Articles by

<Christopher Howard>

06/06/12 4:00am

Emma Bee Bernstein, Untitled (#164)” (2006)

In one of her two hundred Polaroids, Emma Bee Bernstein holds a handwritten sign that reads “HI SADVILLE,” but the slight smirk on her face and the trite irony of her Spam logo t-shirt dismisses any true sense of melancholy. In fact, the title of her exhibition at Microscope Gallery, Exquisite Fucking Boredom, mischievously misleads, as across the show (through June 25) despondency is conspicuously absent. Nevertheless, such a glib statement isn’t entirely out of place for this acutely self-aware artist.

Armed with a Polaroid OneStep and a Spectra 2, and flaunting a boisterous spirit, Bernstein documented herself and her friends, family and lovers during her undergraduate years at the University of Chicago (2003–7), in a range of settings, mostly domestic interiors like kitchens, bathrooms and bedrooms. Her subjects—barely out of their teens—are playful, flirtatious and goofy, sometimes serious but never sullen. One young woman poses sideways for the camera, topless with hand on hip, her red lipstick matching the heart shapes sewn onto her apron as she stands in front of a stove. In another picture, Bernstein models coquettishly in a cherry-red dress with matching lipstick, testing feminine roles in pursuit of some kind of truth. Several photographs of the artist’s boyfriend, submerged in milky bathwater or standing stark naked, feel tender and searching. It’s rare to find a photograph without someone in it—even a finger accidentally covering the lens indicates a human presence. And despite the casualness inherent to instant cameras, Bernstein’s compositions are strong, with each frame creatively and purposefully filled.

Several Polaroids seem to serve as sketches for Bernstein’s more formal works, coolly depicting attractive young women in staged scenarios of eye-popping color; they were shown last year at Janet Kurnatowski Gallery in Brooklyn. These images are soaked with influences from contemporary art and fashion—Cindy Sherman and Katy Grannan, Juergen Teller and Guy Bourdin—but at a time when every hipster with a camera fancies himself as the next Nan Goldin, Bernstein’s Polaroids are something all their own. One reason is because they’re so normal. Bernstein’s safe, earnest work impressively avoids vapid self-expression as seen on faux-glamorous websites like the Cobrasnake and Last Night’s Party, or in sketchy American Apparel advertisements. While someone like Dash Snow, a contemporaneous artist who also used an instant camera, habitually portrays drug use and group sex among his circle of pranksters, vandals and partiers, Bernstein shows us a harmless pillow fight. She may drink and smoke, as any college girl would, but compared to folks in Snow’s world, her hangover is probably much milder.

Polaroids possess built-in nostalgia, and Bernstein’s images radiate a warm sense of genuine belonging, and since many are self-portraits, you know someone else was sharing the moment. Yet being surrounded by people she loved and who loved her couldn’t prevent the artist from committing suicide in 2008, at age 23. Her parents discovered the Polaroids, which had never been shown publicly, among other work in her apartment following her death. The exhibition’s curator, Phong Bui, who also helped organize the Kurnatowski show, combed through the collection and thoughtfully selected and framed a dozen sets of ten or twenty images in long horizontal and vertical rows, creating an installation that suggests slide shows or filmstrips. Narrative sequences are hard to parse for those outside Bernstein’s social milieu, but connections between adjacent images need not always tell a story. Presenting the Polaroids in this way, as an arbitrary, subjective flow of memories, offers an uplifting tribute to the artist’s brief but full life.

05/23/12 4:00am

Installation View Courtesy The Center For Book Arts

“Canceled”: Alternative Manifestations and Productive Failures, which chronicles an idiosyncratic history of terminated art exhibitions and projects whose reputations endure through printed materials, deftly explores critical dynamics of power and authority while generally skirting trite examples of First Amendment flag-waving. With a compact presentation at the Center for Book Arts (through June 30) of catalogues, posters, magazines, booklets, PDFs, and more, curator Lauren van Haaften-Schick establishes how, over the last 55 years, myriad forms of censorship have evolved from swift police ambushes and reactionary political grandstanding to the development of complex legal positions on intellectual property.

Which isn’t to say the older, caustic approaches have disappeared: the removal of David Wojnarowicz’s film A Fire in My Belly (1986–87) from the exhibition Hide/Seek made headlines in late 2010, inducing flashbacks of the tumultuous Culture Wars from two decades ago. But more significant to contemporary conversations are two recent legal entanglements regarding ownership of images and art—Patrick Cariou suing Richard Prince and Gagosian Gallery for unlawfully appropriating his photographs, and Mass MoCA and Christoph Büchel battling over the fate of a massive installation, the incongruously titled Training Ground for Democracy, that ran over budget and was left incomplete—that largely disregard what the works actually depict. Documentation from both cases, including Amy Wilson’s watercolors based on photographs of Training Ground and a print-on-demand book containing Prince’s deposition, the most extensive and truthful “interview” the notoriously cagey artist has ever given, alongside other official court documents, doesn’t quite offer a titillating experience. But you’ll get properly schooled on important issues peripheral to quaint concerns about, say, pictures of naked people.

The curator includes famous cases of canceled exhibitions, such as the Guggenheim’s annulment of a Hans Haacke survey in 1971, while others, like Jo Baer’s 1972 refusal to accept a severe downgrade in gallery space at the Whitney, are lesser known. Michael Rakowitz’s letter from 2008, in which he declines an offer to show work at a Chicago museum that had previously caved to donor pressure and closed a show 10 weeks early, demonstrates that things haven’t improved. A “lost” Bas Jan Ader film from the 1970s that was posted to YouTube in 2007—later deemed a fake, created by the artist David Horvitz—was flagged and removed due to a vaguely articulated infringement claim. This suggests interesting questions about the status of the bootleg in an age of illegal downloads, as well as who owns the millions of photographs, videos, and songs uploaded to proprietary websites like YouTube and Facebook. Think of all those unread but clicked-through terms of agreement.

It’s not clear why van Haaften-Schick associates the work of Seth Siegelaub, a visionary art dealer from the late 1960s who was among the first to champion the publication as gallery space, with documentation of cancelations, as his “alternative manifestations” of distribution and display helped artists to expand outward without thinking of institutional support as a first resort. Besides, most any show, shut down or not, is experienced in the moment and leaves behind a paper trail of catalogues, press releases, newspaper clippings, and installation photographs. Likewise, her notion of “productive failures” feels trendy, but her point is taken: cancelations are never the last word and often lead to better things. When officials in Cyprus rescinded support for the roving European biennial Manifesta in 2006, participating curators, writers, and artists developed the informal art-education center unitednationsplaza in Berlin and Mexico City, and also Night School in New York, two highly influential projects that anticipated the similarly independent-minded Occupy movement.

03/28/12 4:00am

If Cindy Sherman had disappeared from the art world after shooting the seventy Untitled Film Stills (1977–80), her first major series of photographs, she would have left behind one of the most conceptually astute, visually compelling bodies of work in 20th-century art. She hasn’t stopped working, of course, and her MoMA retrospective (through June 11) accelerates the notion that this longtime New Yorker deserves a place in the pantheon of modern greats, joining Picasso, Duchamp, Pollock, and Warhol.

From the Untitled Film Stills, for which the artist typecast herself as various female cinematic types (Hitchcock blonde, Godardian babe, femme fatale, girl next door), to the more recent Society Portraits, whose women sport delightfully atrocious fake tans and botched facelifts, Sherman has driven a singular idea—vamping in costume and makeup amid elaborate backdrops and props—into a career that encapsulates countless feminist, aesthetic and psychoanalytic theories. However much her work may express ideas from, say, Laura Mulvey’s famous essay on the male gaze, “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema,” it does much more than simply illustrate scholarship. One of Sherman’s greatest qualities is the way her subject matter brims with potential meaning. Anyone with a cursory knowledge of art history, critical theory or popular culture can produce sophisticated interpretations. And yet her photographs are so smart and complex on their own that they transcend theory—which is why it’s disheartening that, as an exhibition, Cindy Sherman falls short.

The show’s faults, though, come from the curators. Avoiding an overly strict chronological approach, Eva Respini and Lucy Gallun superbly install 35 years of work in rooms that collect discrete series: twelve Centerfolds (1981) commissioned but ultimately rejected by Artforum; numerous History Portraits (1989–90), hung salon style, that caricature the old masters; a dynamite 2000 series of soccer moms, aging bimbos, executive types, and ladies who lunch. But attempts at thematic clusters, cherry-picked from different parts of Sherman’s oeuvre, barely hold together, especially the gallery focusing on, quite flatly, group compositions. Dispersions of Clowns (2003–4) across the exhibition diminish their frightening aspects and rein in Sherman’s theatrical tendencies.

The curators all but ignore eight years of work—only three photos here were made after 1992 and before 2000—a move that skips over, for example, the artist’s fascinating series of masks from this period. They also downplay the gruesome Disasters and odious Sex Pictures from the late 1980s and early 1990s, which cry for the dim lights and dark walls afforded to the History Portraits. (To their credit, they include the most abject images from these series, such as the double-crotch mannequin with shriveled penis and bushy vulva sprouting a tampon string.)

With over 170 pictures, there’s much to like. If you find the Untitled Film Stills to be too white, educated and middle class, delight in (or recoil from) the vomit splatter of “Untitled #175” (1987) or poke fun at the fortysomething socialites clutching red Solo party cups in “Untitled #463” (2007–8). On the whole, while Sherman’s work is stellar and its place in art history incontestable, MoMA’s presentation is surprisingly, but far from ultimately, less than satisfying.

Photo Courtesy The Artist and Metro Pictures, New York

10/12/11 4:00am

If any contemporary painter could stand toe to toe with Willem de Kooning, the late Abstract Expressionist currently enjoying a retrospective at the Museum of Modern Art, it’s Jenny Saville, a Brit returning to New York with her first exhibition here in eight years. Titled Continuum (through October 22), it presents thirteen works on canvas and paper that showcase her mastery of the figure through splatters and stains, and through delicate, refined sketches and furious brushstrokes. Critics and historians have roundly criticized de Kooning for his rough treatment of women in his art. Saville has been no more sympathetic, depicting female corpses, burn victims, and the morbidly obese in the past, but the primary subject in those large-scale works is often herself, adding a crucial dimension to portrayals of women.

With Warholian repetition, Saville reworks four times the head of a preteen girl that appeared in an older painting, “Stare”(2004–5). For each iteration she renders the dark-brown bangs and prominent ear differently, a birthmark on one cheek disappearing entirely into the face of creamy pinks and lavenders, soaring crimsons, and dark abrasive reds the color of dried blood. Hung side by side, “Red Stare Head I” and “Red Stare Head II”(both 2007–11) are mirror images of each other. Paired across the room are “Red Stare Head IV”(2006–11) and “Red Stare Collage”(2007–9), a work comprising three large painted sheets of paper mounted on plywood. The messy, unfinished quality of the collage makes it the best of the group.

Saville’s obsession with a singular image persists in other works whose shock comes not only from the discordant mix of media—energetic lines of charcoal repeatedly interrupt the casually painted sections—but also from the unlikeliest of subjects: the classic Madonna and Child. Saville modernizes the nativity by presenting herself as the Virgin Mary; her infant daughter and toddler son compete for the Christ position. For the most resolved work, “The Mothers”(2011), she drew several variations of the scene on canvas, trying out numerous poses before setting the final composition in paint. Leaving the older, extraneous scribbles in place, Saville offers a strange simultaneity of movement and possibility.

By focusing on details such as belly buttons, penises, and swollen bellies, which suggest legacy, survival, and connections between generations, Saville cleverly acknowledges a competition not with contemporary artists but with Raphael, Leonardo, and Velázquez, just as de Kooning did before her. The title of her drawing that isolates the king’s daughter from “Las Meninas“(1656), called “Study for Pentimenti V (Velázquez, Picasso, de Kooning)”(2011), does this explicitly. Themes of tender domesticity and uses of traditional subject matter typically concede to innovation. Some could argue that Saville is playing it safe, but she seems to be exploring artistic advancement apart from edgy subject matter, with all the stubbornness and hesitance that comes with the process.

(Top image: Jenny Saville, Continuum, installation view. Photo: Rob McKeever, courtesy Gagosian)

07/06/11 4:00am

Aspirations to be “greener” and a need to cut costs in an unstable economy have obliged galleries and museums to trim or eliminate their printing budgets. Whereas mailed postcards and press releases once accompanied exhibitions, today’s publicity often comes only electronically. While many would shrug their shoulders at another 20th-century practice rendered obsolete, those who prize physical documents recognize that while websites disappear and tweets get buried, paper can last for years, serving as crucial primary art-historical documentation.

The artist Lawrence Weiner obliquely references ephemera’s slow disappearance in “AN ABROGATION OF THE INHERENT DESTINY OF ANY OBJECT AT HAND” (2011), a work consisting of those words spelled out on black and silver vinyl that spans ten feet on a wall inside Susan Inglett Galley (through July 22). It’s his singular official contribution to the exhibition 
Specific Object Presents Lawrence Weiner’s Published Work from the Jean-Noël Herlin Archive Project. The approximately 450 other pieces are culled from the collection of Herlin, a Frenchman who ran an antiquarian bookstore in Soho from 1972 to 1987 and had the foresight to save art-related paperwork.

Organized by David Platzker of Specific Object, which specializes in books and printed matter, the exhibition focuses exclusively on Weiner, whose use of language as sculptural material has long contested the traditional form and display of art. Housed in custom-fitted plastic sleeves and arranged chronologically in three parallel rows on each gallery wall are announcement cards, press releases, posters, flyers, event programs, book and magazine covers, clippings of newspaper reviews, photographs, audiocassette j-cards, and much more. Slivers of manila file folders from the archive, with Herlin’s handwritten notation, give rhythm to the sequential arrangement. Pairing this particular artist with these kinds of “published works” brilliantly calls into question conventional ideas about the role of archives, exhibitions, research, collecting, and above all value.

Weiner has repeatedly stated that it does not matter if his work is built (it can remain a text) or if he builds it himself. The exhibition’s starting point, “Turf, Stake and String” (1968), is a sticker based on a drawing for a sculpture at Windham College in Vermont, the destruction of which led the artist to this casual approach. Thus a work like “THE SALT OF THE EARTH MINGLED WITH THE SALT OF THE SEA” (ca. 1984) is identical whether printed on a museum wall or typeset on cardstock—or if the action is accomplished physically. Likewise a text piece placed among advertisements in a German train schedule is art, but an invitation letter from Who’s Who in America or a mailing label ripped from a package has a harder case to make. While early printed materials may be valued for their rarity, their presentation varied. Weiner’s now-recognizable style of font, color, and design seems to have developed in the early 1980s.

Artifact or memorabilia, Published Work gives equal billing to both categories, enhancing the work of scholars who might make insightful observations about the artist’s development. Yet many items on view are double-sided, so the exhibition only tells half the story—indicative of the archive’s role as partial source for historical reconstruction. Most of all, Published Work demonstrates how Weiner, usually labeled a Conceptual artist, strove not to dematerialize art but to make it diffuse and available to everyone.

(Images courtesy Susan Inglett Gallery)

05/25/11 4:00am

Laurel Nakadate‘s retrospective at MoMA PS1, Only the Lonely (through August 8), confirms her reputation as a daring artist using bold sexuality and taboo subject matter to push buttons so hard that she completely short circuits the controls. Nakadate, who is half white and half Asian, isn’t a conventional beauty but is attractive nonetheless, and her photographs and videos hinge significantly on her smooth skin and lean physique. Her work frustrates because she broaches but never resolves complex entanglements of sex and power. Yet Nakadate can’t be dismissed as a tease because her approach has been validated in the art world—through predecessors like Balthus, Hans Bellmer, Ana Mendieta and Hannah Wilke—and outside it. Madonna, for example, challenged religion and popular culture in the 1980s with similarly specious feminist credentials.

Nakadate emerged ten years ago with thinly conceived videos in which she convinced unattractive, bottom-rung American males to participate in silly charades. In “Oops!” (2000) she dances around middle-aged men to Britney Spears’s jailbait anthem, and in “Beg for Your Life” (2006) she holds a toy gun to their heads as they cry out, jokingly, for mercy. Nakadate develops a sympathetic rapport with the unlikely actors, dissolving predatory impulses on both sides. Her frequent coy glances into the camera, however, reveal a knowingness that disturbingly naturalizes a Darwinian truism that attractive people have inalienable advantages in life while conservatively reaffirming Edmund Burke’s eighteenth-century ideas about aesthetic qualities of beauty and ugliness.

For “365 Days: A Catalogue of Tears” (2010), Nakadate forced herself to cry daily for one calendar year, documenting the performance in photographs. A concurrent exhibition at Leslie Tonkonow Artwork + Projects (through June 25) presents a full set of 8 1/2 x 11 inch prints and two new videos, while 122 enlargements cover the walls of two large PS1 galleries. The artist’s feeble attempt to counter the feigned happiness of Facebook profile pictures neglects the full range of human emotions, and the sheer excess of images in both shows deadens their emotional impact. If Nakadate is exploring not sadness and loneliness but emptiness, her work takes an interesting turn. An analogous vacuity permeates her soundtracks: by including tunes from Neil Diamond, Juice Newton, and Elvis, she exposes the artificial sentimentality built into popular music intended for personalization by mass audiences.

Nakadate gets behind the camera in newer pieces, and her scenarios have become darker, hollower, and better. For “Good Morning Sunshine” (2009) she creeps into the bedrooms of three teenage girls and, with flat compliments and suggestive questions, coaxes them out of their clothes. Allusions to online predators surface, but so do thoughts of domestic abuse, even incest. Fact and fiction increasingly blur—how staged are these awkward moments? Nakadate’s first full-length, “Stay the Same Never Change”(2009), strings together vignettes over ninety-three minutes but never coheres. The pace of her second feature, “The Wolf Knife” (2010), reinterpreting Ghost World as sprawling mumblecore, likewise burns slowly. Nakadate’s amateur cinematography and editing serve a purpose: to numb the viewer until two bewildering climaxes during the final twenty minutes illuminate the passion and perversion she had only danced around—literally—in earlier 

(Images courtesy Leslie Tonkonow Artworks+Projects)

03/16/11 4:00am

Simultaneous solo exhibitions in DODGEgallery‘s duplex space—Jane Fox Hipple‘s Blanks and Holes and Robert de Saint Phalle‘s Curtain Call (both through March 27)—respectively explore a pair of longstanding inquiries in contemporary art: framing and staging. Many artists lose themselves in a conceptual hall of mirrors when dealing with the two, or isolate their work with rigid institutional critique. Hipple and de Saint Phalle adeptly sidestep such dead ends and endgame situations to offer challenging takes on the picture frame and art’s institutional setting.

The nails hammered or holes cut into the wooden supports of several of Hipple’s fourteen abstract paintings—mostly oil on panel with a finite color palette ranging from lavender to salmon and from aqua to mint—would seem to resume the avant-garde attack on modern art. Though serialized with their vertical, portrait-like orientations, the works instead suggest mirrors or windows—an archaic notion in Western painting. At the same time, Hipple exaggerates the avant-garde’s potential for infinite regress by painting thick borders around the perimeter of half her works, making rectangles within rectangles within rectangles. Most thrilling is the black spray paint on the gallery wall surrounding “as such non such Allegory” (2011), a large painting with its own rim of black paint around the surface edges, which in turn contain a purple field containing a white rectangle, the shape of which is duplicated in a second fleshy-pink painting to the right, titled “The Keeper” (2010). A nail faintly visible at dead center of this smaller piece punctuates the path to get there.

Hipple gives other tantalizing directions, such as the two eye-level holes drilled into the front of “Given(s)” (2010), framing her work in Duchampian terms. The long, elegant pink strokes in “Sexy Painting” (2010) offer sensuous optical pleasure, but a punctured gash on the panel’s right side, spray-painted hot pink, indicates a preference for something rougher. She stuffs a scrap of black t-shirt into a hole in “The Good in the Bad” (2010), recalling Jasper John’s “Gray Painting with Ball” (1958). Hipple in fact shares the same quiet, enigmatic sensibility with the elder artist, though she’s more playful than deadpan.

De Saint Phalle presents sculptures that are equally hermetic but more visually audacious. His predilection is for dramatic staging, not unlike Banks Violette, but through feats of balance. For the track-stopping “Dress Rehearsal” (2010), he impressively stabilizes a large pane of back-painted glass with a single steel brace caught on the leg of a low bench. Similarly, a fragile fluorescent bulb supports a fiberglass rock and wooden brace in “Lean To” (2007).

In addition to machine-fabricated materials, de Saint Phalle casts and reuses his own objects, such as the fake stone in “Lean To,” whose crushed mold turns up in “Untitled (Chameleon)” (2008). He digitally scanned a grocery-store bag’s interior for “La Nana” (2010), casting the empty volume in black crystal and placing it back inside the bag.

The art historian Michael Fried used the term “theatrical” in his 1967 essay “Art and Objecthood” to disparage Minimalist sculpture. De Saint Phalle departs from Fried and Minimalism in two distinct ways: first by using industrial materials to advance traditional sculptural concerns like composition, color, and part-to-whole relationships. Second, he brings sculpture closer to set design, with elements like the non-functioning theater light hoisted on a long white pole in “Untitled (Chameleon).” His sculptural staging presents mute images without stories or narratives, making the work fascinating 
as well as frustrating.

(images courtesy the artists, DODGEgallery)