Glove In Hand * Caren Golden Fine Art * New York City

Indicative of a restless new breed of artist, Serge Onnen (based in Amsterdam) shifts between being an artist, curator, “impro-rock” instrumentalist (in his band Oorbeek), and alternative book editor. In the process he negotiates the divides between outside and inside, high and low, light-hearted humor and clear-minded social critique.

 

The most memorable and tragically profound work in Serge Onnen’s recent solo show, titled Glove in Hand, at Caren Golden Fine Art in New York, is a large, frenetic drawing of a dense ball of hands fighting to surface, each grasping an item that is as banal and unspectacular as it is frustratingly necessary and important: a can opener, a lighter, a coffee mug, a comb, cheap jewelry—all the little things that, accumulated, make up human existence in the twenty-first century; 365 Worthless Things That Will Outlive You offers a glimpse into Onnen’s ideas about materialism, wealth, and the absurdity of contemporary life.

 

In Forks and Cameras, arms and hands are once again balled up in a cluster of destructive activity. This time forks are violently jammed into the lenses of cameras; the forks, it seems, are acting out a displaced frustration that manifests itself as torture against the cameras.

 

Disembodied hands take center stage again in Onnen’s limited action cell animations, this time performing repetitive gestures. Four of them (Stuff, Receiving, Break, and Applause) were shown at Caren Golden on small flat screen monitors mounted to walls covered in wallpaper of Onnen’s own design. (From afar, the wallpaper has an innocuously quaint look, but its pattern is actually one of symmetric, interlocking arms bashing consumer products against each other.) In Stuff, two hands marked with stigmata are simultaneously washing each other and stuffing items like books, alarm clocks, and cameras into their holes, as if their actions are dictated by a higher order. In suggestive ways, these objects are literally consumed by the stigmata—eaten as if the holes were mouths, or consumed sexually as if the stigmata were vaginas. Here, materialistic consumption is equated with vital human functions: eating and fucking.

 

The drawings, animations and wallpaper featured in the show are based on the idea of drawing as process, material and product—a concept that also informs Onnen’s music and curatorial work. “I don’t only want to be somebody who makes art, shows it, sells it, and then goes back in the studio. It’s also important to participate in a social way and have other ways to express ideas and not just deliver art,” Onnen says in regard to his multifarious practice.

 

In 2002, Onnen, in conjunction with zingmagazine, produced “Volume,” “an artist’s space on paper,” which brought together over 100 drawings of heads and faces that spanned centuries and disciplines. For example, the famous Gerber Baby shares space with a wild-eyed screaming monster from a Hong Kong manga, medical illustrations from the fourteenth century, massage instruction illustrations, and drawings by contemporary artists like Richard Prince. His Drawings on Geology (published by J and L Books in 2005) was an equally expansive curatorial project about the horizon line and includes drawings from geology textbooks, a Boticelli depiction of Hell, and a whimsical mountain landscape populated by a fish tank and a Rolex watch by Daragh Reeves. Onnen promises that an upcoming book, published with J and L, will be “full of text that is totally unreadable,” thereby raising the possibility that text, if it is illegible, becomes drawing by default.

 

Onnen’s animations (and cartoons in general) derive their captivating power through extreme stylization of reality. Or, as Dave Hickey puts it in his essay, Pontormo’s Rainbow, describing the effects cartoons had on him as a child: “It was funny because it wasn’t real! Which is simply to say that the intimidated, abused, and betrayed children at Santa Monica Elementary, at the dawn of the ‘50s, without benefit of Lacan or Lukacs, managed to stumble upon an axiom of representation that continues to elude graduate students in Cultural Studies; to wit, that there is a vast and usually dialectical difference between that which we wish to see and that which we wish to see represented—that the responses elicited by representations are absolutely contingent upon their status as representations—and upon our knowledge of the difference between actuality and representation.”

 

Onnen’s book projects extend Hickey’s argument to drawing in general, presenting it as a varied tool shared by many disciplines for the specific presentation of ideas. In any medium, drawing is spare and referential—counterpart to the ephemerality of thought before it materializes into an object or action. Therefore, drawings exist at a safe distance from reality and offer us windows into an artist’s perspective. Onnen’s drawings and animations are best seen as vessels of his thoughts and ideas.

 

Perhaps Onnen owes his openness to his unique training in art. As a young artist, he ignored the well-traveled path into the mainstream art world (undergraduate study then post-graduate or MFA work) and instead spent much of his early ‘20s committed to his studio, isolated and drawing. “I thought that the stimulation should come from me, and if it wouldn’t come from me I would probably not need it enough,” he explains. After years of voluntary detachment and a focused exploration of drawing, Onnen was accepted into the prestigious Rijksakademie Post-Graduate program in Amsterdam in the early ‘90s, and in 2003 he came to New York for a residency at the International Studio and Curatorial Program. His drawings from the late ‘90s were populated with isolated, generalized figures in natural, serene landscapes. Exemplary pieces feature characters wrestling with heavy, floral-printed clothes as they struggle to dress and lone figures completely wrapped in loosely woven bags with holes where orifices would be. His most recent work exhibits a similar, spare quality.

 

In fact, with its casual treatment of violence, Onnen’s work owes more to ‘40s Fleischer Studio cartoons like Popeye the Sailor.   Fleischer Studios’ Betty Boop and Popeye the Sailor series were popular during the Golden Era of American animated cartoons, when Walt Disney’s Mickey Mouse captured audiences’ imaginations, and Warner Brothers cartoons featured iconic cartoon stars Porky Pig, Daffy Duck, and Bugs Bunny. This style of animation started after World War I, when the country was experiencing its first taste of international power, both militarily and culturally. This era also witnessed the developments of Surrealism, Abstract Expressionism, and the foregrounding of an Avant-Garde impulse in the arts. It was a time when the chasm between high and low art widened to a deep valley, as Modernist ideals, espoused by Clement Greenberg, emphasized the artist as exalted hero. Onnen’s loose, weightless drawing style, together with the animation’s overall clumsiness, disarms, and sublimates its lascivious suggestions. The relation to cartoon animation is enlightening.

 

When violence, sex, and religion are mixed together, the resulting stew carries the stench of taboo. When they become complicit in the project of Capitalism the effect is one of political pornography. To that end, political or not, Onnen’s work, and the work of his contemporaries, needs to be seen in the context of war as televised normality. America is at war again, this time armed with a fuzzy agenda against uncertain enemies. War has become a confusing state of normality and the globally uncertain state of affairs has led in part to an uncertain state in the arts. Art, in relation to this social context, has become stagnant or retreated into past mannerisms. The idea of aligning with an ideology, religious or political, has come under Postmodern interrogation. The conflation of high and low culture that began with Jasper Johns continues, but only to the extent that art has become another cog in the entertainment and tourist industry wheel.

 

Drawing may be a passive way to marvel at power and destruction, but for Onnen, a drawing possesses incredible potential to create dialogue, informing his activities outside the studio. “All the things I do come out of an idea I have about drawing,” Onnen says. Around the time of the release of his book Drawings on Geology, a tsunami caused massive flooding and death in Southeast Asia reminding us of the volatility of water and earth—the subjects of Onnen’s book. Onnen’s theories and practice remind us that, despite the art market’s continuing fetishization of drawings as decorative objects, it remains a vital form of thinking and reacting to the world.

Interview With Ian Patrick * Los Angeles

I first came across Ian Patrick’s work in a group show at Karyn Lovergrove Gallery, here in Los Angeles. His two pieces depicted ambiguous interactions between human and animal parts, exquisite fabrics and intricate textures. I found his work meticulously insolent and festively perverse. These scenes carried a strong, theatrically organized dimension, as if they were conceived on a real stage beforehand. I felt unrestrained to contemplate the work and, through contemplation, reveal more of its complexity and elegance.

Then, back in December, I examined a wider range of Patrick’s production and considered his recurrent themes and explorations in the more intimate setting of a solo show. I was intrigued to uncover more about it. I met with Ian in-between studios to talk about his inspirations, his new body of work, the human senses, and the delicate topic of showing and suggesting.

Fette: I’d like to know how you decided to take the present direction in your work. You previously studied on the East Coast and were working with sculpture for a while. How did the shift take place?

Ian Patrick: I think the shift came from a need to work more immediately and to find a home for some of the research and interests I had. I have been doing a lot of reading. There is some wonderful research coming out of UCSD in cognitive science. Particularly dealing with phantom limbs and abnormalities of the nervous system and synesthesia. What was really amazing was reading these case studies that detail people having these sorts of abnormalities, like a missing arm, which not only can they feel, but which telescopes out into space. People have peculiar sensations, sort of sexual proclivities, because different areas of their body and their mind have been fused through these processes. So that was all really fascinating to me because it seemed to offer a model of the body as this fragmentary interconnecting dissociating reassembling sort of mess.

F: What about the Japanese aesthetic inherent in your work?

IP: I think I became interested in the Japanese Shunga prints because it’s a tradition of working that is blatantly sexual and graphic and always deals with a fragmentary, dissociated body—body parts and genitalia poking out through this lush fabric. This completely de-centered approach to composition seemed like a poetic marriage for me: between the case studies that I thought were so fascinating and this tradition of printmaking. From there it was a gradual process of learning how to, in a way, make my own prints that played with the traditional conventions, certainly, but not in a High-Low East-West sort of way. 2lt was based on an interest in de-centering and the use of pattern as a means of separating the memorable from the non-memorable, the erotically charged from the non-erotically charged.

F: Would you say that each scene or illustration could be associated with a particular illness or to a particular case you read? How did you choose these animal-human associations?

IP: First of all, I am interested in recombination. One of the most provocative stories that sort of gave birth to this one, was this case study of a test subject who had a phantom limb, who had an amputation. They were doing this mirror box experiment and I'm never going to be able to do it justice, but it involved a rubber hand, a rubber prosthetic hand, that the test subject—essentially through the course of the experiment—had trained himself to identify as part of his own body, to the extent that he actually felt pain when it was hit with a mallet, or believed that he felt pain, which is amazing.

The provocative idea, in particular when you are talking about sex—and these are obviously all bed scenes and all involve naked bodies, etc.—was of being uncertain in the heat of passion of where your own body necessarily begins and ends. Also at the time, I was looking at a lot of images from Burlesque Theatre, these wonderful vaudevillians striptease routine. Again and again, one of my favorite subjects was “Leda and the Swan”. Everybody knows this story from mythology, but it's funny that it had this sort of renaissance in vaudevillian burlesque, page after page these show girls were manipulating wonderful swan puppets.

On the one hand, it deals with a mythological biomorphic rape scene, and on the other, the sight of dancing girls with swan puppets was incredibly hot. So I felt like these things had to go together.

I think that our interest in animals has to do with wondering what it feels like to have antlers, what the connection would be between your antlers and your sexuality. These are often scenarios where men’s and women’s bodies become intertwined. Using animals, using non-human beaks and feathers and antlers and such, intensifies that question of identification. Desiring something so much that you actually want to appropriate it, or have it become part of you.

F: What about the fact that there are no human heads for instance?

IP: Oh, the totemic connection is also very interesting. You know, the swan as a symbol for grace and femininity, in a quaint 19th century way, is intensely recognizable. I've been reluctant to use faces because facial expressions are inherently psychological. I thought it was more interesting to have that window into psychology unavailable and, instead, enable viewers to project themselves into these totemic objects.

F: Where do you think this interest in animals came from? Did you grow up in a rural setting?

IP: For all the reasons that we are talking about. For totemic associations, the desire or affection that they evoke in people. For all those reasons it seems like the right tool. At the same time, I feel like it was a non-decision, something that found its way in gradually. At heart, I am really a cartoonist, steeped in illustrated children’s books, before I am an artist with a capitol A. In many ways, it is the language of children's book illustration and cuteness that, frankly, I feel fluent in.

F: Although your images are perverse, there is this idea of child play, something joyful. It reminds me of Freud’s description of the child as a polymorphous pervert. With the discovery of his/her body goes the discovery of pleasure, and basically the repression that accompanies those feelings.

IP: It’s funny because the sexuality in the pieces is always, in a weird way, actually sedated. I have never drawn anything that is a flagrant sexual act. There is a ton of nudity and exposed genitalia, even graphically sort of rendered, but these are not necessarily scenes of intercourse. These are scenes of touching and exploring, pushing, pulling and probing, figuring things out. I do feel like the animal shapes are a way of accessing that “playing doctor” type of investigation that kids do. I think there is something to that. It's interesting and I'm glad it has come across that way. I wanted to talk about the discomfort or even guilt surrounding, like you were saying, all of those repressed sexual, but not necessarily erotic, impulses people have.

F: So how do you see yourself evolving? Is sculpture definitely a deadly enemy?

IP: No, not a deadly enemy at all and I'm still very interested. I am having an issue with trying to create a hierarchy of marks, pattern, tactility, and texture. It’s something I could push even farther. Mark-making is a natural exit from this illustrative style. I'm still trying to feel this out, because I've always been interested in having an image that is clear, specific and memorable. I mean, obviously I've been working with the animal and figure combinations for a while, but I would feel really uncomfortable recycling the same kinds of imagery over and over again. Endless theme and variation is just silly when there is no real investigation behind it.

I'm more formally interested in cultivating the investigation, rather than looking to new areas of content. I am still working with a lot of these ideas and that's when a conventional illustrative style can be a hindrance. I tend to fall back on a habitual quality of line and I would like to challenge that in my next body of work.

Photo-Based Painting 2006

Last year you couldn’t swing a dead cat in New York without hitting a painting based upon a photograph. With work by artists ranging from Luc Tuymans to Christoph Steinmeyer to Wilhelm Sasnal, not to mention tableaux-sized pictures from the studios of Jeff Koons and Damien Hirst, the projector-based paradigm seemed on the verge of world domination. Scores of graduate students could be seen tracing appropriated imagery onto canvases in apparent imitation of Gerhard Richter or Elizabeth Peyton, prompting Village Voice critic, Jerry Saltz, to issue a public plea for relief from what he saw as a loss of the painterly touch.

 

As a painter, and one who sometimes uses photographs as source material, I am fascinated by this milieu because of its potential to raise deeper issues about representation. Unfortunately, most photo-based painting strikes me as similar and boring. It’s not the artist’s painterly touch that I miss—in my opinion, a painting need not be expressive in its use of oil paint to be interesting. Rather, it’s that many artists fail to develop original solutions to the problem of relating their paintings to their source imagery.

 

Photo-based painting should be distinguished from Photorealism, the innovative movement started in the ‘60s and championed by painters such as Richard Estes, Robert Bechtle, Janet Fish, and gallerist Louis Meisel. Photorealism starts with the camera: the way it presents a 3-dimensional scene as a flat image, the distortions from the monocular lens, and the distinctive way it depicts depth and a reduced range of color.

 

Photo-based work, in contrast, is less about the way a camera “sees” the world and more about the way we see photographs. Rooted in Post-Modernism, artists like Gerhard Richter, Chuck Close, and Malcolm Morley reacted to photorealism by marshalling their painterly techniques to comment upon their photographic subject matter. Richter, for example, used painted motion blurs, lens flares, and his signature squeegee marks as a way of distancing himself and the viewer from the image he reproduced. After 1988, Close began to employ the grid, itself a signal artifact of the Photorealist’s process, to distinguish the part of the painting which is photographic (the composition) from the part which is interpretative (his brushstrokes, fingerprints, etc). Perhaps Morley’s reactionary Race Track (1970, Ludwig Museum, Budapest), a painting that features a bright red X slashed through a hyper-realistically rendered photograph, best exemplifies the significance these artists placed upon the critical interpretation of appropriated imagery.

 

In 2006, the majority of contemporary photo-based painters continue to imitate their predecessors, using the techniques of painting to proffer their subjective commentary on the underlying image. However, as the innovations of the old become mannered styles of the young, this approach loses much of its critical capacity. Layered beneath painterly marks, or rendered in sensitive brushstrokes, the source photograph is too often left fundamentally unchanged and unchallenged. Perversely, the strategy once used to question the authority of the photograph now imbues it with the auspices of integrity and objectivity. Many contemporary photo-based painters exacerbate this problem by uncritically culling their subject matter from advertising, movies or pornography, referring to the “reality” of our media-saturated experience as if that were the only reality accessible. The combined effect enshrines the source photograph as more real than the artist’s own marks. Most current photo-based work gives the photograph more authority than it deserves.

 

 

New Directions

 

Not every photo-based painter falls into this trap. Richter’s late paintings employ imagery so personal (eg snapshots of his son which he takes himself) that they cannot plausibly pass for objective, much less authoritative. In addition, Richter continues to find convincing ways to disrupt the smooth surface of his photo-based work, implying an analogous disruption of any belief-system that interprets a photograph as real.

 

Marilyn Minter is an exponent of a very different approach. Her precise paintings of degraded glamour undermine the authoritative and commercializing components of photography by attacking their psychological source: our pathological desire to look. The disturbingly visceral subject matter overpowers the distancing affect usually associated with Photorealism, and her colors—wet and lurid, painted on metal rather than canvas—add to the shock value. Minter’s work is the Feminist antidote to the conventional Photorealistic approach, and provides a historical precedent for younger artists seeking to address sex, gender, and politics in photo-based painting.

 

Exemplifying a younger generation’s disparate experience of mediated imagery, Eberhard Havekost distorts his source imagery with digital software before rendering it in paint. Starting with low-resolution photos or video stills of post-industrial buildings and dated ‘70s super-heroes, Havekost destroys any vestige of authenticity in the source photograph while simultaneously injecting his paintings with a subtle humor.

 

Peter Rostovsky deploys his paintings as Conceptual tools for dismantling the photograph and the philosophical idea of seeing through a mediated source. Rostovsky’s past work includes delicately-rendered paintings of stills from horror movies, the shift in context imparting the imagery with philosophical meaning beyond its origin. His most recent paintings include references to the photographic frame and the act of framing. In effect, without visually disrupting the image in order to wrest authority from the source, Rostovsky uses photo-based painting to comment upon itself.

 

New Thought

 

Photography has changed dramatically since the advent of both Photorealism and photo-based painting, and it is incumbent upon painters utilizing photographs to keep pace. The issue which first inspired the Photorealists—that a camera sees differently than the human eye—is quickly becoming a quaint anachronism, as the visual hegemony of mechanical film cameras is subsumed by digital imaging, photocollage, and CGI, the computer-generated space of the super-real. The expectation of authenticity with which photography was once burdened is also disappearing. In cyberspace the difference between a real image and a synthetic one is blurred, fundamentally eroding the raison d'etre of paintings that seek to comment upon the authority of a source photograph.

 

The rise of media culture, wherein each of us is inundated with commercial imagery sun-up to sun-down, continues to affect the way we see in entirely unpredictable ways. A photograph now looks differently than a photograph from 20 years ago, and we interpret it differently. Because of their capacity to contextualize imagery within the rich and thoroughly up-to-date discipline of painting, photo-based painters are in an excellent position to explore these changes. To remain relevant, however, they must expand their practice beyond the comment-and-critique approach of the Post-Modernists—into something new.

 

The 9th International Istanbul Biennial * Istanbul

Born to a Turkish family in Istanbul, but having spent the majority of my life in the United States, I am both a native and a tourist of the city. When I return I understand what has changed and what has remained the same. As I experienced the 9th International Istanbul Biennial, the dichotomy of insider/outsider allowed me undertake the exhibition as a tourist, someone on a quest to learn more about its site, and as a native, someone curious to learn how contemporary art imported from other parts of the globe will impact Istanbul.

18 years after its inauguration, the Istanbul Biennial came back to its roots. The rather self-referential theme of “Istanbul” was chosen as a focus: Istanbul as a specific point on a map, a crowded metropolis busting at the seams, and, as the curators Charles Esche and Vasif Kortun describe it, “Istanbul as a metaphor, as a prediction, as a lived reality, and as an inspiration.” Esche, a European, saw Istanbul from the cultural tourist’s point of view; he wanted the exhibition to shed light on the complexities of life in this city and the values and aspirations of its residents, for the benefit of those not living there. Kortun, a Turkish man who resides in Istanbul, was more concerned with what outsiders (Europeans in particular) would envision as future possibilities and predictions for his city, the cultural capital of a country that is desperately seeking EU membership. This year’s exhibition also made a more concerted effort to merge the insider/outsider perspectives. The curators turned over a floor of one of the exhibition venues to guest curators from Istanbul who organized exhibitions of work by local artists. Their work illuminated some of the relevant issues Istanbul artists grapple with in their lives and careers.

The exhibition venues (seven total) complemented the theme. Most were situated in the Beyoğlu neighborhood, within walking distance from Istanbul’s main pedestrian thoroughfare, a street called Istiklal Caddesi. The curators said they consciously chose not to utilize venues in parts of the city that centered on tourism, and instead chose sections of town that were, or once had been, centers of commerce and industry. Extending out from the main artery of Istiklal Caddesi are historic, winding little streets that are anything but easy to navigate. Gruppo A12, an artist collective based in Milan and Genoa, painted architectural details of the venue buildings with a signature pink that stood out against the surrounding cityscape.

Equipped with a map (the exhibition catalog doubled as a map), visitors walked through this labyrinth of back streets in search of the Biennial’s venues. If visitors lost their way, they made unexpected discoveries and the walks became a process of getting to know the streets and neighborhoods of Istanbul, not just a treasure hunt for contemporary art. Still, walking a long way, getting lost, managing to ask directions, and finally locating the building with the pink paint, left some visitors exasperated from the whole experience, parched and fanning themselves, seeking shade from the bright September sun. By then, you not only wanted, but expected to be rewarded for your efforts.

Yet, the curatorial theme that pervaded the exhibition imposed a utopian promise that seemed to constrain the creative process. Artists from other countries were brought to Istanbul for residencies and asked to create an artwork about their findings or experiences. This predictable prescription to yield favorable results failed because many of the pieces came across as hastened attempts to comprehend and comment on the trials and rewards of life in Instanbul. For example, Italian artist Mario Rizzi’s film “Murat ve Ismail” documented the life of two men, a father and son, who ran a shoe repair shop. Viewers saw their daily rituals and the entrepreneurial struggles attached to business in a city with a steadily rising cost of living. It also documented a dying trade in a world of disposable commodities. The film was quite long, eighty minutes in total, and took place mostly in and around the shop. After ten minutes, I realized that rather than watching people in mundane conversation, I should be out in the streets engaging the people themselves.

The tobacco depot contained one of the most outstanding pieces in the Biennial, a video by Stockholm-based artist Johanna Billing. Billing started with a very simple concept, filming a group of children in a music school in Zagreb rehearsing the song “Magical World”. The video piece, also titled Magical World (2005), reached far beyond itself in metaphoric significance. The song was written by African-American composer Sidney Barnes at the height of the civil rights movement, and the words, sung in somewhat hesitant English by these Croatian children, tell the story of a man who lives in a magical dream world, who begrudgingly pulls himself out of his dreams to face difficult realities around him. The song itself is tinged with melancholy, but the faltering voices and doubtful expressions of the children lent it a more poignant tenor. The video was masterfully looped and edited, starting with shuffling feet and musicians tuning instruments as everyone prepared for the rehearsal, and ending just as subtly, the children’s voices slowly giving way to rustling sheet music and the sound of chairs moving across the floor.

The video, much like the song, symbolizes a period of transition. As the Croatians recover from their war ravaged past and prepare to abide by the demands of EU membership, it remains to be seen what aspects of their history, their culture, and their ethnic identity will remain, and what will be traded in order to compete in a globalized economy. If the dreams that Barnes writes about represent Croatia’s difficult history, what realities will its children wake up to in the near future? The video is also poignant as part of the Instanbul Biennial because Turkey is another country vying for EU membership. Its people keep asking, “Membership at what cost?” Whether or not Turkey becomes a part of the EU, the race to stay economically competitive is having a tremendous impact on the country. Nowhere is this more apparent than in Istanbul, which is booming with new shops, restaurants, bars, museums, and art galleries.

The New York-based artist Daniel Bozhkov clued in on and utilized the merchant culture in his project for the Biennial. He used Ernest Hemingway, who had lived in Istanbul as a young man, as a symbol of manhood, one that merged both American and Turkish ideals of machismo. He created a men’s fragrance out of Hemingway’s aura titled “Eau D’Ernest,” which smelled heavily of musk. To promote the cologne, Bozhkov filmed a mock commercial at the Victorian hotel where Hemingway was rumored to have stayed. At the launch party, held at the hotel, leggy ladies sprayed guests with the cologne as they entered. Produced as a limited edition, the scent was to be sold at various perfume shops around town.

Bozhkov’s project may have engaged the theme of the Biennial better than any other project in the exhibition. It commented on Istanbul as a place and engaged the city directly. Istanbul has always been a merchant city. Go to the covered bazaar and you’ll meet carpet sellers who have elevated their sales pitch to a fine art. Haggling with these guys is a losing battle. No matter what your resolve, they will break you down and you will something. By sending the fragrance out to Istanbul merchants and letting them distribute it, Bozhkov slowly doused its inhabitants, native and not, with the essence of his work. The artist took the city’s pulse and realized it has a slew of alternative economies offering creative fodder. The project holds the potential to create a ripple effect and give birth to new reincarnations of itself. This is often what happens here—new products, even new cultural forms—merge and emerge. As a city with an undeterred appetite for the new, the fashionable, and the affordable, it will consume imported styles and trends and produce new hybrids that reference its own tastes, traditions and values.

 

Rainer Ganahl * Wallach Art Gallery * New York City

Whether as criticism, praise, or simple observation, the works of Rainer Ganahl are often described as intellectual, in the sense that they focus on the rational and interpretive faculties of his subjects. Among the pieces showcased in Ganahl's retrospective last fall at the Wallach Art Gallery of Columbia University, were the ongoing S/L (Seminars/Lectures) series of photographs which depict professional thinkers—ranging from brandname professor-celebrities like Jacques Derrida and Noam Chomsky to more obscure researchers—delivering lectures to bored or rapt audiences; the Basic Language works in which the artist has been creating works relating to his systematic study of various languages; the Reading Seminar series which consists of the artist leading a group of individuals, usually students, through discussions and readings of politically laden texts such as those by Franz Fanon, Karl Marx and Antonio Gramsci; and a loosely connected series of dialog works consisting of interviews with individuals such as Antonio Negri and Rudi Gurtin (his Stalinist travel agent), as well as with German/Austrian Holocaust survivors under the title Language of Emigration.

Each of these works manifests Ganahl's commitment to investigating the politics and dialogic dynamics of knowledge and cultural production. Yet, despite his enthusiasm for the methods and institutions of contemporary intellectual discourse and his fascination with the rigours of studying, Ganahl is no professorial wannabe. As the impressively thorough show has presented, Rainer Ganahl's work is inspired by his theoretical insights and an overarching commitment to a radical humanism; he sympathizes with people who are or were marginalized or blatantly victimized by approved, mainstream trends of culture. Through his art, he calls attention to socio-historical issues and minority perspectives that would normally threaten tenures and research grants. His status as an artist legitimizes his ethics and politics so that they are acknowledged by academics.

This retrospective presented how Ganahl’s unique position has enabled him to expose and frame the tensions that arise when different cultural registers and perspectives are juxtaposed. The results range from lyrical to absurd to ironic. Shown together in a single exhibition space, their individual impacts are all the more powerful.

In Homeland Security videos, which are a part of his language study projects, Ganahl puts a fresh spin on stylistic appropriation from subaltern sources by replicating the awkward, poorly lit frontal filming style found in terrorists' video tapes. The artist faces the camera squarely, and slowly, clearly, and insistently repeats phrases such as "I am not a terrorist" and "I don't know how to build bombs" in the eleven languages he has been studying. The deadpan tone betrays no emotion. One might imagine such a nightmarish but controlled scenario unfolding at an interrogation station run by Homeland Security agents. The unsettling nature of the performance is enhanced because the artist makes only negative statements, denying charges directed at him. Furthermore, the artist looks the part of a public menace with his long and stringy hair, a ratty camouflage t-shirt, and his haunted and intense expression. He has managed to attain a universally recognizable aura of suspiciousness. Whether he is an innocent prisoner, or a captured terrorist, he creates a powerful sense of distrust and unease.

The Reading Seminar photographs on the other hand, show fresh-scrubbed youths sitting in circles engaged in a lively discussion about books. Ganahl held these reading circles in locations, and upon occasions, that complicate their academic and idyllic suggestion. For example, he held reading sessions of a passage from Frantz Fanon's "The Wretched of the Earth" in Central Park during the Republican National Convention in New York City (2004), and on a street in Geneva during the anti-G8 protests (2003). There are no laws forbidding people to gather and read together, even if the text is of a radically political nature; the law deems reading safe. Indeed, the photographs do not show the stress level of the greater immediate space, although if one looks closely, a few policemen are visible in Central Park. Understood in full, the images suggest that sharing philosophies is a valid and subversive act of direct social dissent. Still, a cynic might point out that Ganahl's portraits of people in thought ultimately imply that the realm of complex ideas and immediate reality are inherently separate: reading and thinking about revolution is not the same thing as physically starting one. But even this interpretation shows how ideas on the page enliven real individuals—the fluttering of delicate hands, the raising of bushy eyebrows, and the wiry arms folded in concentration indicate how transported these subjects are. Perhaps they will be moved to the point of laying down their books and joining the protests, perhaps not. In either case, viewers are confronted with questions: Where do you stand against the coordinates of thought and action? Can images incite political consequences the way text can? Can the consumption of images stand as an act of rebellion, or is art a realm too gloriously disconnected from reality?

zingmagazine booth at the Armory Art Fair, a week before the Iraq war broke out in 2003, upon which he had asked visitors to write their opinions about US politics. Seen in the gallery space two and a half years later, these writing-filled walls loom with sentiments that have proven prophetic. The disembodied phrases often run over each other, as though they were scrawls on a bathroom wall. The anonymous messages, such as "Save us all from messianic visionaries," are preserved as art. In this instance, the context of art has provided a hallowed, untouchable space for the past's fleeting voices otherwise widely dispersed and mostly forgotten.

Ganahl also experiments with more controlled and channeled forms of collaborative art-making in his Dialogs series. For the Afghan Dialog series, inspired by Alighiero Boetti's tapestries of unsolicited political commentaries by Afghan artisans, Ganahl commissioned silk embroideries featuring American news network logos, headlines, or names of conflicts to be woven in traditional Afghani style by artisans in war zones. He then instructed them to embroider their personal reactions to these symbols of American power. The artist has never personally met the artisans with whom he “dialogs”. The Iraq Dialogs function in the same fashion, with traditional style Iraqi mosaic tiles that feature paintings of American logos, and comments about them in calligraphy by Iraqis. Besides the timeless beauty of these foreign cultures' handiworks, viewers of the Dialog pieces see familiar American slogans and logos in a new context, interpreted purely as form and color. Unlike the Armory wall, the added commentaries are placed thoughtfully in relation to the American logo that they are reacting to, creating the effect of a single, unified and planned surface. Despite the layers of tension, the product of the dialog—one between the American media machine that sells the idea of a “War On Terror” and the people native to countries where the "Terror" is said to arise—are superficially and significantly beautiful. Their decorative appeal contrasts the complex and often bitter nature of relationships between mainstream ideologies and the subaltern, exposing the relationship between handiwork and artwork, collectivity and singularity, and political and artistic discourse.

Ganahl considers language and the study of it central to navigating, and eventually bridging, the various cultural spheres and registers that he traverses. In addition to the Homeland Security performance tapes, the exhibit included Ganahl's Basic Language photo and video projects, and the "Please Teach Me Arabic, 160 Famous Americans" postcard series, in which he explores linguistic variability between cultures. In the Basic Language photo series, Ganahl juxtaposes an image of a foreign country with a phrase from a textbook of that country’s language and its English translation. With an image of a condom dispenser in a barren hotel room in Korea, he includes the sentence, written in Hangul and English, "We won't be late if we get up early.”

Another example is a shot of two African women conversing in front of a bar in Italy. There are several phrases written in both English and Italian in two columns over the image, enclosing the women between them. The phrases read, "To travel around", "Money has no import", etc. The captions printed over such quotidian images transform ordinary moments into scenes that deserve not only commentary but also subtitles. This juxtaposition attests to how language differences make even unremarkable everyday realities mysterious to an outsider; the unknown is seen as open for reinterpretation. Ganahl claims he added sentences from his textbooks to his travel photos as a practical way to make art while he studied. Indeed, most of the images depict anonymous places and people and have a spontaneous quality, as though each frame was shot in random and impersonal circumstances that only the photographer will fully appreciate. Yet adding the impersonal sentences accentuates the objective (and thus systematically learnable) quality of language, and in turn implies that through effort and diligence, real cross-cultural understanding is possible.

This hopeful message is tempered against the stack of videotapes piled neatly at the center of one of the exhibit's rooms. These videotapes comprise the "My First 500 Hours Basic Chinese", "My Second 500 Hours Basic Chinese", "My First 500 Hours Basic Arabic", and "My Second 500 Hours Basic Arabic" series, that are a part of Ganahl's ongoing Basic Language Videos series, in which the artist videotapes himself studying a chosen language in increments of five hundred hours each. The sheer physical volume of the tapes evinces the sobering fact that a politically correct and open attitude is not enough to ensure real global communication. Although globalization has made the same commodities and mass cultural references available in most parts of the world, a true lingua franca has yet to arise. At the immediate and interpersonal level, linguistic variability remains a fact of life. As Ganahl's awkward attempts at mastering foreign scripts attest, it requires a mindset of humility and patience that stand at odds with the immediate gratification and access promised by the "Anytime, Anywhere" reach of global marketing schemes.

Ganahl further explores instances of cultural crossing in the "Please, teach me Arabic, 160 Famous Americans" project. The series consists of 160 postcards that depict either a statue of the Persian hero Saladin, or the Damascus Martyrs Plaza, and are emblazoned with the message "Please teach me Arabic", which Ganahl had sent from Syria in 2004 to 160 famous Americans in care of the Wallach Gallery. The cards are addressed to figures as disparate as 50 Cent, Walt Disney, and Condolezza Rice. The mechanically serial nature of the identical postcards contrasts strongly with how every card is addressed to a different public personality, each of whom is widely renowned or notorious in his or her own rite. The postcard, sent through the postal system, serves everyone, from the anonymously average to the legendarily unique. Whether or not the intangible nuances, references, and signification manage to traverse the cultural walls between Damascus and New York, the cards themselves have spatially crossed these borders of culture and language, and politics and agendas.

Taken together, these and the other works that were featured in Ganahl's retrospective reveal that throughout his career, the artist has been examining absurd dominant political ideologies and the voices they try to override and the individual ideals and realities of human communication converging or colliding. Through his personal experiences in linguistically and culturally discrete spheres, Ganahl has arrived at an insistent faith in cultural subjectivity and relativity. Using art, a framework bracketed off from the baggage of politics, he crosses borders of countries, political affiliations, and cultural contexts with an almost schizophrenic drive. Self-conscious compulsion to define one's artistic mission is a characteristic of modernist artwork, but Ganahl's focus on local aesthetics and values seems, if not a direct reaction against viewing art as a reserve for elite consumers with specific tastes, then an inquiry into other modes of art-making and viewing. Ganahl's way of immersing himself in the different communities he examines shows more than an intellectual or moral desire to excavate and categorize. The work doesn’t require further justification because his more politically fraught projects leave him dangerously exposed and the time and energy taken shows pure and organic passion for these pursuits. The lyrical and pithy sensibilities manifest in the conjoining of verbal phrases with visual imagery, and the quotidian but quietly absurd nature of the images used, offer a testament to Ganahl's whimsical aesthetic, as characteristic of his oeuvre as its gravity.

The One * New General Catalog (NGC) 224 * Brooklyn, NY

Two ones side by side make eleven, and eleven sets of two equal The One, or the basic structure of the inaugural exhibition at New General Catalog (NGC) 224, a new gallery in Greenpoint. For this show, eleven guest curators were asked to select The One artwork that embodies some notion of “prophetic balance.”

Choice, which becomes one with what’s chosen, also functions as a dual statement: the idea of The Onecan be approached personally and subjectively and is dependent upon time and context. The curators’ diverse interpretations of The One are connected, partly overlapping, and pervasive, yet distinguished from one another. They are not commensurable definitions, but temporal assertions that constantly change and shift with new contextual circumstances.

The One also focused on a fundamental element of the curatorial practice: the prerogative of choice. Choice is an amalgamation of conscience and instinct, cognitive guides that define what we remember and forget. It often depends on so little, but holds the power to greatly effect and change lives. The One then, is the “burden of choice,” an active social, cultural, and psychological “proof” that holds each curator accountable to his or her selection.

Walzing Matilda, an installation by Canadian artist Maria Hlady, consists of three mechanized spinning brunette wigs situated in the storefront window of the gallery. Each wig moves in varying clockwise and counterclockwise rotations. Each wig dances to one of three versions of an Australian chorus called “Dancing.” They are absurd, lyrical, and hypnotic. Despite their anonymous and solitary character (there is no face/person to mask or cover-up), they possess a refined beauty that we cannot help but notice. As they seemingly ask us, “shall we dance?” we become one with their harmony and imperfection. Chosen by the curator (and gallery director) Trong G. Nguyen, Hlady’s bizarre trinity is a perpetual dance-a-thon that is uncanny, moving and reassuring in its perpetuity.

Symmetry, geometry, and the thwarting nature of visual perception mark the installation of German artist Monika Goetz, selected by Erin Donnelly and Susanna Cole. Goetz placed two mirrors side by side at eye level, one convex, one concave. Standing several steps away, we see ourselves as an upside-down reflection. Standing tête-à-tête, the mirror image flips right side-up and exaggerates our features. By contrast, the convex mirror reflects the viewer as the tiny epicenter of an extremely wide-angle view. We see two parallel visual realms that contradict regular perception. It is virtually impossible to concentrate on both at once.

Similar to Goetz, John Noestheden’s (chosen by Jayne H. Baum) contribution is characterized by harmonized geometry and minimalist aesthetic, though his “Diamond drawing” additionally references pop culture and fashion. He glued hundreds of tiny, same-sized Swarovski silver crystals on to Rives paper. The elegant composition it is controlled and disciplined, while the crystal shimmer suggests a night sky or snapshots of haute couture.

Elena Bajo’s installation seems a counterpoint to the restrained work of Noestheden. Her incidental and gawky ensemble of found objects (broken umbrellas, unrecognizable old photographs, used mirror and glass panels) paint a life-like “portrait” that is fleeting and intimate. Bajo’s installation is reminiscent of the personal, variable, and incomprehensible aspects that define The One. The artist was chosen by the art collective PRAXIS (Brainard Carey and Delia Bajo).

We can recall the social utopias of modernism in Katerina Seda’s conceptual mass-performance “There Is Nothing There,” chosen by Marketa Uhlirova. On March 24, 2003 in Ponetovice, a small village in the Czech Republic, the artist “staged” a day in the life of an entire community. She asked the local people (all 300 of them) to do routine things—sweep the sidewalk, open a window, cook lunch, or go shopping—but do them on an exact schedule: everyone at the same time, all as one, one day, one village, one artwork. The power of Seda’s project, heightened by witnessing each individual partake in the collective whole, resides in its subtle humor. We can’t believe our eyes as synchronicity replaces chaos (and thereby achieves “prophetic balance”?).

In addition to the curators’ chosen “points of light” that make up The One, it is appropriate that the gallery’s name references the scientific designation for the Andromeda Galaxy, generally considered the farthest point visible to the naked eye.

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A mettle some story.

I have a little mettlesome story for you. After thursday. The zingistas are all hungover in the early morning. :)

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If my opinion of art were any where near authorative. I might have something to say here, but as I am an observer/participant and not a critic I have very little to review.