Sunday, April 23, 2017

Escape at the New Orleans Museum of Art

Japonism is the term used to describe Japanese influence on European art. It flourished in the mid-nineteenth century due to a renewed trade between Japan and the continent following the seclusion era. Artists like Claude Monet with his famous painting The Water Lily-Pond, 1899Edgar Degas, Vincent van Gogh who collected Japanese prints with his brother Theo, and other Impressionist painters , were inspired by Japanese art.
The New Orleans Museum of Art just opened an exhibition: Regina Scully | Japanese Painting: Inner Journeys featuring works of the local artist presented along selected pieces of the museum's Japanese collection.
At the entrance of the dimly lit Japanese gallery, a red monochrome painting from Regina Scully, The Origins of Dreams, 2017, draws the attention under the title of the show. A wall text introduces the exhibition's brainchild along Mindscape 4, 2017, one of the artist's latest work. The display features Scully's contemporary paintings embedded among Japanese landscapes from the 17th to the 19th century. Scully's "intuitive connection with Asian art" started early in her career as seen in Providence Sketches, 1995, oils on chipboard. Upon reaching the main gallery the visitor is met by a line up of bright paintings, monochromes like Passage, 2012 and Excavation 11, 2009, or with a dominant background color for Mindscape 2 and 3, 2017, blue, orange, yellow, according to emotions and moods. From afar, they share a calligraphic abstract language, spread throughout the canvas without a focal point, allowing the eye to wander. The display which does not follow a chronological order includes Delos, 2012 and Channels, 2013, then three black and brown monochrome paintings from the Navigation series, 2009. According to Rotondo-McCord, curator of the exhibition, these inspired the project due to the analogies found between Scully's techniques, use of perspectives, space, colors, and Japanese art. Across, three paintings are in striking contrast with their vivid colors. From the Mindscape series, they were composed following Scully's exposure to hundreds of works from the Japanese collection. With the same graphic qualities than earlier paintings, they integrate new techniques like paint applied directly on the canvas with the fingertips and experiment with horizontal formats influenced by handscrolls. Near the exit, Cosmographia, 2015, a multicolored composition on a white background which could be qualified as semi-abstract, belongs to the museum's permanent collection. 

A disclaimer in the introductory wall text makes it clear: the exhibition is not about comparing Scully's paintings and Japanese landscapes. Van Gogh's direct inspiration from Japanese prints, especially Hiroshige's, was the subject of a didactic exhibition at the Pinacotheque in Paris in 2013. Each of his paintings was matched with a Japanese scene. Here, Scully's paintings are displayed in the gallery to present the contemporary artist's work in light of traditional Eastern art, allowing the visitor to wander back and forth, following the path of a quiet Japanese garden to the top of a mountain or meandering in one of Scully's busy compositions. She characterizes the different scenes as "puzzles" put together to create a journey which becomes a personal adventure for each viewer. Of course, one cannot avoid comparing the works. Scully's medium, acrylic on canvas or board, brings a different texture sometimes difficult to appreciate behind the glass. Her compositions which appear abstract at first veer to figurative when looked at closer as opposed to the idealized figurative Japanese scenery turning into abstract, but the tension between abstract and figurative is more palpable in Scully's works. Japanese landscapes are restful, quiet, serene and Scully's "scapes" are restless, chaotic, reflecting a different world. The subdued fragile colors of Japanese paintings are replaced by yellows, oranges, reds, greens,..., becoming brighter in her Mindscapes series. Moving on from her monochrome series, she now favors multicolored compositions. Just a reminder, monochrome was born from calligraphy in the East, centuries ago as described in the introduction of the book Monochromes: from Malevich to the Present written by Barbara Rose. If  human subjects appear secondary in the Japanese scenes, Scully's are filled with life, telling myriads of stories. Both are about our relationship with nature.
The exhibition generates an ongoing conversation.  

photographs by the author:

Mindscape 5, 2017
Mindscape 3, 2017 (detail)
Mindscape 2, 2017

Thursday, April 6, 2017

In Search of Beauty and Happiness

A random encounter with a work from Agnes Martin at the occasion of a gallery or museum visit can be a lost opportunity. Time and background knowledge about the artist and her body of work are essential to appreciate the austere compositions. In the spirit, my latest reading is Agnes Martin, a book published at the occasion of the retrospective exhibition of her work at the Tate Modern in 2015. It includes abundant photographs, excerpts from the artist's writings and thirteen essays scattered throughout the monograph edited by the co-curators Frances Morris and Tiffany Bell.

Following the introduction which defines the breadth of the exhibition, assembling works from the early to the late period of Agnes Martin's career, a biography also written by Tiffany Bell provides a concurrent history of  the artist's life and of the evolution of her art, on a background of poverty and mental illness. Frances Morris  introduces the artist's work in light of the abstract expressionist movement and of her interaction with her peers. Christina Bryan Rosenberger who wrote "Drawing the Line", a book concentrating on the early works from Martin, contributes a short piece about Islands No.4, 1961, while historian and art critic Richard Tobin explores the whole series. Rachel Barker, Tate's Paintings Conservator, presents a detailed technical analysis of Morning, 1965 and Marion Ackermann comments on Untitled #5, 1998. In her essay "In Pursuit of the Neutral: Agnes Martin's Shimmering Line", Anna Lovatt discusses the contribution of Agnes Martin to the Graphic Art and Briony Fer, her use of geometric shapes in "Who's Afraid of Triangles?". The slow discovery of Martin's works in Europe is described by Maria Mȕller-Schareck, starting with a first painting shown in Zurick in 1960. A collection of portraits selected by Lena Fritsch accompanied by informative comments, sheds some light on the artist's personal life. It includes photographs by  Diane ArbusAnnie Leibovitz and Hans Namuth. Agnes Martin's spiritual influences are approached by Jacquelynn Baas, author of Smile of the Buddha and the German artist Rosemarie Trockel contributes a short poem.
Agnes Martin's writings provide a glimpse into her inner life and the sources of her inspiration. Selected excerpts enrich the reproductions of her works. For example, On a Clear Day, 1973, a Portfolio of 30 screenprints, is introduced by a short quote:
"Art work that is completely abstract - free from any expression of the environment is like music and can be responded to in the same way. Our response to line and tone and color is the same as our response to sounds. And like music abstract art is thematic. It holds meaning for us that is beyond expression in words."... Agnes Martin, (October 15, 1975)
She also expresses her thoughts about art in the essay "Beauty is the Mystery of Life", 1989.
More quotes are found in the book:
"When you find out what you like, you're really finding about yourself... people who look at my painting say that it makes them feel happy like the feeling when you wake up in the morning - And happiness is the goal isn't it?"
" My paintings have neither objects, nor space, nor time, nor anything - no forms"
And to conclude, on the back of the book's jacket: "Beauty is the mystery of life. It is not in the eye, it is in my mind."
Through the essays from scholars, the book offers different perspectives on Agnes Martin's sometimes esoteric work. Ultimately, the artist herself provides the key to her legacy, result of a lifelong search for beauty and happiness.

illustrations: photographs from Tate's website copyright Estate of Agnes Martin 

"Morning", 1965
"Happy Holiday", 1999
"Untitled", 1965

Tuesday, February 28, 2017

Circle of Life

ROOTS, an exhibition featuring three artists, prompted my first visit at the Chapel Gallery on the Xavier University campus. Located on the first floor of the administrative building, the gallery is a wide open space well-suited for the display of Ron Bechet's charcoal drawings, Patrick Waldemar's paintings and Rontherin Ratliff's sculptures. From diverse backgrounds, the three artists share a common heritage expressed through their work. Ron Bechet, born and raised in New Orleans, is presently Art Professor at Xavier University, the Jamaican painter Patrick Waldemar is a recent Crescent City's adoptee and Rontherin Ratliff represents a younger generation of New Orleans artists, deeply afflicted by hurricane Katrina and its aftermath.

A wall text at the entrance introduces the exhibition's theme. ROOTS is about trees and their sacred nature as perpetuated by the African Diaspora in today's Louisiana. Across the hallway, a second text describes the symbolic meaning of trees in West Africa. Connections between earth and sky, ancestors and livings, trees are also considered spirits. Walking into a narrow room lined-up with Bechet's twelve feet high drawings
(charcoals on paper), the visitor experiences the energy and power of nature. Surrounded by overgrown, contorted giant tree roots, one feels lost in a fairy tale. Farther down, smaller framed works Why Trans Formation, Restoration of Consciousness and Vulnerability, 2014, are tracing knots, arcane paths, ways to a secret initiation. They illustrate a quote from the artist painted on the wall: "Roots are passages and opportunities, a subtle dialogue between secular and the sacred."
Nature is nurturing but can also bring havoc and destruction. Ratliff experienced nature's wrath and Things That Float, 2010, three models of shotgun houses suspended from the ceiling, represent the vessels of his memories. Made of wood boards and Plexiglas, their glaucous walls expose stacks of water-damaged photographs, some flying in the houses, like blown by an ongoing storm. The weathered pictures have acquired a pinkish tint and, here and there, the shadow of a child can be seen, left over testimony of happy times. Ratliff contributed also a giant sculpture-installation Rooted, 2017, towering the largest gallery on the other side of the hallway. Built with found material, including bricks, a fireplace grate, window screens, a bicycle, discarded wood, and more, the tree, composite of inert material, becomes alive. Well anchored with its roots spreading on the floor, the trunk climbs the wall and spreads its limbs and foliage. Charged with their history, the objects loose their function and contribute to a new life form with a soul, a kind of resilience following disasters.
Ten paintings, acrylics on canvas, from Patrick Waldemar hung on the three surrounding walls add bright colors to the display. The square compositions of moderate size (50 x 50 inches for the largest) could be divided in two series according to their predominant colors and their subject. Four of them built with geometric shapes, lines framing masked actors and circles from the moon, infer magic and rituals.  Red and white on a black background add drama and mystery. The six remaining paintings are depicting white magnolia flowers on a black background with touches of yellow and green. In his artist statement, Waldemar relates his work to deeper meanings about a society "where the history of slavery still looms as a spectral presence at the racially exclusive balls and social clubs of the city."
The major themes of the exhibition, life, death, decay and rebirth, are powerfully expressed through the art works filled with Southern references.
"As the Magnolia browns, new seeds seek fertile ground. Stripped of petals, passion remains in the bones." Patrick Waldemar
" My roots are my connection to my ancestors, and my "knowing" without being told. In my landscape there is the intermingling of community, a metaphor for joy, grief, pleasure, and suffering. Death is respected here, as the continuation of life." Ron Bechet.

photographs by the author:

Ron Bechet, "Transformation: to the Question of Who" (detail), 2016-2017
Rontherin Ratliff, "Rooted", 2017
Patrick Waldemar, "Morpheus and the River of Dreams", 2017

Sunday, February 12, 2017

Master of Lights and Shadows

When Julio Le Parc arrived in Paris from his birth country Argentina, he had a mission: transform the art scene. In 1958, "art" in Europe was driven by the elite and displayed in  museums and galleries.
Le Parc and his group, the GRAV ("Groupe de Recherche d'Art Visuel" founded in 1960), were to change this, and bring art to the masses and to the streets. The artist's fame grew parallel to his work's international recognition starting with the attribution of the Grand Prize for Painting at the Venice Biennale in 1966, and his political engagement which got him briefly thrown out of France following the May 1968 events. Le Parc believed that it was the artist's responsibility to engage crowds of uninitiated people and transform their lives. A tall order he pursued during his career which spans more than 60 years. The 88 year old artist presently living in Cachan, a southern suburb of Paris, was recently in Miami for the opening of his first museum solo show in the United States taking place at the Pérez Art Museum Miami. Julio Le Parc: Form into Action occupies most of the museum's second floor gathering more than 100 works, from drawings, paintings to sculptures and installations.

A photograph of young Le Parc and a brief text about his background printed on a ceiling-to-floor poster introduce the exhibition which starts in a dimly lit room lined up on one wall by a historical piece. Continuel-mobile, 1963/2016, hung at the entrance of the Paris Biennale at the Musée d'Art Moderne de la Ville de Paris in 1963. This time, half of it is on display to fit the space. Made of multiple pieces of metal hanging from nylon threads, in constant motion, it could be called a kinetic relief but the categorization would reduce the impact of the work which fills the room's black walls and floor with fleeting lights and shadows created by the reflection of spotlights. Immersed into the work of art, one feels slightly disoriented, like floating in the dark space due to the constant shift of the elusive images. In search of "instability", Le Parc reached his goal.
The exhibition progresses more or less chronologically going back to 1959. In the first room, the abundant works on display from that period are two dimensional and mainly black and white. All are made of simple geometric shapes rearranged to create visual effects, distort vision and generate illusions of motion. Ambivalent Progressive Sequences with Circles, Rotation of Squares, Visual Instability, become a lesson in Op art. The following room is filled with the fourteen "pure" colors selected by the artist for his research about  the subject. Started also in the early 60's as witnessed by the archival material courtesy of the artist, the meticulous studies recorded on school paper feature endless permutations, interactions, combinations and rearrangements of the fourteen colors. These led to larger acrylics on canvas in the 70's, like  the Ondes series, and sculptures. This period's masterpiece is a site specific wall decoration La Longue Marche (The Long Walk), 1974, displayed in a round room. The 360 degrees composition surrounds the visitor with its interacting colored lines, creating ten different patterns evoking life "unforeseen events", "expectations" and "surprises". Moving on to the 80's, the Alchimies series is in stark contrast, with its black background sprinkled with tiny colored dots, resulting in cosmic landscapes.
From then on, the visit offers some of the most iconic works from Le Parc, starting with kinetic wall pieces like Cercle en contortion sur trame, or Formes en contortion sur trame, both made in 1966. The works of the Contorsions series made of reflective metal ribbon on a background of narrow longitudinal black and white stripes, are animated by small motors swooshing softly in the background, while two larger works Cloison à lames réfléchissantes and the mural Virtual Circles, 1964-1966, (Displacements Series) are activated by the viewer's motion. These are surrounded by smaller but compelling pieces like Trame altérée, 1966/2005. Le Parc's contribution to The Labyrinth, 1963, presented by the GRAV for its landmark exhibition at the Paris Biennale includes this time Penetrable Cell, 1963/2016, Cell with Curved Mirrors and Light in Motion, 1963/2016 and  Cell with Vibrating Projection, 1968/2017. Immersed in the "environment", the visitor navigating from cell to cell through narrow passages lined up with distorted mirrors or floating sheets of metal, becomes disoriented due to the reflection of the lights producing fuzzy "uncatchable" images, twisted dancing lines and unexpected shadows. Even the ground feels unstable. Next, one can lay down on a couch to gaze at Continuel-lumière au plafond, (Continuous light on ceiling) 1963/1986, or sit down to look at two light boxes, assembly of Plexiglas and wood. With light and mirrors in constant motion, the two Continual-lumière, 1960/66, provide examples of infinite variations of light, color and form and contributed to Le Parc's influence in the kinetic movement.
The  "experience" continues with more lights and shadows, coming from large-scale works, like Lumière verticale visualisée, 1978, a fountain of light, Continuel-lumière cylindre, 1962/2003 or Lumières alternées, 1967/93. Nearby smaller pieces offer a full view of their inner parts: broken glass or mirrors, screws, bolts, springs, toy-size motors, spotlights...  a technology more adapted to tinker in a shed than to create art in a studio (would have thought art aficionados at that time!). Upon leaving the dark and quiet space, the contrast is jarring when reaching the brightly lit and noisy "Game Room" where several play stations offer interactive activities aimed at engaging the visitor directly. The conclusion of the exhibition Sphère Rouge, 2001/2012, is a gigantic red ball made of Plexiglas. Eight feet in diameter (and height), it includes 3000 red squares suspended from nylon threads. Red Sphere is a signature piece of the artist's latest works.
Fulfilling one of Le Parc's goals to physically engage the visitor, the exhibition's setting allows the viewer to become participant. It gives also the occasion to discover or rediscover the artist, starting with his studies. The hand drawn exercises on school paper, in which he meticulously rearranges shapes and colors, outline his quintessential references. Starting room 4, the kinetic pieces, small or large, represent Le Parc's legacy. One can regret that Le Parc's political and social engagement, a basic motivation for his practice in the 60's, is not more emphasized. For Le Parc, art has the power to change people's life and he thrived to democratize art. Material related to this aspect of his legacy is available in the book published at the occasion of the exhibition, including some of his writings. Movie clips from the period and a recent interview of the artist are shown in the museum's theater.
Another goal of Le Parc was to create emotionless art. Completely detached from the work, the artist leaves the viewer interact directly with the art and transform it. He succeeds in a way that his work reaches the coldness of op art. But spirituality seeps in, due to his search for infinite combinations of shapes and colors. Technically flawless, the works require careful synchronization and precise settings to allow randomness. However, Red Sphere feels like a step back in the artist's journey. Decorative, it has lost the sense of fun and experimentation of earlier works.
Julio Le Parc in museums? Times have changed, and the word "museum" expresses another reality: crowds of schoolchildren, visitors of every age and background, far from the stuffy crowds of insiders from the 60's. Artists like Le Parc contributed to these changes.


photographs by the author:

"Séquences progressives ambivalentes", 1959/91
"Trame altérée", 1965
"Continuel-lumière écran en plastique", 1960/66
"Lumière verticale visualisée", 1978, video

Tuesday, January 31, 2017

From Voguing to Collages

Rashaad Newsome is back home with his latest exhibition Mélange at the Contemporary Art Center. Born in New Orleans, the artist lives in New York City after spending some time in Europe. The month long show includes not only a display of  collages, drawings on paper, videos, but also films, a live performance and a conversation moderated by Amanda Hunt, Associate Curator at The Studio Museum in Harlem. The following review concentrates on the exhibition located in the newly  refurbished first floor of the CAC.

Heavy glass doors now enclose the first and largest gallery filled with eleven collages hung against two walls in a dull arrangement. The museum-like display includes a wall text to introduce the artist and his work. Loud music brings some commotion to the otherwise quiet atmosphere. One by one, the collages dazzle in their austere surroundings and project lavish scenes. Luxurious, opulent, flamboyant, luscious, outlandish, racy, garish, kitschy, ..., there are not enough adjectives to describe the extravagant display of riches from the inhibited decors. Made of high end glossy magazines, the collages assemble pearls, diamonds, luxury watches, gold chains,  mixed with iconic historical buildings and heavily tattooed skins, glowing mouths, open legs, entangled arms, resulting in a visual overload. A mixture of high and low, they are meticulously built and result in dynamic portraits with hints of surrealism and humor. The larger pieces are presented in matching black custom frames covered with leather and automotive paint, adding a perfect finish.
The music comes from the second room where a 9 min. video is projected against a wall. FIVE SFMOMA, 2017, is a clip of the live performance which took place at the opening of the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art in April last year. Its title refers to the five moves of Vogue Fem, the latest style of voguing. It includes five elements (hands, cat walk, floor performance, spin dips and duck walking) translated in a frenetic "ballet" in five parts executed by five dancers with colored wigs and matching make-ups. Five musicians build up the music parallel to the moves, improvising as they watch the performers. An opera singer is also involved. The result could be chaotic if it was not for the intervention of the multi-disciplinary artist. In a few video shots, Newsome appears behind a computer, like a conductor, synchronizing music and dance while also drawing the dancer's moves, thanks to a 3D modeling software program. The resulting "three color lithographs with 3D and photographic collage elements" are then framed and displayed on the wall in chronological order, complementing the video.
Two black arrows point to a narrow passage giving access to the smaller back gallery where two silent videos are projected simultaneously side by side, recordings of live performances which took place in the artist's studio. Untitled and Untitled (New Way), 2009, are earlier works representing the collaboration between Newsome and selected performers.

A first walk through the exhibition left me unsettled and I realized that the visit should start with the two silent videos, in the back. The earlier works represent the key to the artist's inspiration. Newsome stated: "I view these videos as drawings, with the dancers acting as my pen, creating lines, shapes, landscapes, and an array of narratives." Unfortunately, the sound from FIVE SFMOMA which invades the whole exhibition spoils some of the experience. The next stop is in front of FIVE itself. The performance combining music, dance and drawings is possible due to the artist's diverse practices which include computer programming, collage, video, music, sculpture, performance. His skills brought him to turn "movement into material, and then material into movement" through computer programming. Freezing the movement to produce drawings, he then "fills them with abundant material to create collages".
A reflection on popular culture, connecting all media, glamorous, they should be the last sight.

photographs by the author:

"Brush Stroke", 2015
"When You're Talking to Someone and You Know They Are Lying but You Keep Listening", 2015
"#1st Place", 2016

Sunday, January 15, 2017

The Many Faces of Abstraction

This month, two exhibitions on Julia Street reflect the wide scope of Abstract art. The short walk from Octavia Art Gallery to Callan Contemporary represents decades of art history, bringing the visitors from expressionist to geometric abstract through the paintings of two artists: thirteen of Kikuo Saito's late works are on view at Octavia and Syn•tac•tic assembles fourteen of James Kennedy's most recent compositions.

At Octavia, it feels like a rush of colors when going through the entrance. An exuberant mixture of warm oranges, yellows, reds, moody greens or blues, covers the canvasses displayed along the walls. The late paintings of Kikuo Saito have the gestural quality of expressionism, with a twist. Ghostly stenciled letters can be found in the background while the oil paint is applied on top with vigorous brushstrokes, sometimes spread unevenly giving some texture to the canvas.  Saito was born in Japan and arrived in New York in the early 60's at a time when Joan Mitchell, a second generation abstract artist living in New York City moved to Paris. Her influence can be felt in paintings like Tilla, 2015 or Arabi, 2014, so is Helen Frankenthaler's, a Color Field abstract painter. Saito was her assistant for some time. What transpires through Saito's works is a love for life, conveyed through an explosion of colors.

At Callan Contemporary, the overall ambiance is more meditative with predominant blue and brown colors. Simple shapes and lines interact to create complex architectural landscapes patiently built through "dozen of layers of glaze-work and incised lines", providing perspective and depth. A connection to George Braque's works comes to mind due to the colors and also the woody or marbled effects of some areas. This is not a surprise as geometric abstract is born from Cubism according to the art historian Alfred Barr. It also reaches spiritual levels as described by Jorge Daniel Veneciano in his essay written for The Geometric Unconscious. James Kennedy's works meticulously composed bring serenity.

Octavia Art Gallery and Callan Contemporary allow the visitors to experience two different abstract languages, both making a lasting impression on the viewer.

photographs courtesy Octavia Art Gallery and Callan Contemporary
Kikuo Saito "Marimo", 2014.
James Kennedy "Salon Composition III", 2016.

Sunday, January 8, 2017


"Abstract art... is a universal language, and dwells in the realm of music with equivalent emotion. Its melody is attuned to the receptive eye as music is to the ear." This quote attributed to the painter Abraham Walkowitz, defines the course taken by the abstract artist Anastasia Pelias. Following her collaboration with the Jazz musician Nicholas Payton, her latest compositions are inspired by her favorite female vocalists. For the exhibition "Sisters", fourteen of her paintings are filling the entire space at the Jonathan Ferrara Gallery, immersing the visitor into her new body of works.

There is a  feeling of drama when first surrounded by the large square paintings made of black drawings and drippings on a white background. Variations for each work are brought up by touches of vibrant colors. Meandering along the creases of the textured Arches paper, the drips, like a thin veil, give fluidity and lightness to the paintings while thick drawings made with oil sticks provide focal points, subjects and action. Some evoke silhouettes, like in "Laura" or "Nina", but the paintings stay abstract. Each projects a distinct aura generated by emotions triggered by the music. The titles, first name of the singers, allude to the closeness built over time while listening to our preferred musicians. "Sisters" suggests lasting, unbreakable bonds.

While most of the artist's past compositions have been about color, this time, she chooses achromatic black on white and grey, as a common language. In Pelias's Mediterranean culture, black is about death and mourning, but in her latest paintings, black becomes a tool for expression through drips or drawings, suggesting an East Asian influence. Pelias has mastered the technique of drip painting and like Jazz musicians improvise freely after years of practice, she allows herself to be spontaneous in her gesture, letting the emotions flow. A gallery visit is essential to view "Sisters". Size, texture, adventure of the drips, vigor of the lines, nuances of the colors, are missed when looking at the paintings on a screen. While the show can be overwhelming at first, one can choose to discover a singer at a time.
These works are a chapter in the artist's experimentation with automatism and music. They are not portraits, but translate raw emotions through abstract representation.
Where could Anastasia Pelias's voyage be more suitable than in New Orleans?

photographs courtesy of the Jonathan Ferrara Gallery

"Nina", 2016
"Stevie", 2016
"Chaka Khan", 2016