gray and black abstract painting, it resembles the grim despair of Milton Resnick - but without the strength.  It just feels depressing.

That could be how the artist felt about his mom -- but looking around the room at his other work -- it's how he feels in general.  He savors melancholy.

Nocturne, 1878

That melancholy is most beautifully expressed in his nocturnal seascapes , like the print shown above - which also accompanied this exhibit.

While, as also demonstrated by another large painting in this show -  the  portrait of the great Chicago collector, Jerome Eddy -  Whistler did not have the temperament to portray other people.  He was too much into himself.

I also doubt that he had a sense of pictorial volume strong enough to handle close-ups of the human body.  His proper subject was landscape.

Charles Guerard – 1883

 The show also included three variations on Whistler's design - of which the above is my favorite.
This is an arrangement in gray and black that I actually find appealing.

 Richard Josey – 1879

Whereas this version - the one by an artist more closely associated with Whistler himself - shows the sentimental direction that will eventually take the image to a bubble gum wrapper.

Thomas Robert way – 1892  


Stephen F. Eisenman has also written about this show for New City - primarily focusing on the issue of form ("Grey and Black") versus content ("Whistler's Mother").

As an art historian he places the issue into the context of its time -- and details the content that he has observed himself - the handkerchief, gold ring, and ruddy cheeks - which, by the way , can be observed in an online reproduction.

What he does not discuss is the form of "Whistler's Mother",  except in contrast to the three printed variations where "the subtle harmonies of tone are sacrificed for the drama of black and white. Moreover, what is most emphasized in the prints is the face, not the surrounding forms or interplay of tonalities."

While I would say that if you go to see the actual painting - and  try to peer through the protective  glass - you might be hard pressed to conclude that those "subtle harmonies of tone" and "interplay of tonalities"  have been arranged all that well.

Sunday, April 09, 2017

Molly Zuckerman-Hartung at Corbett Vs. Dempsey 2017

I've written about this artist  in 2012 and then again  in 2014 .

If she had a fan club, I'd join it - at least for her larger work.

The gallery shows many of her small, quickly done pieces and even published a catalog of them.

But I think her real ability is that of continuing to improve a large, complicated piece as she works it over time.

This signage would be laughably ironic in just about every other exhibit of contemporary art.

But it's message that her large paintings give me.

Jennifer Jason Leigh Handcuffed to Kurt Russell

This show is ever wilder and more exciting than her earlier ones.

Her hunger for beauty, experience,  and expression pulls in everything - from the kitchen sink and beyond.

And this show, in particular, seems to reflect the domestic energy of kitchen, library, garage, and parlor - while her last show felt more like the sexual energy of the bedroom.

She's in the same league as Kandinsky and Breughel.

The flow of excitement and beauty extends into the smallest areas of detail - no matter how unusual the material.


Melanie Klein's Part Object

Here's a quieter piece that plays with that somber black construction in the lower left  corner.

(appropriately enough, the gallery showed it in a separate room)

Here's the painting within the painting shown above it.

Like details chiseled off cathedrals, it could just as well lead an independent life of its own.

Georgia- or Take me back, take me way way way back

The only thing on this canvas is paint (no bottles, toys, or other assorted domestic junk)

But still, you might notice that the stretchers are showing through the perforated canvas near the left edge.

Her compositional drive knows no restraint.

Each of those black splotches with the blue squares feels both unique, spontaneous, and perfect.

Mrs. Parker's Desk in anticipation of Alfred Jensen

Here is something completely different -- it feels ominous and mystical.

History Painting for the New Queer Subject

And here's more of her loopy energy.

It feels wacky enough to depict a Donald Trump rally in the Republican primaries - as well as a Gay Pride Parade.

When she draws humans, they're usually queasy and distorted.

But not that woman's face in the upper right corner. (is it Jennifer Jason Leigh?)


This was the most developed figure painting in this show - and I don't really care for it.

I want to see a wild woman's world -- not a wild woman herself.

Jennifer Jason Leigh as the Damsels of Avignon

I just can't imagine how she got all this weird junk to fit together so nicely.

It's rapturous.


Drinking Kerosene,  Spitting Fire

There were many small pieces in the show - most of which failed for me.

But as a person who makes a lot of gunky/gooey messes himself -- this is the best mess I've seen in a while.


Note : Alan Pocaro reviewed this show for New City, concluding that:

Given the nation’s current political climate, Zuckerman-Hartung’s oppositional anti-aesthetics ought to feel more timely than they do. Instead, the force of her visual statement feels unnecessarily diminished by the panoptic approach to material

On the contrary, it appears to me that in her large scale work, MZH is remarkably independent from the current trend of "oppositional anti-aesthetics" -- while a "panoptic approach to material" may be inseparable from her self - and it has been forcefully expressed by her visual statement.

I'd also say that beauty always provokes an endless search for meaning -- though the editor's headline for the Pocaro review ("Beauty in Search of Meaning")  might suggest otherwise.

Note 2 : MZH is a serious student, and teacher, of the art of painting.  Her 95 Theses on Painting  can be found here.

But take a look at the work of Yvonne Wells a gym teacher and paramedic who discovered, without studying art history, that she had an incredible talent for pulling together all kinds of weird stuff and making it look good.

Which is to say -- MZH's  achievements might better be attributed to a certain kind of brain rather than a certain kind of education.


Note 3:

Here's another review, this one by Bruce Thorn. As a painter himself, Thorn is more about precision and bio-mechanical texture than the "tactile, formal, abstract mayhem" that both of us find in MZH.
Where Thorn would carefully design a parachute, MZH would jump out of a airplane with a sack of old clothes and improvise something on the way down.

 He shares my approach to art criticism: " Forget all the hype and forget all the art speak manifestos. Let’s just look at the art and trust our own responses, shall we?"-- He does not, however, ignore the artist's practice of celebrity tagging (" Warhol also prospered using stock images of iconic celebrities."). And though he questions "Is it fair to blame the messengers for resounding cultural ambiguity and lack of commitment to ideas?" - he does raise that issue, doesn't he?

It feels like this artist/critic's professional insight has been compromised by professional rivalry.

Yet still - that insight remains formidable: "The strength of Zuckerman-Hartung’s work is in its conceptual and material freedoms, studied carelessness and immediacy, all achieved through casual process. The beauty is in the details, though there is an overall prettiness and cuteness. The paintings become generally pleasant and accessible by exiling specificity and clarity. With the larger paintings on display, I found myself ignoring the whole picture while being seduced by unlimited, spectacular close-up details. Zuckerman-Hartung’s mastery of composition is not strong enough to pull the plethora of interesting tidbits and tickles together into one big knockout punch. The works are educated, calculated, adventurous, hip and highbrow, but Zuckerman-Hartung still chooses to hobble things together like a schoolgirl making a scrapbook or decorations for her room."

I appreciate philosophical assertions like this one: "There is an implication of innocence and insouciance concerning lack of craftsmanship and permanence, as if proclaiming that life is to be lived in the moment. Our days belong to a hedonistic time. Not in the sense of orgies and bacchanalian feasts, but in that yesterday and tomorrow don’t matter much, only the now is of concern. I’m no philosopher, but I can’t see the moment as having value if past and future don’t matter. The present is gone as soon as it gets here."

I also appreciate ideological critiques like this one: "That this very enjoyable artwork is quite successful might say volumes about the ethos of our times, except for the little gnawing fact that most people do not give a rat’s paintbrush about the ethereal profession of contemporary art. So much for any critique of capitalism, this game gets played in ivory towers and private studios."

And though I feel that each of MZH's large paintings do indeed deliver "one big knockout punch", I  agree that the Picasso-like section of Never Forget "is so complete that it just doesn’t need any more."