It's hard not to be cynical about the day-after-election addition of Michele Obama's portrait to the Elizabeth Peyton show at the New Museum. It reads more like a way to drive talk about and traffic to "Live Forever" than a sincere expression of patriotism and Obama love, not that self and political promotion need to be mutually exclusive. Clearly motivations get mixed: how many more people know about Shepard Fairy's work since he released his famous HOPE poster? But that poster is an example of art contributing to actual change, and it compels the question of intent in the case of Michelle and Sasha Obama Listening to Barack Obama at the Democratic National Convention August 2008 as a post rather than pre-election media hook.
Add to that the sense that this additional piece, tacked on to the end of a long line of other famous faces (Kurt Cobain, Liam Gallagher, and so on), doesn't interact well with the rest of the show, except perhaps with the uncomfortable tabloid re-do of mother and son Jackie and John (Jackie Fixing John's Hair) (1999). Then, add the speculation about an unsettling compositional similarity with the famous photograph of Coretta Scott King and her daughter, mourning at Martin Luther King Jr,'s funeral. And Michelle and Sasha Obama ends up serving as an example of the ways in which we attempt (and need) to heap context and explanation into Peyton's pretty but inherently lacking portraits. The works use tabloid culture simply to create their own importance, participating wholeheartedly and without irony in scary celebrity fixations.
Paddy Johnson, in her Art Fag City column for The L, ends a very astute
assessment of the critical disagreement surrounding Elizabeth Peyton's
work with the contention that anyone wondering why the artist is
showing at the New Museum at all will remain confused after visiting
"Live Forever," due to the layout of this particular space and lack of
accompanying texts. It's true that the large walls of the New Museum
don't do justice to the too many small paintings, which doesn't help in
the experience of the work. But in light of the contrast of Mary
Heilmann's beautiful, assured abstractions of cultural reality on view
downstairs, I would go so far as to say that Peyton's paintings,
drawings and lithographs (all copies of photographs) themselves display
a lack of depth that can't be explained away.
In the second floor gallery, Heilmann's "To Be Somebody" elicits an immediate sigh of relief. Here, in bright vibrant colors painted on canvas by a loose but confident hand, is an excellent example of how painted works can be cool, fun and familiar without inhabiting a void or deleting substance. The retrospective includes early sculpture (Heilmann has an MFA from Berkeley in the subject) such as Big Dipper (1969) and Starry Night (1967), but the focus is mainly on her big, dripping painted squares, happily messy geometry in bright neon -- green, pink, red, orange -- with a lot of black contrast.
Linda Nochlin, art historian and critic, spoke on Monday night at The New School about the relationship between "the institution" -- here, The New Museum -- and the audience. She joked that the typical visual encounter amounted mostly to sore feet and misunderstanding; funny, unfortunately, because it's so often true. In "To Be Somebody" Heilmann seems to be responding literally to this type of dissatisfaction. Comfortable colored rolling chairs invite you to relax while you lose time in her deceptively accessible color pallet. A digital slide show Her Life displays some nature-based inspirations for Heilmann's painted designs. Her work is challenging and thought provoking, but the experience of it is not exclusionary, and certainly not painful (though I should mention that I've heard at least one complaint about the unnecessarily extra-bright florescent lights in the museum, if we want to get picky).
Heilmann, who grew up in San Francisco and Southern California before moving to New York in 1968, captures the best of what a real, easy California sensibility can be: smart, forgiving, and comfortable with imperfection. In fact, her works actually claim their drips and smudges, and then elevate them. This is more a depiction of fanciful reality then an escape into fantasy. Her reality is beautiful but messy, and slightly out of control (within bounds). I was particularly drawn to the large one-hued pieces, such as the bright red Chinatown (1976) and The Big Black Mirror (1975), done all in shades of black. Both are examples of Heilmann's precision and restraint, which might not seem like obvious traits in these canvases bursting with color and inconsistency. But that's what makes Heilmann so great, because underneath the fun presentation you can trust that everything is intelligently and precisely in its right place.
Mary Heilmann and Elizabeth Peyton
The New Museum, 235 Bowery
Heilmann closes January 26, Peyton closes January 11