Saturday, February 28, 2009

Painting the Dark Side - Art and the Gothic Imagination in Nineteenth-Century America

Browsing last weekend at Labyrinth books I found Painting the Dark Side: Art and the Gothic Imagination in Nineteenth-Century Americaby Sarah Burns, on remainder. Purely by chance.

I bring up the chance aspect as it has been such a rich, fascinating read - I am rather sorry to finish the book, albeit the notes can keep me busy for quite a while too & I think it's an excellent reference for the future. With the exception of a Pittsburgh artist, David Gilmour Blythe, I am familiar with the artists discussed: Thomas Cole, Washington Allston, John Quidor, William Rimmer, Elihu Vedder, Thomas Eakins, and Albert Pinkham Ryder.

Growing up in proximity to the Detroit Institute of Arts, I recall being baffled by the enormous Allston painting Belshazzar's Feast, which is discussed at length in Burns book. Thereabouts I also developed a taste for American romantic painting. The DIA also has the Allston Flight of Florimell, & some paintings by Rimmer - Civil War Scene & Victory, & extravagantly hermetic works by Vedder & Ryder.

In NYC there is the American Wing at the Met, as well as the New-York Historical Society, which has the cycle of Thomas Cole's Course of Empire. Although the Met wing is now being reconfigured, my favorite gallery previously was the "romantic" room which included work by Rembrandt Peale, Raphaelle Peale, Samuel Morse, George Caleb Bingham, Quidor & Allston.

In the worlds of photography & contemporary art this is almost like having a secret - where would I go w/ such enthusiasms?

Bush discusses the art in the context of race, slavery, Civil War, Edgar Allan Poe, pulp literature, temperance, the women's movement, bohemianism, drug use, industry, madness, medicine, poverty. It is varied & speculative.

Looking at Burn's CV at Indiana University I see she teaches the history of photography - I would be very curious to hear her discuss 19th century photography, as outside of its progressive technological & formal histories, I think there is work and practices which are equally haunted.

Thursday, February 26, 2009

Berlin Film Festival 2009

Marie Losier presented "Papal Broken Dance" at the Berlin Film Festival. Our photo of Genesis P. a la the writer Colette as a cat hung above the scopitone, but unlike the Chesire Cat, it did not disappear, as far as I know.

Sunday, February 22, 2009

afternoons in Chelsea (NY)

When I moved to NYC in 1981 the majority of contemporary art galleries were in SoHo. At that time it felt rather bourgeois - large industrial spaces had been stripped - brick walls, new blank walls of drywall, white walls & polished wood floors. High ceilings. Victorian accents (moldings, etc.), tall windows. The not-so-past epoch of an artists district seemed long-gone. I must confess that my 2 earliest artistic encounters in SoHo were 1) going to an opening of faux Pre-Raphaelite paintings (mostly self-portraits I believe) by Norris Church, i.e. Mrs. Norman Mailer, which was high society but not necessarily high art by any means, on West Broadway, & 2) being taken by a friend from Ann Arbor, who had come to NYC the year before, to a loft presided over by (although this meant nothing at the time) Hannah Wilke. All I recall is we had to chew gum & give it back & my friend Deborah later laughed, "she thinks all women are goddesses!" which may or may not have much of anything to it. I thought the paintings of Norris Church rather tacky & I had no sense of Hannah Wilke as a great radical artist. In terms of the latter: my loss!

I bring this up, for if anything, SoHo in 1981 looked remarkably store-bought & fancy & it had the highest concentration of contemporary art galleries in NYC at the time, distinct from the more staid galleries of 57th St., or the Upper East Side (perhaps most vivid fictionally in the film of Portrait of Jenny - an elegant walk-up presided over by Ethel Barrymore - if only it were really like that) - large, flashy, carved out of an industrial past. If anything, my sense of this in terms of scale has nothing to do w/ the excesses of mercantilism which were to follow.

Chelsea followed, like any urban sprawl, further out & bigger, better. Huge galleries became bigger. Some of the area was quite abject & the development of the area included the closure of the 2 leather bars in the city - The Spike & The Eagle, otherwise louche destinations facing the West Side Highway & the Hudson river. One could be edified rather than hit on. The distance from the subway & the distance from most other things are both a hindrance in terms of getting there conveniently & a mark of exclusivity.

W/ a few day off this past week I went to a few shows in Chelsea. The most interesting one was the Thomas Hirschhorn installation "Universal Gym" at the Barbara Gladstone gallery on 21st st. In his customary use of mass-produced generic materials, corrugated cardbord & packing tape, Hirschhorn made the gallery a sick simulacrum of a gym - mirrors, weights, machines - a factory of bodies, fitness, health, sociability. This is quite dark & critical. I also admire Hirschhorn for using thoroughly temporal materials - this is a conservator's nightmare yet o so vivid. I can't help but make a correlation between Hirschhorn's materials & the Wanda Jackson song "The Box It Came Home In" which will be "all satin-lined" - this is about death in life, a pre-purchased lot of nothingness, mass-produced. Existence as nullification.

At Andrew Kreps, a group photo show, w/ a lousy premise/statement, nevertheless had 2 bodies of work which stood out. 1) a print by Liz Deschenes - Liz is one of the great artists working today & her photographs, which confront photographic technologies & visual culture, have so much to say about our interactions with images & the experiences, both physical & historical, & how that occurs. Somewhere I recall reading a statement by Susan Sontag to the effect that the essence of thinking is the word "but" - which is what I think of when I see Liz's photographs. To describe her images does not address their visceral quality - their presence.

The other curious body of work in the show is by Annette Kelm, a triptych of Herbert Tobias album covers. This brings to mind an essay by the late Herve Guibert about record album covers, their tactility & resonance as sensuous objects & their primacy as aethetic experiences. Herbert Tobias was a great German gay photographer in the 1950s & 1960s. His commercial work for Deutsche Grammophon is both kitsch & trendy & meant to be ephemeral, a kind of post-WWII modernism - the subjective photography of Otto Steinert, applied in a commercial field. Kelm's use of the images invokes a historical recovery in seemingly trivial work to reveal a worldview of myth, culture & longing.

Thursday, February 5, 2009

Male: From the Collection of Vince Aletti

Male: From The Collection Of Vince Aletticould be seen as a catalog accompaniment to a show of Vince Aletti's collection shown earlier at White Columns. The book can be viewed independently, as well, & along with an essay by Collier Schorr, it is a fascinating inquiry into the art of collecting.

The collection is distinguished by a general theme, masculinity as a site of desire, as well as what could be described as eclectic, "catholic" taste. Categories of quality or an established canon are second fiddle to a desiring eye which can collect great artist=photographers such as Peter Hujar, Bill Jacobson & Gary Schneider, as well as photographers whose work would be classified as outside an artistic precis, such as the documentarian Danny Lyon or the anthropologist Pierre Verger. The rule of thumb for the collection is a desire that is not necessarily explicit but exists through the eye of the collector. If there is anything to learn it is the anarchy of desire in terms of looking at images. Coexistent w/ any fine art images there is also panoply of beefcake photography - Bob Mizer's Athletic Model Guild, Don Whitman's Western Photography Guild, Bruce of Los Angeles - as well as anonymous porn, amateur snaps, boxing images, an amazing image of Lew Alcinder - I don't want to list any more as there are hundreds of sources.

I find most collections have a death-like aspect in trying to define a subject & contain it. Vince Aletti's collection has a much more dynamic aspect. Is it because it is both older work & contemporary too? High & low subjects? There is something radical & unfinished about the collection which gives it a vibrancy beyond conventional connoisseurship.