Saturday, December 25, 2010
Sunday, December 19, 2010
Last Wednesday night, I saw my friends Jen and Paul’s fantastic and wildly entertaining performance, Imeday Imeday Ollarday Icklenay. I don’t remember ever having as much fun at an opening, as I did that night, and if you missed it, you still have a chance of seeing a repeat performance on January 12th.
Upon entering the space, visitors are welcomed by the red-haired, gold-clad, matron of this maniacal menagerie (Jen Catron) playing a piano, upon which the fattest pig you have ever seen lays splayed out. But be forewarned and prepared, gentle-reader, this nasty swine will shamelessly heckle you. Its impudence knows no limits, although it seems to think its onslaught of vitriol is all in the name of good fun. All I’m saying is be ready to insult this churlish porker back.
If you do manage to free yourself from the spell of the pig, you will find yourself amidst a slew of characters, which have jumped out of some of the most famous paintings known to Western Civilization. In Imeday Imeday Ollarday Icklnay, paintings literally come to life. Remember that crazed bird creature from Bosch who sits atop a high throne devouring its victims alive or the sultry, sex kitten odalisque from Titian or Manet? How about that hunky, scantily clad Saint John? You’ll get a chance to meet them all, along with a few others. Van Eyk’s ram whom I met for the first time that night, kept approaching me, cackling at me and throwing me into fits of uncontrollable laughter. Clearly I’m well matched with sheep.
The true enjoyment begins when the king /Maitre d' (Paul Outlaw), calls the select few paying guests to the dinner table. If you are wealthy enough to afford the $100, five-course meal prepared by chefs, you too could share the privilege of participating in this feast and being served by the aforementioned feral beasts. As soon as all the dinner guests are seated, a hydraulics lift raises the entire table about eight feet off the ground. Once the first course is served, the Maitre d' allows the remaining audience of plebeians to crawl under the transparent plexi-glass table and “come see what the rich people are eating.” Being a member of the commoners, and the ineffable absurdity of the situation that completely exemplified any status-related incident we humans manage to create so well, made breathing incredibly difficult for me during those very short breaks when I wasn't laughing.
There was a Dionysian aura surrounded the whole feast, and I felt like I had stepped into the good old days, a simpler time, like in the days of Petronius’s Satyricon, where Original sin had barely been invented, so no one paid much attention to it, and people enjoyed a much freer and more decadent life (or at least the Patricians did). My friends managed to create an incredibly enjoyable evening that didn’t seem at all burdened by the art history they were riffing off of, a feat since most work referencing art history is typically dry and belabors the obvious. And just as in the Satyricon, when the feasting, drinking, and orgies came to a stop, I was filled with a wistful feeling knowing that all this beauty that makes life worth living would one day come to a end.
Tuesday, December 14, 2010
Monday, December 6, 2010
“It is only a short step from exaggerating what we can find in the world to exaggerating our power to remake the world. Expecting more novelty than there is, more greatness than there is, and more strangeness than there is, we imagine ourselves masters of a plastic universe. But a world we can shape to our will is a shapeless world.” Daniel J Boorstin
The Richard Hawkins retrospective, now at the Art Institute of Chicago is one the most comical and introspective shows that I’ve seen recently. Hawkins has an awareness of the confines and limitations of ideologies, and he bluntly points them out, through his esoteric approach to pluralism. Not only does Hawkins question authority, but he also undermines notions of hegemony and unity within his own practice.
Third Mind, the title, takes its name from the William S. Burroughs and Brion Gysin novel. The show’s accompanying pamphlet is incorrect in stating that the book introduced the concept of the “cut-up” technique in literature, a method of writing in which printed words were literally cut-up and rearranged in order to create new texts. The Dadaists were actually the first to invent the device, and Burroughs was making cut-up texts and films during the sixties, long before the book was published in 1978. Thinking of the retrospective in relation to the cut-up, supplements the way Hawkins realigns historical and pop-cultural references that are familiar to the viewer, but that take on a new meaning when placed in the context of other elements.
The exhibition begins with two hanging rubber masks, that have been cut into long strips, with accompanying painted pink cards attached with paper clips to one, and painted black cards to another. These pieces are titled Scalp 1 and Scalp 2 (Remember the wonderful days when everything could be explained by terms like desire and the body), were made in 2010, and are an ironic commentary on work about “the body.” Most of this body-conscious work was made in the 90s and took its subject from the oozing, visceral (as in emotional) viscera (as in organs), but has a tendency to often be insipid and unambiguous, hence Hawkins’ titles. Hawkins manages to borrow from an obvious and dated genre, and transform it into something at once witty and fun, by cutting it up, à la Burroughs. The artist becomes an iconoclast, a destroyer of images, in the most literal sense. At first glance, the shredded bits of fake skin with plastic hair clinging to them seem grotesque and macabre, but it quickly becomes apparent that they are a satirical commentary on the once popular work about the body. Hawkins points to how all art is imagined and supposed, whether or not it attempts to seek external validation by aligning itself with any real, physical entity, while also poking fun at the challenges of creating relevant art in our time. After reading the pamphlet, I learned that one mask was of Michael Jackson and the other of a devil, which further complicated the read. By juxtaposing a temporal, and deceased celebrity with an imagined, immortal cultural archetype, Hawkins creates a contemporary memento mori.
Another highlight of the show is Urbis Pagunus series, in which Hawkins collages photographs of Roman statues onto black mat board, and then takes on a mock-academic style of critiquing the ancient sculptures, remarking on the “delectable backside” and the state of art in general, using hand-written, capitalized serif text. One of my favorite collages in the series shows a photograph of Roman statue, run-of-the-mill frontal view, along with a second view of one of these previously mentioned succulent ancient rumps with this accompanying text:
TO MAKE MY POINT IMAGINE IN YOUR MIND ANY PUBLIC SCULPTURE IN A GARDEN, IN THE MARKET, ANYWHERE CITIZENS HAVE FULL AND UNHINDERED VIEWS- IN THE ROUND- OF BOTH THE FRONT AND THE BACK OF A STATUE. APPROACHING FROM THE FRONT, IF THE CITIZEN STOPS AT ALL, HE MIGHT REMARK, ACKNOWLEDGE THE INSCRIPTION, ADMIRE EITHER THE LIKENESS OF WORKMANSHIP OR HAVE A FEW COMMENTS- EITHER NEGATIVE OR POSITIVE- ABOUT THE PERSONAGE PORTRAYED. HE’LL THEN SIMPLY PASS BY AND BEYOND THE STATUE, CARRYING ON HIS WAY AND RARELY LOOKING BACK, FEELING HE HAS GIVEN HIS DUE TO THIS PARTICULAR STATUE WHEN IN FACT, HE’S ONLY UNDERSTOOD A SINGLE SOLITARY ASPECT.
A STROLLING CITIZEN APPROACHING, ALTERNATELY FROM THE BACKSIDE, IS PRESENTED WITH THE POSTERIOR VIEW, A VIEW THAT MAY PERHAPS AROUSE INTEREST BUT WHICH SERVES AS A KIND OF ARROW WHOSE ONLY PURPOSE IS TO INFORM, NOT OF ITSELF BUT OF SOMETHING FORTHCOMING- LIKE ROADSIDE SIGNS THAT ELLICIT THE PROMISE OF HISTORICAL SITES, FOOD AND LODGING OR LEAGUES YET TO THE NEXT VILLAGE. THE BACKSIDE OF A STATUE NEVER HAS AND NEVER WILL BE ANYTHING IN AND OF IT SELF. SO WHY NOT JUST LEAVE IT BLANK?
The viewer is not only asked to question how invested the average citizen is in classical Roman sculpture, but how invested the general art public is typically in all art. The day I was at the exhibit, life imitated art, when countless people walked by this series not even attempting to read the text, exactly like the citizen described strolling in the collage, and like him, these citizens walked away barely considering a solitary aspect of the piece. To be fair, I did witness a handful of people who actually read the texts and tried to understand these pieces, a couple of them even cracking up out loud as they did, which was reassuring.
Another facet of this piece is a critique of convention; Hawkins questions why tradition should be followed especially when it becomes so predictable, that it becomes invisible, as in the case of those sadly neglected “delectable backsides.” This reminded me of a Giacometti interview, in which I remember him criticizing classical sculpture for being empty and vacuous, more of a vase to put flowers in, rather than anything reminding him of a human being.
The recurring idea of time and relevance, made me think of Giacometti, again, because of his awareness of how relative and provisional cultural values are, knowing that he too would one day be replaced in his position as a central figure in art, like so many who came before him. Although being an expressionist, he had less of an intellectual distance than Hawkins. However, if we avoid evaluating history through the vantage of critical presentism, and look past the romanticization of the solitary, Sisyphean creator working in a cruel and indifferent world, Giacometti emerges as having created an accurate, albeit subjective portrayal of the human condition, depicting humans as being fragile, transitory, anonymous creatures who move through space with a determination which can only result from an imagined sense of purpose.
In a different collage, Hawkins offers an example in which the oft over looked backside is not neglected and serves a function:
THERE ARE SOME INSTANCES WHERE THE BACKSIDES OF STATUES RECEIVED A PROPER USE- HOWEVER INAPROPRIATE THAT PROPRIETY MAY BE. ONE CAN IMAGINE LONELY OLD NIGHTS IN THE VILLA ADRIANA WHERE A YOUTH FOREVER SUSPENDED IN DEATH IS AGAIN SUSPENDED IN MARBLE, HIS COLD HARD FLESH WARMED BY THE DAYTIME SUN IS PUT TO GOOD USE COME EVENING.
A recurring metaphorical meaning reveals itself in the collages about the reigning power of the majority, and the overlooked position of the minority. The allusions to homoeroticism and the backside, direct the conversation to the Other, and there is a sadness to these collages despite how very funny they are. Hawkins’ approach, which has an overt rebelliousness to it, is still so much milder than that of someone like Mapplethorpe, especially in that incredible self-portrait, the one in which Mapplethorpe looks back defiantly at the viewer with a whip coming out of his anus. Mapplethorpe is unapologetically confrontational, a dissident icon, whereas Hawkins gives us lascivious winks, drawing attention to less direct sexual imagery. The sexuality of Roman statues goes typically unacknowledged, but Hawkins recognizes that classicism is sexually charged.
The most unusual and impressive grouping in the retrospective, is a series of dollhouses that Hawkins alters and reconstructs into haunted houses. These houses can be interpreted as being anything from institutional critiques to being symbols for the self to becoming about time and entropy. The exteriors of Last House and Dilapidarian Tower are treated with a haunted house facade, and placed on ambiguous, barely embellished coffee table pedestals, that are designed to look like they are neither traditional nor contemporary. The third house, House of the Mad Professor, a one-level ranch, does not receive the haunted house exterior, and instead of resting on a coffee table, is itself a taller, simplified side table, that happens to have a house inside of it. Last House is a proverbial, abandoned haunted house that looks like it could collapse at any moment and that it came straight out of a horror movie. Hawkins has added painstaking details, such as bricked in walls, balconies, and broken glass. Following the language of Halloween, its interior has been set a glow with orange lights. The next house, Dilapidarian Tower, is a skyscraper that’s been given a façade that would give Mies van de Rohe a conniption, were he still alive. Adorned with arches, balconies, meshed screens, and porches, the exterior collides with the cool, empty minimal interior. Each floor looks like a gallery space, with white walls and a grey floor. It is mainly illuminated with fluorescent lights, but two floors are randomly lit with incandescent light. In the House of the Mad Professor, a sparse façade belies a rich and ornate interior. This seems to be a self-portrait, where Hawkins’ series of works have all found a home. His Roman collages coexist with his lanterns in boudoirs that are decked out in extravagant furnishings.
Wednesday, November 17, 2010
Monday, November 1, 2010
The Craft show now at Lehman College, curated by Melissa Brown, is well worth a trip to the Bronx. The show’s name is a clever double entendre on the idea of craft. In addition to referencing an art historical discipline that shares a lineage with the Pattern and Decoration movement of the 70s, the show also connotes an idea of witchcraft, magic, and an invocation of the supernatural.
When entering the gallery, visitors are greeted by Jocelyn Shipley’s Scary, Scared, Scarecrow. Shipley debunks the fears associated with the archetypical scarecrow, by displaying a benign, once cute kitty costume smothered in lurid, fake birds. Although these birds do not fear this pathetic creature, there is something still psychologically unsettling about this deconstructed, reconstructed idea of terror for the viewer. Upon further inspection, a ritualistic human-faced mask of the generalized, tribal-fear, Halloween costume-shop variety (complete with long, straight black plastic hair and black and orange face paint) is revealed beneath the sweet kitty’s blank expression, and the kitten has been given DIY, hand- sewn, exaggerated claws and paws that are made of felt. This entire comi-tragic theatrical display stands firmly positioned on the only natural, and real element within all of this, a neat, cube of hay. Although, all the clues point to over the top artifice and just how harmless this creature actually is, there is still something uncannily striking in these elements coming together. Shipley’s failed scarecrow becomes a metaphor for our own imagined fears, which despite existing only in our minds and distracting us from an often, innocuous reality, are not any less terrifying.
Jim Drain subverts the iconography of Pop art with his Untitled (Michael Jackson). On his mid-sized sized sweater, with its muted colors, Drain gives a quiet, somber, and intimate portrayal of celebrity, rather than showing the typically romanticized, glamorous Warholian depiction. The idea of high art is stripped by Drain creating a functional, article of clothing and working in a craft-oriented medium. There is an aura of impermanence and pathos surrounding the piece, which sets it apart from a lot of work that has appeared since the death of Michael Jackson, that is often more of an ironic, tongue-in-cheek statement.
Michael Mahalchik’s disquieting collages mired in quotidian ephemera are another highlight of the show. In Doppelganger, a second-hand miniature pool table is adorned with dirty, threadbare once white socks, a small clump of tangled human hair, and a few hilariously placed stray ribbons, presumably added for decorative value. The table itself is divided in half, with a nearly mirror image appearing on each side of it. The image on each half is comprised of a $10 bill, a lottery ticket, a hologram triangle, a used ink cartridge, and a Jesus pin, encased by a used tape dispenser, a pin proclaiming, “I’m temperamental,” and the same photograph of a not too stunning femme fatale. Stepping a distance away from the collage, the viewer begins to form an image of a face. The two halves form a whole, thus creating the doppelganger. Instead being a nebulous, horrifying being, the true terror of the doppelganger lies in the banality of the human condition. Above the face an elongated burnt out bulb, points to the fact that this being is anything but enlightened, as does the package of Om incense, and the other everyday ephemera. However reductivist this dark view of desires, drives, and aspirations, might be, it still manages to be an eerily accurate, witty piece.
Wednesday, October 13, 2010
for here there is no place
that does not see you. You must change your life.
These words are taken from the last lines of Rilke’s Archaic Torso of Apollo. Woody Allen uses the excerpt in Another Woman, which then becomes emblematic of the main character’s struggles with self-discovery, and of how she can no longer hide from herself.
Gena Rowlands plays a highly accomplished German philosophy professor, who only in her fiftieth year of life begins to uncover the emptiness and loneliness she feels, which up until then she has denied. One day she over hears conversations from a therapist’s office through the ventilation system, in the apartment she is renting to write her book in. At first, she covers the vents with two pillows, not wanting to over hear people’s personal revelations. When she takes a nap, one of the pillows falls, and she is awakened by the sound of an anguished woman’s voice, played by Mia Farrow. Rowlands' becomes intrigued by Farrow’s despair, begins eavesdropping regularly, and in doing so, opens Pandora’s box, and starts to realize her own suffering.
The wistful piano compositions of Erik Satie reinforce the somber self-revelations of Rowlands, and the poems of Rilke strengthen and dramatize the sorrow that envelops her.
There is a beautiful fluidity in the structure of the film that allows the film to transition seamlessly into personal narrative, shared experiences, dreams, memories, and even to a play within a film.
The story never threatens to become a maudlin caricature or a romanticization of melancholy, which is something it could have easily become in hands less adept than Allen’s. Even at the height of the most agonizing confrontations that the protagonist must face, she maintains some vestige of her characteristic composure.
There is a critique of the potentially sterile life of the mind and of human achievement, running through the film. One of the greatest ironies about our professor protagonist is that despite having dedicated her life’s work to the pursuit of truth and ethics, she has left her own life unexplored. Her cerebral nature becomes not something to be revered, but pitied. She has not allowed herself to feel, and the nebulous side of emotions terrifies her. Rowlands’ proclivity to over intellectualize everything she experiences becomes a monstrous defense mechanism that isolates her not only from her own self, but also from others. When she fully acknowledges the tragedy of her own existence, her trusted intellect only lets her down.
Another Woman is my favorite Woody Allen movie, and I’ve seen most of his movies dozens of times. I find it to be simultaneously comforting and terrifying, like many of his dramas. Each time, I shed a few tears, but I also walk away feeling as though no matter how sad life can get, it still remains beautiful and bearable. The endings to his dramas are never happy, but they also don’t further the suffering you endured during the film. The viewer is always left knowing that life will and does go on.
In the Jardin des Plantes, Paris
His gaze is from the passing of bars
so exhausted, that it doesn't hold a thing anymore.
For him, it's as if there were thousands of bars
and behind the thousands of bars no world.
The sure stride of lithe, powerful steps,
that around the smallest of circles turns,
is like a dance of pure energy about a center,
in which a great will stands numbed.
Only occasionally, without a sound, do the covers
of the eyes slide open—. An image rushes in,
goes through the tensed silence of the frame—
only to vanish, forever, in the heart.
(tr. Cliff Crego)
-Rainer Maria Rilke
Saturday, October 2, 2010
Matt Brinkman’s Phantasmatgoria drawings, at the Hole, attracted me immediately with their simultaneously eerie, anachronistic mood and childlike playfulness. Taking a seemingly simple idea, Brinkman creates something that cannot be easily delineated. The way he switches from the clarity of the charcoal to the ambiguity of his ink drawings, only strengthens both bodies of work, mimicking the complexity and confusion underlying our presumptions about human nature.
The most literal interpretation of these horrific, little, fun-loving guys, is that they are just figments of Brinkman’s imagination; harmless, benign, fictive, post-modern artifice at its finest, but the psychological intensity with which the artist approaches his drawings, betrays such a simplistic read. Brinkman’s monsters are everything but univocal. Are these creatures, metaphors for who we are as human beings, or are they emblematic of our worst fears and nightmares? They can’t be either because they are too funny, or maybe they are both, who we are and what we fear, just because of how tragicomically absurd these drawings are.
Monsters are a universal and timeless archetype, and yet Brinkman manages to make his demons timely and relevant. Brinkman shares a history with Goya and Ensor, but splits away severely from them. There is a specific wit and self-consciousness about these drawings that makes them entirely a product of our time. There is no text to provide us with any clues, as to what caused the origins of these endearing, little monstrosities. In Goya, the sleep of reason produces monsters, whereas in Phantasmatgoria, the monsters seem to exist without a cause. Ensor infuses his works with sardonic, moralistic, Judeo-Christian references. Brinkman is less judgmental. His creatures are clearly misbehaving, but it doesn’t seem that they will suffer much retribution, unless of course another monster comes along and devours one of them.
The style in which these drawings are executed, also directs them toward a contemporary dialogue. Classical chiaroscuro has a huge goblin orgy with the pastiche of Expressionism, 70s and 80s metal album covers, and the kitsch aesthetic found currently in the “bad” girl/boy merchandise sold through the Old Glory catalog. The debauchers birth love children, as a result of this unlikely union, who then go on to form their own identities in Phantasmatgoria.
Friday, September 17, 2010
Elephant embryo at twelve months
Sengupta began his talk with an ancient Greek quote, which he translated to “man is always counting,” also giving examples of how numbers and quantities constantly inform our understanding of thought and language, an idea that I hadn’t really considered before. When I became aware of how much of what we say and think is based on an abstract understanding of amount, I began seeing how difficult it is to mention or comprehend anything without using numerical values. According to him, even the solitude of one is made of thirds and halves and no one is alone. Sengupta explains that when something is invisible or forgotten, it denotes an idea of quantity or even when things change they become MORE or less. He goes on to ask, how deep is our abyss or shallow our grave?
As a member of a collective, Sengupta definitely exhibited a bias towards art made in collectives and saw the collective as a natural progression in which all art was heading. Although I can see the collective gaining increasing popularity in art practices, I do not see it as replacing artists who are working alone. His argument was that historically, art relied on what he called “dividuated practices,” citing old masters and Leonardo DaVinci, specifically as an example of this, which I found problematic since the old masters ran their workshops much like contemporary architects do or even how an artist like Kehinde Wiley does, who employs assistants to carry out his ideas rather than as a group of people with shared interests coming together to work through a common goal.
It seemed that Sengupta considered solo practices to be inferior modes of working in comparison to the collective, stating that even the word “individual” is prefixed by a negative prefix, implying that such a semantic detail placed a moral value on the word, which was also a point of contention for me. I view both the collective and the solo practice as valid ways of working, and don’t see one inherently superior to the other. In Sengupta’s view, solo practices tend to be solipsistic, although I could see collectives just as easily turning myopic, depending largely on whom they consist of and how they are approached. In the end, the only value lies in the work that either mode of working produces.
Despite these discrepancies, there were many attitudes and views mentioned in the lecture that overlapped with things that I have been thinking about. One of them was how limiting and small the human perspective actually is. Man might always be counting, but neither man nor woman is the measure of all things or anything, really. Are we human, all too human, or are we even human? Certain anti-aging specialists consider us to be bacterial/human hybrids consisting of 95% bacteria and 5% human.
I remember the first time I saw photographs of different animal embryos, in the very beginning phases of development; one was human, one was reptilian, and the differences were indistinguishable! It is only in the later stages that the differences between the bird, the reptile, and the human can be seen. These photographs changed my perception of life, and caused me to revaluate my place in it.
Sengupta brought up the painting of the Birdman in the Lascaux Caves looking at the bison, and the possible interpretations of that image, which ranged anywhere from a failed hunt to a shamanistic ritual. About a decade ago, it had been discovered that the image also contained star maps, revealing that the artists at Lascaux, had been more sophisticated than we had believed. (http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/871930.stm) The subjective explanation that Sengupta offered was that the birdman was a stargazer conducting research, but I would prefer to think that the birdman was a daydreamer, who did not allow the banality and ordinariness of the world to interfere with his rich fantasy life.
I was struck by how similar the symbol of the birdman at Lascaux is to a series of drawings that I have been working on. These drawings are based on drawings I did in childhood, only they are more detailed, ornate, and suggestive. I used to draw hundreds of bird princesses, and these hybrids of princesses had the body of actual princesses, but just happened to have bird heads. I remember thinking that I was drawing these bird princesses, because I did not know how to draw a human face as beautifully as a bird face. Now, it seems more like I was tapping in to an archetype that I was unaware of. In my current incarnation of bird princesses, I depict theses strange creatures as staring at the sky, much like the birdman.
Another bird hybrid that Sengupta discussed was Hermes, with his winged shoes. In one myth, Hermes teaches himself the alphabet by looking at the patterns of migrating cranes. Sengupta also compared Hermes to the artist, and said that those who aren’t artists are “too philistine to read what gets written in the sky”, which might be true, but it seems that artists are often just as guilty of the same crime.
I appreciated a well-known allegory that I hadn’t heard before, but that Sengupta mentioned, which is known commonly as the Language or Conference of Birds. The story follows thirty birds who want to choose a king, and who travel to a mountain to find their soveirgn, but who realize that they don’t need a king, because they already have a king. The birds only needed to know themselves to find their soveirgn. What appealed to me most, in this allegory, were its anti-authoritarian message and the belief in the self-rule. The story can even be interpreted as an allegory about independence and individualism.
Friday, September 10, 2010
Friday, August 20, 2010
My first encounter with Saatchi was the summer after I graduated from art school, when my mother took me on a trip to London. It was an incredibly confusing and anti-climactic time for me. I had just left the only school and community, up until that point, that I had ever enjoyed or felt a part of. After finishing my four and a half year degree in four years with five years worth of credits, I felt burned out on art and terrified of my new role as non-student for the first time in sixteen years. I had no idea who I was anymore or where I was going. My Post-modern education had led me to study under abstractionists, figurative artists, new-realists, neo-modernists, imagists, conceptualists, video artists, and writers. I was completely mixed up and felt betrayed by my alma mater for forcing me to graduate. Serious doubts about the value and role of art had begun to creep into my mind, for at least the past year. To paraphrase Laura Hoptman, the curator for the New Museum, “We now live in a time where we believe in everything and nothing.” (Or at least that’s what I remember her saying) Anyway at that point, I was a lot closer to the believing in nothing part, but wanting desperately to believe in anything.
Saatchi opened my eyes to the endless possibilities of art. His collection challenged me, entertained me, frightened me and even shocked me. The last part is especially funny, since I had grown up with a father who had been a philosophy major in a past life, who constantly proclaimed the death of shock long before I even knew what it was, and a mother who was so appalled when I returned home from school one day with the knowledge that babies came out of your belly-button at age six, that she promptly corrected the lie, by going into elaborate but simplified depth about menstruation, ovulation, and intercourse. Censorship and taboo were generally anathema to my Polish family who lived though the totalitarian Communist Regime. My parents not only allowed me to read whatever I wanted to, (at ten, I used to read Stephen King for all those racy hand-job scenes) but they even encouraged my precocious behavior. My Dad was willing to rent any horror in the video store for me, and although my Mother did not condone this, thanks to my cool Dad, I still managed to see nearly all the horrors in the video store, which in turn won me some serious street cred from all the little boys at the school yard, who would listen eagerly while I recounted what Freddy had done in each Nightmare on Elm Street or just what those demonic, murderous puppets were up to in the fifth Puppet Master movie. They could only dream of seeing what I had seen.
If that wasn’t enough to desensitize me and to contribute to my complicity in the death of shock value, I also had attended one of the most liberal and progressive art schools in the country, where inevitably each year, a new troupe of innovative freshman guys were making drawings with their cum for their foundation classes, and where evangelical, punk- rock vegans sewed their mouths shut with needle and thread, to remind us all of the plight of the chicken. I became very well acquainted with images of my video professor’s penis and masturbation technique, that he would intersperse with images of his one-eyed wife, nude men clubbing, his dog, and candle-lit passages of Burroughs and Nietzsche. I had to sign a legal waiver before submitting a piece in my thesis show promising that I would not be using any blood or other bodily fluids, however tempting it may have seemed to me.
And yet, nothing could have prepared me for Jake and Dinos Chapman’s ring of nude, phallus-nosed children wearing Nikes. They’re old news at this point, and probably would no longer faze me (who knows?), but they sure as hell did then. No amount of desensitization could prepare me for the ultimate taboo; sexualized imagery of children. Just being in the same room as Zygotic Acceleration made me extremely uncomfortable.
I also didn’t know what to make of Tracy Emin’s My Bed, which was her actual bed, complete with used condoms, blood-stained underwear, and butts or Sarah Lucas’s Self-Portrait With Fried Eggs, where a photograph of an indignant looking Lucas with an egg, on each breast, sunny side up, stares darkly and confrontationally at the viewer. I wasn’t shocked, I was more perplexed, and forced to broaden my then limited definition of art. I now have admiration and respect for Emin and Lucas, for presenting an image of femininity that falls far from the socially- sanctioned, complacent, clean, well-behaved woman, but it definitely took some work for me to realize and acknowledge their merits.
Perceptions of what is controversial or relevant are not only dependent on the time during which these assessments are being made, but also on who is judging and creating the criteria. It’s strange to consider the work of the YBAs, and to think of how shocking their works seemed not too long ago and how those same pieces seem barely controversial, if not benign now, at least to much of the art public. I went to a lecture on color in Detroit once, where the mediator (whose name I never learned and coincidentally happened to be British) said something along the lines that the impulse to want to be shocked is actually a sophisticated impulse, since it indicates that a person is willing to have a greater understanding of the world and to become more open. He also talked about how the more one knows about art, how much sparser shock becomes.
My mother, thought that Chris Ofili’s The Holy Virgin Mary was incredibly beautiful, and she couldn’t understand how even a prig such as Giuliani could have had a problem with it. But the highlight of the day, had to have been when my sized 0, health-nut mother tapped me on the shoulder and whispered, “Irka, popatrzć!” trying to discreetly point out Duane Hanson’s Tourists II to me, not knowing that they were actual photorealistic sculptures! Funny how almost twenty years later tourists …cough (from certain particularly golden-arched regions of this globe) still looked the same! Some things never change.
I remember so many of the pieces vividly, from the Hirsts to the Mark Quinn, from the Tal R’s to the Glenn Browns to the Daniel Richter’s, to the artists whose names I don’t even remember but whose work I remember distinctly, like the huge, grey sphere, made of individually cast rats, simultaneously repulsive and yet difficult not to be smitten with. The most memorable piece for me, was Richard Wilson’s oil installation, 20:50, and is without a doubt one of the most amazing things that I’ve ever seen. The piece exists in a wood paneled room that was designed specifically for it, and much of the room is filled with recycled oil encased in a visible metal vessel that spans the entire perimeter of the room. Through the doorway, there is a metal pathway, that leads you into the midst of the installation, and it feels, like you are a part of the environment, as you experience the spectacular reflections and illusion of the room reflecting onto itself.
Charles Saatchi has been one of my heroes for some time now, but after recently finishing his book of interviews, My Name is Charles Saatchi And I Am an Artoholic, he has grown even larger in my eyes. Since he was in advertising for so many years, he is a man of ideas, and he is willing to embrace it all from the highly conceptual, to the craft-oriented, to the anti-craft, to the decorative, to the traditional. If only more collectors would follow his lead. Saatchi has continually redefined his collection and interests, while simultaneously bringing contemporary art to the attention of the public. I felt elated while reading his interviews, since he is such a highly intelligent, funny, and unpretentious individual. Whenever the interviewer (who was comprised of journalists, critics, and members of the public) attempted to villainize Saatchi, he would deconstruct the question and flip it around, in such a way that the interviewer seemed ridiculous. Kudos to you, Charles Saatchi!
Here are a few of my favorite excerpts from My Name is Charles Saatchi And I Am an Artoholic
If you were commissioning your own portrait, in which medium would you choose to be represented?
I’d rather eat the canvas than have someone paint me on it. (69)
Have you ever taken advantage of anyone in the art world?
If you asked the Dalai Lama, Mother Teresa or Mahatma Gandhi if they have ever taken advantage of anyone, they’d be lying if they claimed they hadn’t. So you can put me right up there with them, thanks. (110)
Is it not just vulgar to spend ten times the value of an artwork just to make sure you get your hands on it?
It is very vulgar, and I wish I had a more genteel, and cheaper, way of getting the pictures I want. But they are usually owned by very rich people who are often greedy. (69)
What keeps you going?
What’s the alternative? (113)
Do you believe in it all?
I am not clever enough to be a cynic, so belief is the only option available to me. (106)