Friday, November 13, 2009

MIA and the MIA

I recently went MIA at the MIA to check out the Asian collection. With some extra time on my hands before closing, I wondered into their Contemporary Art section. Like picking at the scab of skinned knee when I was a kid, I just can’t leave the modern art works alone. Knowing it will most likely be painful and will set back the healing of my aesthetic standards for uncountable years, I climbed to the third floor to see if maybe I could prove wrong my long held belief of the massive con game that is modern art.

From room to room, I wandered. I tried to at first to really find some redeeming qualities in the works hanging around me. Over and over, I was confronted with things I am pretty sure I once saw on an old girlfriend’s refrigerator, held in place with alphabet magnets. She had a daughter in kindergarten that loved to show off her art. As my steps got faster and faster and I both mentally kicked myself for my won stupidity and deplored the future of art and mankind, I came across a show stopper.

120 x 240 in, dominating an entire wall of one of the gallery rooms, was a work by Frank Stella. Entitled Tahkt-I-Sulayman, Variation II, this brightly colored behemoth was an obvious attempt at formalism. Eight rectangles, each a different color, and each containing 7 concentric quarter circles partially overlapped by 6 concentric arcs springing from the opposite corner like boxers in a title fight at Madison Square Garden; this massive work at first reminded me of the Simpson’s episode where they went to Japan and the anime cartoons instantly sent them into seizures.

I ran to the wall plaque, hoping that some background information would help me put the piece in perspective. Painted in 1969 (hence the flower child colors), acrylic on canvas, this is part of Stella’s prolific Protractor series. Stella insists that his paintings are merely formal. In his own words, “My painting is based on the fact that only what is can be seen there is there. It really is an object. You can see the whole idea without any confusion” (Museum plaque- MIA, G374).

If that is the case, why name the painting after an ancient shrine in Azerbaijan, Iran? Stella traveled there in 1963 and in order for him to choose that name six years later, there had to be some strong personal connection between the painting and that place. His other paintings in the Protractor series are also all named after other Mid-East cities and archaeological sites.

Why the protractor in the first place? Is it just a simple tool to make half circles, or is Stella really a closet mathematician? I’m pretty sure that most people don’t wake up in the morning and think- “I’d like to paint a protractor, to attempt to capture the essence of a plastic half circle!”

Stella’s demands that his work is purely formal are also a big detractor from the work actually being formal. I believe it’s a case of the girl protesting too much. Anytime you have to state three times in one paragraph what your art is, chances are that’s what it isn’t. A standard criterion for the formalist school is art for art’s sake. Aesthetic value is all there is.

While there is some aesthetic value in the awesome size (can anyone say over compensation), the bright colors, and the mechanical lines of the piece; Stella’s need to attach a personal connection as well as his obsessive declaration of what his work is makes me believe that he is attempting to ride the coattails of the hugely popular formalist school that flourished at the time he produced this piece. I think that at heart Stella is an expressionist who lacks the imagination to paint in the expressionist style, so he tries formalism but falls short of the mark. He has been weighed, measured, and found wanting.

Monday, October 12, 2009

Lost in the fog of Contemporary Land

As one can tell from my blog of September 26th on John McCraken’s “Sound”, I am not a fan of contemporary art. I intellectually get the principles behind the modernist and post-modernist movements thanks to the amazing education that I am getting, but I still have a tough time reconciling blobs of paint or a big blue rectangle leaning against the wall as art that belongs in the same building as the great renaissance masters.

Upon hearing that we would have class at the Walker Art Center and would be treated to a private tour, I pretty much wanted to claw myself in the face with a garden rake. A two hour trip to an unlicensed dentist with a New Jersey accent could not be more excruciating than being forced to ponder an entire museum full of the “art” I loathe.

Here is the record of my agony.

The first piece I’d like to talk about is from French artist Yves Klein. “Suaire de Mondo Cane” or “Mondo Cane Shroud” was painted in 1961. Supposedly a performance piece whose meaning (if it ever had one) is lost in time, it was painted by a bunch of naked women rolling around in a tube of Yves Klein blue paint, then crawling around on the canvas in time to some French hippy music. Being that Yves did not actually touch the canvas during the creation leaves me a little short of being able to call him the artist, but I suppose one could say that since he invented the color, chose the music, recruited (and probably drugged) the women, and came up with a composition that had no point other than his own arrogance- it can be called a pure representation of form. I call it a desperate attempt to see some naked women by a guy who probably did not have an outstanding record in that department.

“Kiki” by Chuck Close is another piece that I’d like to talk about. Done in 1993, this piece is painted in small cells of vibrant and diverse color grouped to form a collage of Kiki. Combining realism and abstraction, the content that I get from this piece is far more important that the brilliance of the painting itself. It’s chameleon-like ability to break apart and reform to shift hues and shimmer depending upon the angle you view it from really is a great way to parallel the abstract aspects of our lives. There are so many different personalities and moods that hide within each and every one of us that after viewing this piece I pictured they movie scenes of hurried New Yorker’s rushing down the side walk with their features melding and shifting, breaking apart, and coming beautifully together as their moods changed from minute to minute, step to step.

Halfway through the tour, we came upon a piece that completely reinforces my belief in that contemporary could possibly be the biggest con game to ever have been played on the world stage. Isamu Noguchi did a sculpture and called it “Mortality”. It looks to me like an oversize bronze mop head in a museum. One can’t even make the argument of form that one could make in the big blue rectangle, or one of those canvases painted bright red. What is the content- it’s a mop head. Our tour guide was so kind as to point out that it was not a mop head, but it was supposed Japanese calligraphy for the word mortality, and that the original was made of balsa to give it movement and add to the impression of life. I tried to picture that and still got a mop head- albeit a wooden one that blows in the wind- but still a mop head. If you don’t know Japanese, and last time I checked I don’t how would you get anything out of it. It would be like me making up a language, then building a made up word out of toothpicks, and then putting it on display for some people in Germany- ridiculous.

There was an untitled piece by Kazuo Shiraga that really captured my eye. Done with paint in the Gutai style, this piece carries both form and content. Shiraga suspended himself above untreated canvas and swung himself back and forth, pushing and sliding around waxy globs with his feet in a creative frenzy. The color choices, the choice of direction and force in his suspended movements, and the form of the piece has layers of depth and meaning. After learning the back story from our guide and realizing that the piece came about in post-WWII Japan, I could really get the content implied in the angry red and black loops and swirls. Reminiscent of the Hiroshima atomic explosion you can get the rage and despair that Shiraga transfers to his piece. An apt statement on the horrors of war, this artwork is a sign of where mankind is headed with nuclear weapons and out of control wars.

My favorite piece at the Walker is Hans Hofmann’s “Image of Cape Cod: The Pond Country, Wellfleet.” Done in 1961 it is an abstract composition of different geometric forms. As we all know by now- I don’t get abstract- or forms really. This one I got! Our guide asked what we saw when we looked at the piece. I immediately said “Chicken”, and most of my classmates looked at me like I had sprouted a third head. I backed myself up by pointing out the clear orange baby chick in the upper center of the piece along with the red barn, green grass, and blue pond. Our guide then told us the name of the painting and the theme behind it and I was right. You can usually make whatever you want out of abstract paintings, but this one was clear to me. This piece tells me that there might be something to this contemporary crap after all. Hans was very clever to break a rural scene down to what he felt were the purest elements and yet to still translate that it was a rural scene. Kind of makes me want to get out the finger paints and revisit some of the kindergarten abstraction I did.

Monday, October 5, 2009

The Five Capital Executions in China

Firing Squad
Drawing and Quartering

"The Five Capital Executions in China" by Chinese 2D artist Zhi Lin is a sublime work of art created to make us question the things we let the world get away with. Zhi Lin grew up in China during the Cultural Revolution. He remembers people only being able to wear the colors green and blue with no designs or patterns, people being tortured by Mao's Red Guard, and his father being dragged away to serve time in prison for rumors of having possessed books. Looking at these pieces, we are made to feel dirty and guilty. You can feel the forced tension that Zhi Lin must have felt every day of his childhood. Zhi has used the talents he honed at the China National academy of Fine Arts and the Slade School of Fine Art at the University of London where he received his Bachelor's degree and Master's degree in Fine Arts respectively. This artwork was not only brilliantly done, but was painstakingly done in the process as well. Each painting started as a carefully arranged thumbnail, progressing to a full size drawing, which was then painted. The immense 12 x 7 ft size of these paintings give you an awesome God-like view of the scenes. You are both above the crowd and part of it. There are people that look back out at you in each picture, begging you to understand, to see. The paintings are done in classic Chinese scroll format with watercolor on canvas and ribbon, except for Draw and Quartering which is charcoal. There is an incredible amount of light and color involved, making you want to enjoy the feeling of revelry, but your eye is constantly chastised and brought back to the torture involved in each capitol punishment. These executions are made to be spectacles, made to involve and entertain the crowd, and through Zhi Lin's genius, you are made to be part of that crowd. The artist believes that there is a role in society for art, and that art can be used to prevent the kind of things that his work is shedding light on. He is looking at the role of humanity and the abuse of power by those in authority. Once you realize that, you are forever changed, you are never clean, you can't ignore the wrong and monstrous injustice you see in the artwork, just as you find will now find it tough to ignore the wrong in injustice you see every day. Zhi Lin's painting will change your life.

Images courtesy of HowardHouse.Net/Artists

Works Cited:
Sheila Farr review. Seattle Times Entertainment Section. March 30, 2007
Zhi Lin- Interview with Per Contra Archives. July, 2006
Zhi Lin- Wikipedia Free Encyclopedia. August 20th, 2009

Saturday, September 26, 2009


I recently had the opportunity to visit the Midway Contemporary Art gallery in Minneapolis. I was part of a group that received a guided tour by a founder of the gallery and in depth analysis of many of the piece’s on display. One artwork in particular struck me. In a small room that goes by the description of “Gallery 2”, I was confronted by a massive blue rectangle that measures 94 x 17 x 4 inches leaning up against the wall.
My first impression was that someone had left one of their child’s building blocks in the gallery and that evil aliens had enlarged using cosmic rays to ridicule the foundations of American childhood. It was smooth and sleek, with perfect corners, clean lines, and was the color of the Pacific on a bright 90 degree day in 1965. I am not a fan of the modernist movement at all. The extreme emphasis on form and medium being art is so a little ridiculous to my frame of mind. If that was all that art was, than the people at Sherman Williams who make hundreds of colors of acrylic house paint should be heralded as the new masters. I am more about content, subject matter, feeling, motivation.
After a brief glance and a little shake of my head at how much time must have gone into the construction of a gigantic blue rectangle, my thoughts turned to the next piece. Big blue was gone from my mind in an instant because my uneducated non-modernist viewpoint suggested that it was just that- a big blue rectangle. Who cares about a big blue rectangle? As I went on to the next piece I heard the gallery operator mention that they had to increase their insurance due to the fact that the big blue rectangle was worth $200,000. Are you serious? I could finish my education, travel the world, and feed the homeless for months off $200,000. If someone wanted a rectangle, go to IKEA and buy some storage totes- you’d have enough for a Ferrari left over. I instantly hate big blue, which I found out is named “Sound”, by California artist John McCraken. The fact that an inanimate object that is so plain could excite that amount of interest was ridiculous in my opinion. The gallery owner went on to inform us that “Sound” was handmade fiberglass with high gloss lacquer. Given his southern California background, the artist likes to use the same materials that go into surf board construction. John McCraken also treats color as a material in his art. His decision to lean his objects against the wall rather going for a more conventional instillation was in his own mind the best way to reduce the forms down to their utmost basic abstract concept. (John McCraken Sketchbook: Interview with Neville Wakefield 15)
All of this basic went over mind head. I still could not wrap my mind around a blue rectangle supposedly worth $200,000. A classmate of mine tried to put it into perspective by informing me about the amount of time and meticulous craftsmanship that must have gone into a handmade perfect rectangle of that size. McCraken could have just sent his piece of to the factory to get machined, but instead he loving crafted his art by hand, just as the surfboard masters of old produced individual boards that combined perfection and personality. I was not ready to hear it. My mind still kept shouting $200,000, $200,000, $200,000! This morning, as I was researching the piece to write a very nasty critique, I was listening to my roommates talk about a friend of theirs from college who had moved to Vegas and tried to make a life for herself far away from friends and family in Minnesota. Long story short, she ended up prostituting herself and then got hook on drugs. I instantly felt sorry, not for the girl who I didn’t know, but for “Sound” who I came to know through indifference, fierce hatred, pity, and then finally a bizarre sort of love. It brings to mind an overpriced streetwalker, told by society that her purest essence is to lean against the wall with cold, deep, perfect beauty to wait for the highest bid. Pared down to her barest form, with nothing left but that which the viewer gives, she emanates reflects of our own desires and needs. She is lost, alone, powerful, and abused. She needs love, but has nothing left for love to cling to. Perfection, gloss, sleek beauty…. Nothing.

Image courtesy of

Monday, September 21, 2009

MIA- What the heck were you thinking??

I can’t believe that the people at MIA are actually paid to screw things up the way they have. They blatantly placed a few works of art in obviously incongruous spots in the museum without regard to their correct configuration and mojoistic relationship with the universe. I can’t believe the world has not imploded. This travesty must be corrected immediately. Thankfully I am here to set things in order.

I have constructed a hermetically sealed installation inside of a tapered, sloping tunnel built into the side of the Mississippi river bluffs. The opening is 50ft by 50ft and is made entirely of prismatic glass sections that throw kaleidoscopic beams of sunlight into the atrium. My first work of art is placed in just a few feet inside this entranceway.

Your Dog. Yoshitomo Nara. Japan 2002. 72 x 51 x 108 inch. Fiberglass sculpture. Photo courtesy of Adam Fuchs.

This is the first piece in my new collection due to the sense of fun and life that the art brings to the viewer. As the artist probably intended, you can see a sort of joy and pent up excitement in the posture of the dog, especially with it’s erect tail and closed eyes. This reminds me of the look a puppy gets when your hand is just about to pet it’s back. The choices of white fiberglass for the body and the bright red nose give it a sleek and streamlined look for the new millennium, imparting a sense of fun and life.

MIA Gift Shop Doll collection. Unknown Artists. Unknown Medium. Photo courtesy of Adam Fuchs.


About ten feet farther into the exhibit you come across a 48 x 72 inch display case filled with shelves of stuffed dolls. The collection of gift shop dolls tossed on shelves without regard to the joy that they might bring someone provides the eye with a riot of color and perceived textures. The bright colors and soft appearance of the pieces contrast with the unblinking eyes and slightly malevolent stares to leave one unsure of the comfort given by these creatures. Their proximity to Your Dog implies a sense of continuity in the joyous celebration of life, yet the fact that one cannot touch or seek comfort from walled in softness of these glaring beasties imparts some caution and maybe a little foreboding.

Pillow. Unknown Artist. China, Ch’ing Dynasty 17th-18th Century. Greenish-White Nephrite. Photo courtesy of Adam Fuchs.

As you proceed another few steps into my exhibition you meet a stark white pedestal 24 inches tall by 12” square. The height of the pedestal and small size of the piece force one to stoop uncomfortably in order to obtain the best viewing. The hardness of the pillow combined with the soft rounded appearance continues the juxtaposition of comfort and unease stemming from the gift shop dolls. The uncomfortable looking position of the figurine combined with the facial expression that could either be pain or pleasure, and the severe white pedestal and washed out colors of the piece reinforce this idea.

Gift Shop Bone Doll. Unknown Artist. China 2009. Unknown Media


At the very edge of where the fairy-tale patterns of dappled sunlight hit the floor, poised at the brink of darkness a few more feet into the tunnel you come across this colorful, defiant, disturbing piece. The walls have slowly tapered in toward each other at this point, and the slight downward slope of the floor is all the more noticeable as one makes the transition from light to dark, life to death. The tunnel is now 30 ft across and 30 ft high. Here, on the edge of the shadows, moving into the increasingly constrictive maw of the exhibit, you are confronted by the celebration of death and the afterlife in the form of another gift shop doll. Does it say something that this piece is posed alone? Sitting, slouched in the corner of two 36 x 36 inch black painted walls in the center of the tunnel, you are reminded of discarded trash and of things once bright and joyous, now past their prime and fading to shadows. The dim lighting exaggerates the faded impression of her bright robes as we continue our exploration of the decline of life and society.

Triptych; Prisoner’s of the Mountains of Mist (Center Panel). Giovanni Battista Crema. Italy 1910. Oil on Canvas. Photo courtesy of Adam Fuchs


This piece is in shadows, light from below by a single bulb. Located 10 ft farther down the exhibit from the Bone Doll, just around a 90 degree right turn in the tunnel; the triptych raises a lot of questions. Are the male and female subjects simply sleeping lovers, sated after an afternoon of passion? Are they dead, cast aside, souls fled with the phoenix being held by the male? Does the fact that the phoenix is spread in much the same posture as the man and women, yet appears to be held by the man imply that there can be no rebirth due to the sins of the young and seemingly innocent? The fact that this painting is presented in the darker recesses of my gallery would imply some aspects of the transition from nubile young life and the hope of salvation to the cold stagnancy of death.

Female Acrobat. Pavel Tchelitchew. Russia 1930’s. Oil on Canvas. Photo courtesy of Adam Fuchs


This paintings placement 15 ft beyond Crema’s triptych takes Pavel Tchelitchew’s graceful and erotic picture of a female acrobat and brings out what might be a truer meaning deep within the artwork. The air in this deeper part of the gallery is more stifling due to the airtight sealing of the entrance. The illusion of openness imparted in the radiant atrium is no longer in sight. The work is light from below by a single bulb. The dim light combined with the dull colors and stretched pose of the subject imply a sense of strain and painful, tormented struggle. Is she perhaps now striving to ascend to the afterlife rather than swing on the trapeze? Is she trapped in purgatory, begging for release? Is there no light, no heaven, no fluffy clouds and harps? Is there simply atonement and anguish?

Carcass of Beef. Chaim Soutine. Russia 1925. Oil on Canvas. Photo courtesy of Adam Fuchs

As we proceed another 20 ft into our exploration of the transition from 3D life to flat 2D death, we come across this painting. Lit from below, as with the previous two, the contrast of flesh tone with the deep reds and blues in this piece immediately draw our eye. Another foray into the idea that we are but meat, with nothing beyond our vibrant lives, this is perhaps the most disturbing piece in the collection. Given the previous human figures shown in various stages of deathlike and tormented poses, you can’t help but question- is this beef, or is it actually a rendering of the upside down carcass of a two legged creature cast aside after it’s moment in the sun.

Lyuba Rorschach. Roxanne Jackson. United States 2009. Unknown media.


Thirty feet beyond the painting of the Carcass of Beef, at the very end of the tunnel, one is confronted with the Lyuba Rorschach. The tunnel at this point has narrowed to 20ft by 20ft. The piece is lit by cunningly hidden inset ceiling lighting, so as to give the impression of cold, sourceless mist. The black walls of the tunnel strengthen the impression of exanimate form. This tells you unquestionably that there is nothing else. There is no color, no life, no joy, no love, no feeling, no hope. This is the end.