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Days 6-7 Paris
I got back to New York yesterday. My last two days in France consisted of pleasant but fairly conventional tourism. Saturday Dave and I wandered around Montmartre, which is the "artist's district" one sees recreated on sound stages in An American in Paris, now largely a souvenir dispensary. It's still a gorgeous neighborhood of narrow angular streets, built on a hillside topped by the striking, mosque-like Sacre Couer church; historical markers tell you where famous artists and writers once lived. We strolled (actually elbowed our way) around the "artist's plaza," watching tourists shelling out money for street portraits and bad Impressionist knockoffs. The waiter at a cafe there advised me to keep my backpack under my seat. On the steps of Sacre Couer, street vendors with plastic buckets full of soft drinks and bottled water scatter like cockroaches every hour or so to avoid the gendarmes, who make perfunctory confiscations.
Sunday Dave, Trish, and I went to the Louvre, which has been much remodeled since I visited ten years ago. The highlight of my last trip, the collection of outrageous chimerical statues looted--sorry, taken for safekeeping--from Mesopotamia, was unfortunately closed, but the Sackler galleries of ancient Iranian reliefs and palace architecture, refurbished in 1997, are breathtaking. A group of half-men/half-lions, carved in profile into beige and turquoise relief tiles, is as sparingly and tastefully installed as a Donald Judd show, blending ancient and modern sensibilities. In the German painting section, I spent some time pondering Cranach the Elder's weird painting The Age of Silver. In this Edenic scene, all the figures are nude; on the left hand side of the panel, lovely women (for Cranach) cuddle with exquisite, happy looking children, while in the center and right a group of men beat the crap out of each other with wooden staffs. Is the message really as simple as "women good, men bad"? Was Cranach the Andrea Dworkin of his day?
After two weeks abroad, I was surprisingly happy to come back to New York. On the airport bus, everyone was bickering, but at least in wasn't in mandatory French! (I know, my US-centrism is showing.) Also, dirty as our subway cars are, they're so much better designed than Parisian ones. In Paris, half the car space is taken up with a few rows of fore-and-aft-facing seats, allowing exactly 16 people to enjoy a quaint, 19th Century style ride in the car's center while the rabble stands cheek to jowl at either end. Quel merde!
Days 4-5 Paris
Visited "un art populaire" exhibit at the Fondation Cartier. This lavish building (financed by the famous jeweler) featured one of those "we are the world" exhibits frequently cobbled together by Western curators as a kind of mea culpa for First World imperialism. Here the only unifying link appeared to be the word "popular," allowing the exhibit to bring together Western kitsch-quoters (Mike Kelley, Robert Arneson), their Eastern counterparts (Takashi Murakami, the Luo Brothers), and oodles of Third World folk artists. There were nice pieces in the show even if the premise was lazy and uninformative.
"Sinceres Felicitations" at Ecole Nationale Superieure des Beaux-Arts. The graduating class of 2001, as juried by Fabrice Hybert, Sylvia Fanchon, and Dominique Gauthier. Lots of future video artists and Biennale-circuit-conceptualists-in-training. Very little painting, but I liked GaŽl Davrinche's large canvases convincingly channeling children's art, and a couple of digital photosurrealist images by Vincent Mauger, using Toy Story-like modeling, texturing, and lighting. The confused state of current art was best reflected in Pierre Olivier Balu's installation: a row of not-half-bad paintings along the top of the wall, a row of performance-documentation photographs underneath, and the obligatory video monitor on the floor. All bases covered, all curators satisfied.
"Rodin en 1900" at Musee Luxembourg. This exhibition recreated the "Rodin Pavilion" at the 1900 World's Fair. The artist appeared to have moved everything en masse from his studio--bronzes, plasters, unfinished works, drawings, documentary photos--to the pavilion. The recreation, with its temporary wood floor, inner-lit canvas walls and salon style groupings of drawings and photos, was pleasantly po-mo.
Trip to Versailles to visit the State Apartments, Hall of Mirrors, Gardens, and ticket-taker-attended toilet. It was fascinating to be here after seeing the Mad King Ludwig's digs in Bavaria. Ludwig worshipped Louis XIV, and his castle is in many ways a miniature of Versailles. Interesting that Bavaria's most famous unacknowledged gay modeled his huge, floor to ceiling bed canopy on the Queen's bed at Versailles rather than the King's.
I've spent two days looking at Paris galleries and have to disagree with the conventional art world wisdom that there's "nothing going on here." There's the usual amount of lame, Bienniale-circuit conceptualism, but also a fair amount of what I'm most interested in, which is a kind of lumpen, post-minimal, Pop abstraction with no accompanying grad-school text whatever. There were good examples of this in Munich--I particularly enjoyed Heribert Heindl's quasi-monochromes on shiny commercial billboard paper--but the Paris variety is almost what you'd expect from this bright, effervescent city: a kind of loose, brightly colored, don't-give-a-shit scatter aesthetic. (Imagine the visual equivalent of Air and Daft Punk.) One of my favorite galleries is one of the least-taken-seriously, according to my host: Galerie Bernard Jordan. Physically it's a bit of a dump, but I liked the show, by Stephen Maas, a British-born sculptor who lives and works in Paris (below is his Earshot, 2000, made of silicon, rubber, and packing foam). I was also pleased to see that the gallery shows Peter Soriano, an underappreciated sculptor from New York. Other shows I liked were Gabrielle Wambaugh at Eric Dupont, a group show at Jennifer Flay, and Moshekwa Langa at Ghislaine Hussenot (the last artist is South African, but fits my description--think Mike Kelley meets Tony Feher).
I also enjoyed the revamped Pompidou Center, where I lingered over a large room devoted to the indigenous Support/Surface movement of the late '60s/early '70s, scratched my head over a deconstructive-impressionist "history of cinema" by Jean Luc Godard, and chortled through a meaty program of Roman Signer's gratuitous explosion videos.
I arrived in Paris yesterday, after an eight-hour train ride from Munich that started pleasantly cool and ended swelteringly hot. I had the 6-person compartment to myself until Nancy, when it suddenly filled up with French people (and an American yuppie couple who complained about the heat in ill-disguised sotto voce all the way to Paris). I was struck by how empty and manicured the European landscape is outside the cities; the billboards, trailers, yard-junk, and garbage that line every American roadside and railbed are simply not to be seen. What's wrong with these people?
Dave and Trish's apartment is beautiful, and I'm finally sitting down to jot down some notes on my Munich trip.
The Lenbachhaus is a sprawling 19th Century mansion that houses changing contemporary art exhibits as well as a permanent collection. Its highlights are the Blaue Reiter galleries, featuring scores of pre-abstraction Kandinskys (his best work, IMHO), and a great selection of early Richters. A temporary exhibit of Noriyuki Haraguchi's all-black paintings, sculptures, and installations was bad beyond belief, ripping off much better ideas by Panamarenko, Gunter Umberg, and Charles Ray. At the Odeonsplatz, I ogled the Felderrnhalle portico and wandered around inside the Theatinerkirch, an ornament-crazed baroque church. After bratwurst and ice cream at the Viktualienmarkt (a large open air eating place filled with a beer-drinking lunch crowd), I strolled past the Neues Rathaus (an over-the-top, Neo-Gothic commercial building) and ducked inside the Residenz (Palace) to view the "Untertwegs" ("Moving On") exhibit, featuring Stefan Eberstadt's work. Later, Stefan, Courtenay, and I had dinner at the city's bucolic beer garden.
After entering the Haus Der Kunst, a many-columned, faux-Athenian building constructed during the Third Reich (where the "Degenerate Art" exhibit was held), I decided I didn't need to see the retrospective of stripe painter Sean Scully--living proof that a thousand collectors CAN be wrong. At the edge of the English Garden, I watched surfers in wetsuits "shooting the curl"-- a four-foot-high standing wave resulting from the steady influx of canal-water into the Garden. Next, I headed to the Bavarian National Museum, where I viewed elaborate rococo cabinets, suits of filigreed armor, and an intricate model of Munich in the late 1800s, with all buildings and monuments painstakingly carved in wood and arrayed on a vast circular tabletop. In the evening I tagged along with Courtenay and Stefan to several gallery openings. At a satellite space run by the Munich Academy in a downtown subway tunnel, two artists had built a "bachelor pad" complete with particleboard conversation pit, wall paintings of ducks, and portable bar stocked with a brand of German whiskey popular in the 70s. At a very raw, temporary space called Sub 11 we saw three excellent videos. In "Boys Don't Cry," an all-girl rock-and-roll trio enthusiastically bangs out the Cure song for an audience consisting of two or three spastically dancing guys; incongruously, the overdubbed music sounds more like the metronomic synthpop of Trio's "Da Da Da" than the hardcore punk the girls seem to be pantomiming. The camera zooms and pans in a delightfully inept imitation of MTV circa 1981, and in case you missed the connection, the network's logo floats jerkily in the screen's upper right corner. In Wolfgang Stehle's "Beautyservice," a hairdresser-type uses an industrial grinder to remove four unsightly moles from the face of an attractive young woman: the lo-fi special effects keep this from being gory, but a whiff of sadomasochism is definitely in the air. In Stehle's "Kokon," the artist (wrapped in a sleeping bag) mimes a caterpillar that raids the icebox, disappears into a cocoon of cardboard boxes, and then transforms into a butterfly. Unfortunately for the newly-hatched creature, the transition takes place indoors, so for the last three minutes the viewer watches uncomfortably as the artist, looking more like a mental patient than an insect, bangs futilely against the window glass, trying to reach the light. After the openings, we ate at a traditional Bavarian restaurant, where I had the Dick Cheney Special: schweinbraten (an enormous slab of gravy-soaked pork), semmeknodel (a bread dumpling, also gravy-soaked), and beer.
In the afternoon we drove an hour south into the Bavarian Alps to visit Ettal, another fabulously ornate baroque church, and Linderhof, where the mad King Ludwig II built his castle-away-from-home. After looking at the castle (actually a large house, liberally borrowing elements from Versailles) we toured the architectural follies such as the Moroccan room, hunting lodge, and Wagnerian "grotto." In the evening, I visited the studio of Heribert Heindl, a painter who teaches at the Munich Academy, working under Gunter Forg. Heindl turns slick-surfaced, commercially printed sheets of paper (typically sections of unused billboards) into "found monochromes." Matching the background color closely but not exactly, he paints out whatever letters or images appear on the billboard, allowing the eradicated information to determine the size and duration of the strokes, which remain slightly visible on the surface as painterly "gestures." The paper is then attached directly to the wall. Below are two abutting pieces: Toyota and C.I.C., both from 1998.
Visited FOE 156 Gallery, which was in the process of being radically redesigned by Australian artist Stephen Bram. Using standard drywall and tape-and-bed construction, Bram is turning the gallery into a white cube, Caligari-style. Except for the ceiling and floor, which remain level, all the gallery walls are canted at odd, steep angles; in a couple of rooms, the walls funnel the visitor into angular, claustrophobic dead ends. FOE 156 is planning to show the gallery empty, but I'd love to see paintings hanging in there, in a perfectly level, chest-high line. I also visited the studios of Christoph Unger, Stefan Fritsch, and Stefan Eberstadt, and saw Eberstadt's public commission piece, located near a WWII-era concrete bunker. Both this piece and his piece in the "Unterwegs" show employ a kind of veiled construction, in which screws or holes on the outside of a minimal, rectilinear structure give clues to an invisible, inner structure, which the viewer works out deductively (but only up to a point). Addendum--in Paris, a piece of Stephen Maas's suggested a kind of bizarro-Eberstadt: a sandwich of foamcore slabs bolted onto a wooden armature, with the arrangement of screws also hinting at an (arbitrary) underlying structure. It would be great to see Eberstadt's "Unterwegs" piece and the Maas piece side-by-side: form and anti-form, each with a hidden dimension.
This is mz second daz in Munich, and I'm tzping this on a German kezboard that transposes the letters y and z. Okay, Now I'm getting the hang of it. Spent several hours in the Alte Pinakothek, an enormous 19th Century building with a vast painting collection assembled by the Bavarian aristocracy (Duke Wilhelm IV, King Ludwig I, and others). In addition to canvases by Brueghel, Holbein, Cranach, Bosch, Ter Borch, Van Ruisdael, and some very cinematic Rubens on permanent view, the museum was hosting a traveling exhibition of Murillo kinderleben (tykes shooting craps, eating fruit rinds, picking lice out of each other's hair).
Munich architecture is almost mediterranean--classical buildings painted lemon, ochre, raw siena, and every other conceivable shade of yellow, arranged in long plazas reminiscent of the scuola metafisica paintings of de Chirico (who lived here in his formative years). The city is clean, organized, and slum-free; every street has a clearly marked bike path and most buildings have bike racks. Advertising tends towards the smutty, however, much more than in the States. The ice cream menu at the place where we ate lunch today featured a drawing of a hottie smearing quadruple scoops on her breasts. An ad for a digital camera has a bikini-clad tart clutching the product at midriff level and staring provocatively the viewer; the caption reads "What Verona is holding in her hand gets much bigger." (Next to the ad is an example of a photo-enlargement.)
Galleries visited included Architekturgalerie E.V. (showing designs and models by the Dutch architecture firm MVRDV), Philomene Magers (slightly glue-damaged John Baldessari photos from the '70s), Michael Zink (a nice video installation by Ewan McDonald in the basement and paintings of manga kiddies by Yoshitomo Nara--one of the not-so-interesting SUPERFLAT artists--upstairs), and Francoise Heitsch (multilayered, perspectivally ambiguous photo-installations of combs, chairs, ironing boards, plastic trays and other domestic bricabrac by Berlin artist Catrin Otto).
I recently took a respite from thinking about technology and the n-grams it plants in the creative brain and read a book about America at the turn of the last century. In The Iron Baby Angel, 1954, Washington and Lee University law professor Charles R. McDowell chronicles three months in the life of a small town (Danville, KY), seen from the perspective of precocious 9-year old boy. The story looks back to a time when every town had a street intersection with a horse-drinking fountain, which served as a nodal point for the exchange of news and gossip, much like the modern-day portal site or weblog (oh well, so much for that respite). With a gift for high-flown Southern gab reminiscent of Mark Twain's, McDowell takes us into the nerve center, introduces us to the "loafers" who hang out there (street-intellectuals all), then fans out via the boy's peripatetic wanderings to explore the town's back alleys, freightyards, schools, mansions, and ruins. Unlike Twain, who wrote about his own time, McDowell is looking back to his childhood, and seems very concerned to nail down every aspect of a world he knows has vanished (significantly, the "hoss-drinking fountain" is knocked down halfway through the book). Lacking any primary conflict or sweeping narrative arc, The Iron Baby Angel--named after a cherub from the fountain--presents an exhaustive, anecdotal, but always entertaining catalog of the customs, speech patterns, clothing, and industries that prevailed in America circa 1909. In its vernacular humor and total-immersion approach to its subject, the novel bizarrely reminded me of V. S. Naipaul's early novels, in particular The Suffrage of Elvira, which takes place in Trinidad in the '50s. Both McDowell and Naipaul wrote in depth about the worlds they knew, intelligently and without cynicism: it's interesting that they resemble each other, but even more interesting that they should speak powerfully to an urban, electronically-augmented present. The appeal isn't nostalgia or escapism but actually the comfort one finds in realizing that life in the apartments, parking lots, and cubicles of latter-day America isn't all that different.
The image below is from a series of "rave video stills," which I've been photographing off the television, developing at a moto-photo place, scanning, and printing on archival photo paper. The idea is to freeze the flow of a video that is in constant morphing motion, using the pause, advance frame, and reverse frame buttons on the VCR to nail the most intriguing still image. Is it art? appropriation? curating? stupidity? All of the above, I think.
A short history of Mel Ramos.
Mel Ramos's pictures of babes posing with giant Coke bottles and spark plugs were considered Pop in the '60s, so he became a canonical artist early in his career. Then he did a series of women posing with animals, which were considered "bad taste." Then feminist theory came along, equating the admiring gaze of a man with rape, and suddenly his whole oeuvre was suspect. By the early '90s, Arts magazine disgustedly wrote off his paintings as "masturbation plates." What's awkward is, he's Hispanic, and by the early '90s the (white, elitist) art world was bending over backward to be "multicultural." What do you do when the culture you're fetishizing fetishizes women? Best to just ignore him. Then lesbian artist/critic Collier Schorr wrote a review in Artforum proclaiming that she always considered Ramos's babes to be "hot." Then some Euro-conceptualist did a performance piece with a live nude girl posing on top of a Ramos-esque painting of a raccoon. Then John Currin and Lisa Yuskavage made careers out of painting tacky female nudes. By 2000, a Ramos nude-with-cow was hanging proudly in a group show at Andrea Rosen Gallery in New York.
And Mel lived happily ever after.
Mel Ramos, Young Girl Before a
Mirror #2, oil on canvas, 48" x 35"