Saturday, December 31, 2011

Art 2011: The Best of Further Wanderings

by Stephen Cummings

In a year that felt abundant with looks back at great artists my biggest regret in terms of seeing art is not having made it to New York for MoMA’s first ever retrospective of Willem de Kooning. Of course no one can be everywhere, and while I was fortunate enough to be in a lot of places this year, the trouble with being all over is that you’re bound to miss a lot from any one place in particular. So again I offer a selection of the best new works and exhibitions I managed to see over the past year. My route was at times directed by art, and at others by the whims of my life, but having bounced up and down both coasts and through several cities in between, I hope the list presented here can provide some kind of useful sample of the best the country had to offer in 2011.

A Small Self-Portrait

The year got off to a strong start with three exceptional pieces on display simultaneously at UCLA’s Armand Hammer Museum. Roberto Cuoghi's untitled self-portrait is a rare achievement in the practice of drawing. Far from feeling academic, this small piece is a staggering turn of realism with a figure as viscerally present as any painted by Manet or even Rembrandt. Coughi's portrait is unpretentious and uncanny, and reinforces realism's place in contemporary discourse — though given the rest of the portraits in this body of work, Cuoghi certainly doesn't subscribe to the school of though that prizes it above all else.

The Cutters

In adjacent galleries could be found the Hammer's All Of This And Nothing, featuring, among other works, Gedi Sibony’s The Cutters. The language of this piece was so concise, and its feeling of completion so thorough, it was clear from the beginning this would likely be one of the best things I’d see. Sibony is truly one to traffic in arrangements. As reported in W magazine a few years back, “He avoids altering his finds from their original state [...]. Before an opening he’ll spend days arranging his works so that the light will energize them, creating rich ‘situations’ for viewers.” The richness of The Cutters was, as mentioned, a quiet and powerful thing to behold.

Anticultural Positions

Also part of All Of This And Nothing was Paul Sietsema’s Anticultural Positions, a thirty-minute, looped film featuring black and white stills of the artist’s working surfaces interspersed with text from a lecture he reportedly presented in 2008. The effect was disjointed and abstract, a gorgeous visual experience complimented by the mesmerizing rattle of the projector. Literally readable in parts, but overall quite bewildering, Anticultural Positions nevertheless created an atmosphere to be savored.

The End

In Pittsburgh, another video piece proved even more enthralling. Ragnar Kjartansson’s The End, on view at the Carnegie Museum, enveloped its audience in a visual and and auditory landscape like nothing I’ve ever encountered. The weird, warped music and vast, white wilderness combined to create an environment both serene and exhilarating, and Kjartansson’s odd mix of exuberance and flippancy make him a joy to watch.

Picasso: Masterpieces from the Musée National Picasso, Paris

Another collection of greatly varied styles came from an in-depth look at a single artist in the de Young Museum’s Picasso. It was the same traveling show that left Seattle earlier in the year, drawn from the currently renovating Musée National Picasso in Paris. Now, I’ve visited that museum, but something about the way this show was laid out made the work absolutely thrilling. While it felt a little thin in the early years — a number of Picasso’s best early works having been snagged by the Steins, interestingly — man, did Picasso take off as he got older. Still lifes, portraits, busts, bathers, and even some lesser known landscapes from the artist’s early days to his last made Picasso an unforgettable look at the master.

B. Wurtz: Works, 1970 - 2011

And maybe equally unforgettable was Metro Pictures Gallery’s retrospective of B. Wurtz. Little known outside the confines of artistic circles, Wurtz has been steadily producing smart, playful sculptures since the 1970s. Some of these are freestanding, some hang on the wall, but all incorporate surprisingly common objects to produce compositions of uncommon originality and wit. So light are Wurtz’s creations that they made even Richard Tuttle’s work, concurrent at the nearby Pace Gallery, feel leaden. Reviewing the show in June, Roberta Smith was quite right in her sentiment that, “Mr. Wurtz’s show may be, in its own quiet and eccentric way, one of the high points of the summer, if not the entire year.”

Sunday, December 25, 2011

Bryson Gill: Plaisir l'Oeil

by Stephen Cummings

Bryson Gill, 2011, AAAA (Consecutive Utterance 2)

The trompe l’oeil tradition goes back a long way in the history of painting; a Baroque term, so Wikipedia reminds me, used to describe the devices of perspectival painting intended to ‘deceive the eye’ into perceiving great depth where, on a flat surface, obviously none could exist. (Ceilings opening onto the heavens were popular.) Artists working on architecture today are similarly deceptive — Banksy, perhaps most comically — but trompe l’oeil painting refers most often to that class of still life works whose represented objects are depicted in a relatively shallow space, one so carefully rendered as to fool the viewer into believing he sees not a representation, but the objects themselves. The most apt illustration of this tradition dates back to ancient Greece, where, as Pliny tells us, the painters Zeuxis and Parrhasius struck a bet to see whose painting could most closely mimic the real world. Zeuxis’s grapes were real enough to entice birds to swoop down at the supposed fruit, but when he asked Parrhasius to pull aside the cloth covering his painting, the painter realized he had been beaten, for the ‘cloth’ was the painting itself, and while Zeuxis had fooled the birds, Parrhasius had fooled Zeuxis.

Following the Renaissance, trompe l’oeil still life painting proceeded with variable popularity from the sixteenth century through the nineteenth, but the practice was largely eclipsed by the rise of Modernism, sputtering out with provincial Americans producing staid collections of playing cards and other clutter depicted against wooden backdrops. Given the accelerating pace of the twentieth century, it’s no wonder a tradition predicated on artists’ mastery of illusion was shunted aside when our collective focus shifted to ideas, and materials, and a general questioning of tradition itself — not to mention painting’s shift, from illusion to literal flatness.

So imagine my delight upon entering San Francisco’s Triple Base Gallery to find the paintings of Bryson Gill in his new exhibition, The Optimist Gene. Having determined to see the show from a look at the gallery website, I had already been fooled, asking a friend to come along to see “Oh, some paper collages, I don’t know.” As it turned out, what appeared to be folded paper scraps were strokes and daubs of paint, presented in thoroughly convincing trompe l’oeil.

Far from being old-fashioned, Gill’s approach is fresh and exciting. He's embraced the painted focus of Modernism, allowing his ‘paper’ forming strokes to rise from the linen surface of each painting in unabashed impasto. These marks are as much paint as they are mimics of paper texture, abjuring the smoothness of traditional trompe l’oeil in favor of something not nearly so fussy, yet even more convincing. Meanwhile, the paintings’ ‘cast shadows’ are soft as can be, so thin as to appear stained into the fabric, and masterfully carrying off the illusion of depth. In this way, the artist has achieved the Postmodern joke of literal/representational simultaneity. It’s a trompe l’oeil — but! no, it’s just paint strokes.

Filling out these canvases are playfully stained and patterned backgrounds, further emphasizing the flatness of each affair, and in one piece making up the entire composition. A few of the works offer a Picasso-like still life sensibility in which the simplest shapes become suddenly complex elements of one of painting’s classic subjects, but still maintain the light-heartedness of present day. Even a stick-figure is not outside the purview of this artist, whose humble paintings are as pleasurable as they are deceptively simple, and become all the more exciting the longer they manage to linger in your mind.

Through January 1st.