Archives for category: arts
Don Voisine Pan

Pan, 2011 Oil on wood 13 x 24 inches, © Don Voisine, Courtesy McKenzie Fine Art, Inc.

On a mini gallery crawl in Chelsea, topping my list was McKenzie Fine Art, Inc., where I stopped by to see Don Voisine’s show just before the opening. I was disappointed to not be able to take in all the energy of the opening, but there was a great advantage of having the gallery to myself – the calm before the storm. It was electrifying!

Voisine is a notable player in an increasingly visible contingent of artists painting in an abstract, hard-edged geometric style. Neo-geo, minimalism, I’m not sure what the current tag is for this work, but the jargon and semantics hold little interest for me, especially when the work itself is so compelling. I believe the loosely connected group of artists, if one would call it that (more like a Facebook friends’ mutual admiration society?), might be clustered around a vision of  ‘reductive abstraction’ or something like that. I suppose labels are effective marketing tools, but that’s not the point of what’s going on here.

Don Voisine

Off Register, 2011 Oil on wood 16 x 17 inches, © Don Voisine, Courtesy McKenzie Fine Art, Inc.

The artist and blogger Joanne Mattera is among the ranks of these seasoned and sophisticated painters, and happily she has found a way to use Facebook for good instead of evil. Recently, she asked her Facebook friends who are working with geometric abstraction to send her images of their work featuring rhomboid shapes. Mattera then curated a wildly varied and potent on-line exhibition of these works.  A piece by Voisine is included, and the grouping is a great overview that demonstrates the startling variety of approaches and visions within this relatively cohesive bunch of contemporary artists. Introducing the show, “Rhomboid Rumba,” Mattera writes, “The works in this scroll-down reflect a variety of ideas: tectonic shift, Archimedian displacement, spiritual thinking, a textile sensibility, references to the body, constructivist principles, optical challenge, formal push/pull, and the pure pleasure of geometric abstraction. Materiality, another of my interests, is very much in evidence here as well.” Minus Space is another place to visit to extensively explore work in this vein. (Voisine can be found here too, along with some others worth knowing about like Karen Schifano and Douglas Witmer.)

Don Voisine

N, 2011 Oil on wood 20 x 16 inches, © Don Voisine, Courtesy McKenzie Fine Art, Inc.

Voisine’s bold blacks and crisp compositions have enough of the artist’s hand visible and enough sensuality to engage the viewer immediately. The work is hard-edged but with a dry wit instead of just being dry. It says HEY to get your attention, but the conversation immediately gets deep.  The paintings slyly change as you move in front of them, rewarding the patient eye over and over with their idiosyncratic symmetries, subtleties and shifting planes and voids. Voisine’s self-imposed limitations result in a flourishing body of work that feels anything but restrictive and repetitive. These are paintings made to stand up to a lifetime of looking.

I recently saw Voisine’s work at the American Academy of Arts & Letters Invitational exhibition, and had hoped to have a chance to write about it then. Happily, I heard he received a coveted Arts & Letters Purchase Prize, so the work can still be seen at the gallery on Audubon Terrace until June 12th, as well as at McKenzie until June 11th, and I will definitely be making another trip to revisit this show before it closes. Here’s congratulating Don Voisine for doing terrific work and garnering well-deserved recognition for it.

Don Voisine

Otto, 2011 Oil on wood 32 x 60 inches, © Don Voisine, Courtesy McKenzie Fine Art, Inc.

I sometimes make note, at least a mental note, when gallery owners or staff are either exceptionally talented or awful in their dealings with the public, collectors, press, and/or artists. In this case I would like to recognize gallery owner Valerie McKenzie for her friendly and knowledgeable interaction. Her enthusiasm and astute conversation about the work she is representing are superbly refreshing. She sets the bar a little higher for others in the field.


The past few months have been pretty much non-stop with work and all sorts of excitement, but I’m happy to at long last have a moment to stop here and say hello, and happy spring!

The day after my solo show at June Kelly Gallery ended, I was on a plane to Italy for a month-long residency fellowship at the Rockefeller Foundation Bellagio Center on Lago di Como in northern Italy (above).  It was an incredibly productive time for me, an honor, and an extraordinary experience in every way.

In addition to the site’s natural beauty and fascinating history, the Bellagio Center is exceptionally distinctive because of its vision and understanding of the ultimate progressive value of interdisciplinary and international discourse to all positive human endeavors:

“Through conferences and residencies, the Rockefeller Foundation Bellagio Center brings together people of diverse expertise and backgrounds in a thought-provoking and collaborative environment to promote innovation and impact on a wide range of global issues.

We have seen the powerful results of investing in and unleashing human capacity. The Bellagio experience fosters a robust exchange of ideas between scientists and artists, theorists and practitioners, those who make policy and those who are affected by it.

Located in northern Italy, the Center infuses unorthodox, radical thinking into searches for solutions to critical social, political, health, environmental and economic challenges.

It encourages all to debate on globally relevant issues and push the boundaries of collective knowledge to translate theory into action.”

It would take a lot more than a blog post for me to describe the profound impact of sustained interaction with an intimate, international coterie of scholars, scientists, and creative thinkers — all brilliant and genial.  Instead, I will just share a very simple story.

My Italian studio, I soon noticed, came with a personal rainbow.  Not that I’m all mystical, but as I held this rainbow in my hand, it seemed to impart not only the wonderful energy and beauty of that place, but also the creative good karma generated by all the artists who had previously inhabited that space.  It was much like the welcome I felt when I opened the supply cupboard to see their names written there, some extra supplies they’d left behind, and even a chocolate — all three practices that I was delighted to continue as tradition. [For the curious, here is a sampling of some of the drawings I did during my residency.]

Being able to work and participate in the community at the Bellagio Center was a long-held dream of mine, and one that I was not sure would ever be realized.  But one of the many things I took away from that transformational experience was the justification — even the imperative — of dreaming as big as possible, and not giving up on the pursuit of those dreams.

Upon arriving home, and I will admit that the reintroduction to reality has been a challenge (like a bad case of the bends!), I have had opportunities to attend inspiring celebrations honoring two women who have exemplified through their lives and actions exactly what I mean.

Over the weekend, Just Food held an event in honor of Joan Dye Gussow, the unstoppable — even subversive, if you will — matriarch, pioneer, teacher, leader, activist and icon of the organic food movement. [Also see:] And yesterday, I attended the memorial celebration for Jeanne-Claude, who passed away last November.  From each of these spectacularly intelligent, luminous and energetic women, I learned that in the pursuit of big dreams, passion, precision, and perseverance count.  Rules and “No”, not so much.

Many times an hour, both waking and sleeping, I keep returning to my time at Bellagio.  I often think about that rainbow in my hand; how happy and fortunate and connected it made me feel.  Jeanne-Claude was quoted about the temporality of life and art, and the fact that such temporality imparts a sense of urgency.  As she put it, “For instance, if someone were to say, ‘Oh, look on the right, there is a rainbow,’ one would never answer, ‘I will look at it tomorrow.'”

Whatever may or may not have been done before, a full life begins with dreams that will not be denied, disparaged or deferred.

It was around this time of year,  and I was walking on a gentle mountain trail with my absolute favorite person.  Yes, I’ll admit I have favorites. Happily, it’s a long list, and if you’re here reading this, you’re on it.

It’s wonderful how walking activates the mind as if the legs were cog cranks specifically designed to directly engage those tired cranial gears.   Being fall, I was less intent on noticing the birds, and started talking about ideas that were surfacing, wondering what would take shape.   “So, what’s it going to be?” seemed to be the question confronting me.  The “what” referring to creative output.  Out of my ramblings on the mountain came a perception of what I want the core of my work to be at its very best — what I want it to do for me, and ideally, for you.

The challenge, it seemed, was, and is, to create something positive, regardless of the specifics of what it might actually look like or by what means it might ultimately be made.  If it could impart some joy, perfect, or a sense of possibility and wonder, even better. I’d settle for a twinge of some ineffable connection.

My inner cynic is always ready to make an uninvited appearance, but I don’t find the snark’s offerings compelling or absorbing.  Don’t bring me down. Do I want or need to see more interpretations and fantasies of violence, abuse, and humiliation visited by humans upon everyone and everything?  Is it shocking? No. Titillating? Eh. Obvious? Yes. On the other hand, the optimist and idealist risk seeming naive, their contributions cloying, sentimental, new agey, utopian, obscure, self-important, simplistic, and again, obvious.  Personally, I decided to see what I could do while keeping my drawings non-objective, staying away from being literally descriptive, keeping my personal baggage in storage.  By eschewing the obvious, maybe I’d find a way to get a little closer to the ideal of making something  instrinsically positive.

It’s tricky.  Positivity and optimism are not the same thing, nor are positivity and skepticism mutually exclusive.  There are so many varied paths, and as I’ve kept this challenge in the forefront of my mind, I’ve taken more notice when I’ve seen it faced successfully in the work of others.

I was recently (half) joking about the arts and artists deserving a stimulus package and government bailout, when I found myself involved in one of those 140-character-or-less virtual conversations with a complete stranger who questioned whether art deserved any public money at all.  “Should the working class fund entertainment for the middle class through taxes?” he justifiably wondered.  I succinctly replied, “Tax $ 4 art: Funding entertainment? Maybe not. But art that inspires innovation, creative thinking, learning, problem solving?”  His next response was to call me to task to provide examples, and guess what?  Well, I have a few things I want to share with you.  They may or may not have received funding, though in my opinion they deserve it, but I can promise, they won’t bring you down.

Vodpod videos no longer available.

Art on Library Walls including work by Maira Kalman (below).  Just about anything by Maira Kalman.

Let’s not forget Liza Lou, beginning with her glittering masterpiece, “The Kitchen” (detail below).

And so much more.

With that in mind, I’m off to the studio.

Dear Eva,

You seem the same as always, and being you, hate every minute of it. Don’t! Learn to say “Fuck You” to the world once in a while. You have every right to. Just stop thinking, worrying, looking over your shoulder, wondering, doubting, fearing, hurting, hoping for some easy way out, struggling, gasping, confusing, itching, scratching, mumbling, bumbling, grumbling, humbling, stumbling, rumbling, rambling, gambling, tumbling, scumbling, scrambling, hitching, hatching, bitching, moaning, groaning, honing, boning, horse-shitting, hair-splitting, nit-picking, piss-trickling, nose sticking, ass-gouging, eyeball-poking, finger-pointing, alleyway-sneaking, long waiting, small stepping, evil-eyeing, back-scratching, searching, perching, besmirching, grinding grinding grinding away at yourself. Stop it and just DO!

From your description, and from what I know of your previous work and your ability, the work you are doing sounds very good. ‘Drawing — clean-clear but crazy like machines, larger, bolder, real nonsense.’ That sounds wonderful — real nonsense. Do more. More nonsensical, more crazy, more machines, more breasts, penises, cunts, whatever — make them abound with nonsense. Try and tickle something inside you, your ‘weird humor.’ You belong in the most secret part of you. Don’t worry about cool, make your own uncool. Make your own, your own world. If you fear, make it work for you — draw and paint your fear and anxiety.  And stop worrying about big, deep things such as ‘to decide on a purpose and way of life, a consistent approach to even some impossible end or even an imagined end.’ You must practice being stupid, dumb, unthinking, empty. Then you will be able to DO! [The DO’s are drawn and decorated and very large.] I have much confidence in you and even though you are tormenting yourself, the work you do is very good. Try to do some BAD work. The worst you can think of and see what happens but mainly relax and let everything go to hell.  You are not responsible for the world — you are only responsible for your work, so do it. And don’t think that your work has to conform to any idea or flavor. It can be anything you want it to be.  But if life would be easier for you if you stopped working then stop. Don’t punish yourself. However, I think that it is so deeply engrained in you that it would be easier to DO.

It seems I do understand your attitude somewhat, anyway, because I go through a similar process every so often. I have an “Agonizing Reappraisal” of my work and change everything as much as possible = and hate everything I’ve done, and try to do something entirely different and better. Maybe that kind of process is necessary to me, pushing me on and on. The feeling that I can do better than that shit I just did. Maybe you need your agony to accomplish what you do. And maybe it goads you on to do better. But it is very painful I know. It would be better if you had the confidence just to do the stuff and not even think about it. Can’t you leave the “world” and “ART” alone and also quit fondling your ego. I know that you (or anyone) can only work so much and the rest of the time you are left with your thoughts. But when you work or before your work you have to empty your mind and concentrate on what you are doing. After you do something it is done and that’s that. After a while you can see some are better than others but also you can see what direction you are going. I’m sure you know all that. You also must know that you don’t have to justify your work – not even to yourself. Well, you know I admire your work greatly and can’t understand why you are so bothered by it. But you can see the next ones and I can’t. You also must believe in your ability. I think you do. So try the most outrageous things you can – shock yourself. You have at your power the ability to do anything.

I would like to see your work and will have to be content to wait until Aug or Sept. I have seen photos of some of Tom’s new things at Lucy’s. They are impressive – especially the ones with the more rigorous form: the simpler ones. I guess he’ll send some more later on. Let me know how the shows are going and that kind of stuff.

My work had changed since you left and it is much better. I will be having a show May 4 -9 at the Daniels Gallery 17 E 64yh St (where Emmerich was), I wish you could be there. Much love to you both.


[Letter from Sol Lewitt to Eva Hesse, April 14, 1965.]

This morning I was thinking about health care reform, and the vociferous opposition to it in the form of people, many armed, showing up to disrupt town hall meetings on the subject. I thought about those who would say it’s not wise for artists to publicly express an opinion about this issue, because they could risk alienating collectors or others who may bear some power over them. Then I went back to thinking about those fearful, raging people who are so afraid that providing health care for the over 50 million uninsured people in this country is somehow going to infringe upon their own freedoms, especially their right to carry weapons. Who are these people who hate so much? Oh yeah. They’re the same people who hate gays and anyone of color (especially in the Oval Office). They are the same people who want to wrest the right of reproductive choice from women, and who are suspicious of artists and anybody who doesn’t fit into their mold.

Americans for the Arts has joined with 20 national arts organizations to issue a statement calling on Congress for health care reform, and “to fully recognize the rights of individual artists and arts groups in the health care reform debate.”  I want to exercise those rights.

So, when I got dressed this morning, I pulled from deep in my drawer a T-shirt I got after going on the AIDS walk many years ago.  It was imprinted with words and an image by the late artist David Wojnarowicz, who was one of the legions of talented people the art community lost too early because people tolerated a screwed up system for too long.  I pulled on my T-shirt and got on the crowded subway for the long ride downtown.  On my back, his words seared through a not so distant expanse of time:

“If I had a dollar to spend for healthcare I’d rather spend it on a baby or innocent person with some defect or illness not of their own responsibility; not some person with AIDS…” says the healthcare official on national television and this is in the middle of an hour long video of people dying on camera because they can’t afford the limited drugs available that might extend their lives and I can’t even remember what his official looked like because I reached in through the T.V. screen and ripped his face in half and I was diagnosed with AIDS recently and this was after the last few years of losing count of the friends and neighbors who have been dying slow and vicious and unnecessary deaths because fags and dykes and junkies are expendable in this country  “If you want to stop AIDS shoot the queers” says the governor of texas on the radio and his press secretary later claims that the governor was only joking and didn’t know the microphone was turned on and besides they didn’t think it would hurt his chances for re-election anyways and I wake up every morning in this killing machine called america and I’m carrying this rage like a blood filled egg and there’s a thin line between the inside and the outside a thin line between thought and action and that line is simply made up of blood and muscle and bone and I’m waking up more and more from daydreams of tipping amazonian blowdarts in “infected blood” and spitting them at the exposed necklines of certain politicians or government healthcare officials or those thinly disguised walking swastikas that wear religious garments over their murderous intentions or those rabid strangers parading against AIDS clinics in the nightly news suburbs there’s a thin line a very thin line between the inside and the outside and I’ve been looking all my life at the signs surrounding us in the media or on peoples lips; the religious types outside st. patricks cathedral shouting to men and women in the gay parade: “You won’t be here next year–you’ll get AIDS and die ha ha” and the areas of the u.s.a. where it is possible to murder a man and when brought to trial one only has to say that the victim was a queer and that he tried to touch you and the courts will set you free and the difficulties that a bunch of republican senators have in albany with supporting an anti-violence bill that includes ‘sexual orientation’ as a category of crime victims there’s a thin line a very thin line and as each t-cell disappears from my body it’s replaced by ten pounds of pressure ten pounds of rage and I focus that rage into non-violent resistance but that focus is starting to slip my hands are beginning to move independent of self-restraint and the egg is starting to crack america seems to understand and accept murder as a self defense against those who would murder other people and its been murder on a daily basis for eight count them eight [nine, ten…] long years and we’re expected to quietly and politely make house in this windstorm of murder but I say there’s certain politicians that had better increase their security forces and there’s religious leaders and heathcare officials that had better get bigger dogs and higher fences and more complex security alarms for their homes and queer-bashers better start doing their work from inside howitzer tanks because the thin line between the inside and the outside is beginning to erode and at the moment I’m a thirty seven foot tall one thousand one hundred and seventy-two pound man inside this six foot frame and all I can feel is the pressure all I can feel is the pressure and the need for release.

I took more than a moment to remember all those who were gone like Wojnarowicz and Keith Haring, and countless others who were willing to Act Up to save lives.  It’s not just about AIDS now, nor was it then, really.  Think about it.

Tomorrow I will have to resurrect another ancient T-shirt, one emblazoned with an image by the late Keith Haring, and bearing the ever-so-relevant words: IGNORANCE=FEAR, SILENCE=DEATH.

[Text from my T-shirt: copyright Estate of David Wojnarowicz.  Audio of David Wojnarowicz reading at The Drawing Center in 1992, shortly before his death.]

[images from top: David Wojnarowicz, “Untitled (Peter Hujar), 1989, silver print, 30-1/2″ x 24-1/2”); David Wojnarowicz, “Untitled (Face in Dirt”, 1990, silver print, 28-1/2″ x 28-1/2″, both copyright Estate of David Wojnarowicz and courtesy of PPOW Gallery. Keith Haring, “Ignorance=Fear”, 1989, poster, 24″ x 43-1/4″, copyright the Estate of Keith Haring, courtesy of The Keith Haring Foundation.]

My thoughts have returned to the superiority of first-hand over virtual experience.  By this, I mean looking at original artwork as opposed to viewing it on a computer monitor, taking off your iPod and going to hear live music, attending a dance performance, a play, a poetry or book reading, and yes, even just kicking yourself outside to move your legs, smell the flowers, and hear the birds sing.

The in-person experience and meaning of a large-scale work of art cannot be conveyed by a jpeg  any more than looking at a picture of a gourmet meal can compare to savoring it oneself.  Any more than typing XOXO is like kissing and hugging someone you love. This is the problem.  Seeing or reading something on-line is not an acceptable substitute for real experience, yet the more we get sucked into it, the harder becomes to pull away, unplug, and venture out into the physical world, where engaging with people and art and nature can be challenging and even messy, and slightly risky because you can’t just click and instantly transport yourself somewhere else.

I recognize the irony in writing about disconnecting oneself from the computer and other electronic devices, and then posting it on my blog.  Well, life is full of little ironies, including the one about how computers were going to save us all scads of time and make us all so much more productive (except for those Facebook and Twitter junkies who get themselves fired).

When psychiatric diagnosis-like terms such as “Information Anxiety” (coined by Richard Saul Wurman who created the TED conferences) and “Nature Deficit Disorder” start showing up, it’s time to acknowledge there’s a problem.   “We must keep in mind that information or raw data is not knowledge. Individuals achieve knowledge by using their own experience, distinguishing the important from the irrelevant and making critical value judgments.”

Today, people spend less time looking at a work of art itself than they do looking through the viewfinder of their digital cameras so they can snap a picture to post online to show others what they’ve seen – when they haven’t even really looked at it! This NY Times article by Michael Kimmelman hit it dead on:

“Cameras replaced sketching by the last century; convenience trumped engagement, the viewfinder afforded emotional distance and many people no longer felt the same urgency to look. It became possible to imagine that because a reproduction of an image was safely squirreled away in a camera or cell phone, or because it was eternally available on the Web, dawdling before an original was a waste of time, especially with so much ground to cover…”

“…The art historian T. J. Clark…has lately written a book about devoting several months of his time to looking intently at two paintings by Poussin. Slow looking, like slow cooking, may yet become the new radical chic.”

“Until then we grapple with our impatience and cultural cornucopia. Recently, I bought a couple of sketchbooks to draw with my 10-year-old in St. Peter’s and elsewhere around Rome, just for the fun of it, not because we’re any good, but to help us look more slowly and carefully at what we found. Crowds occasionally gathered around us as if we were doing something totally strange and novel, as opposed to something normal, which sketching used to be. I almost hesitate to mention our sketching. It seems pretentious and old-fogeyish in a cultural moment when we can too easily feel uncomfortable and almost ashamed just to look hard.”

I could go on, but I realize this post has just exceeded 600 words, and I don’t want to strain anyone’s techno-abbreviated attention span.  More importantly, it’s time to begin my weekly 24-hour, technology-free, official Day Off, so I want to get away from the computer as much as I want you to do so too.

So that’s it until next time, but ’til then, let’s all do something to get out there and remind ourselves there ain’t nothin’ like the real thing, baby.

[Note: Extra reading – You also might enjoy Nicholas Kristof’s NDD-related article “How to Lick a Slug” if you missed it, and Brad Stone’s NY Times article, “Breakfast Can Wait. The Day’s First Stop Is Online.]

To tell you the truth, I thought it was supposed to be an interview with one guy bearing notepad and pencil.  Then they showed up with cameras!  Good thing I had my Minnie Mouse gloves at the ready.

For those of you who know me, you know I adore my neighborhood, Inwood, here at the far northern reaches of the island of Manhattan. does a wonderful job chronicling the people, events, and rich history of this area.  I’m flattered that they came to visit my studio, and went to such an effort to feature it on their site.

As part of the Uptown Arts Stroll, I will be having an open studio this Sunday, from 3-7 pmDetails are here.  I welcome you to stop in and say hello, and make a day of visiting the studios of other local uptown artists.  Music lovers will not be disappointed either! (Again, see details.)

Traversing the vast expanse of Audubon Terrace always brings on a sense of exhilaration.  There just aren’t that many  wide open public spaces surrounded by imposing Beaux Arts architecture to be found these days.  So, last Tuesday night, passing the statue of El Cid on a rearing stallion, I took a deep breath of brisk air and soaked up the scene as I made my way to the American Academy of Arts and Letters for the opening of their annual invitational exhibition.

The Academy’s premises have just undergone an enormous expansion, and the new exhibition space is impressive.  There’s a lot of work in this show (116 paintings, photographs, multi-media works, sculptures, installations, and works on paper by 30 artists), up until April 5th, so I’m just going to point out a few highlights:

A trio of neon pieces by Stephen Antonakos infused the east gallery of the new space with their jewel-like glow.  This mature artist not only knows how confident, modern,  & minimal can still be engaging, warm & welcoming in terms of art, he lives it!

In the south gallery, three portraits (one of herself) by Ann Gale assert a subtle, yet undeniably strong presence.  The canvases coalesce animism of paint and the energy of the living human.  These paintings evince a kindred connection to Lucien Freud, but perhaps more importantly to both Cezanne and even Giacometti in the attention paid to locating a mark or bit of paint in a very particular physical space, with the paint simultaneously describing and deconstructing.  When much portraiture relies on photography and digital resources, becoming flat and lifeless, these portraits hum and buzz and bristle with the intensity of living and looking — the experience of the eyes, interpreted by the mind behind them, without any intervention.  The portraits’ subjects are rendered alive and real, and the recognition of  these daubs of paint coming together to convey an individual with such psychological power is to wonder at how our own cells happen to hang together to create the assumed reality of self.

Artists ultimately selected to participate in this exhibition have first been invited by one of Academy’s members to submit work, so it’s a generally high bar of peer recognition.  In this year’s show, there are a number of big-name artists such as April Gornik, Gregory Crewdson, Roxy Paine, and Beverly McIver.  To these eyes, the biggest surprise and stand-out of the exhibition came by way of paintings bearing titles like “To Crack a Smile,” and “Vaudeville Hook” by David Nelson, an artist with whom I was not familiar.  Nelson’s non-objective canvases are both technically and aesthetically seductive in a manner as modest, genuine and self-effacing artist as the artist himself.  I’ve rarely met anyone who seemed so truly touched and surprised to receive well-earned compliments and congratulations.  Unfortunately, my camera was out of juice, and I couldn’t find any other images of his work on-line to show you, so you’ll have to take my word for it or go see for yourself!

[images above: Audubon Terrace looking east, c. 1950, courtesy American Academy of Arts & Letters; Installation view of work by Stephen Antonakos, “Departure” 1993-2007,  61 x 51 x 5″; “Arrival” 2008, 88 x 46 x 5″, and “Respite” 2000-2001, all pieces white paint on versacel, neon, copyright and courtesy of Stephen Antonakos; Ann Gale, “Self Portrait with Blue Stripes”, 14 x 11″, oil on masonite, courtesy of Hckett-Freedman Gallery, San Francisco, copyright Ann Gale.]

Next time you hear anyone trying to argue that the arts are irrelevant, why don’t you fling a few choice tidbits at them from this fascinating article: A Missing Piece in the Economic Stimulus: Hobbling Arts Hobbles Innovation by

As the economy stumbles, the first things to get cut at the national, state, and local levels are the arts. The first thing that goes in our school curricula are the arts. Arts, common wisdom tells us, are luxuries we can do without in times of crisis. Or can we?

Let’s see what happens when we start throwing out all the science and technology that the arts have made possible.

You may be shocked to find that you’ll have to do without your cell phone or PDA. In the first place, it uses a form of encryption called frequency hopping to ensure your messages can’t easily be intercepted. Frequency hopping was invented by American composer George Antheil in collaboration with the actress Hedy Lamarr. Yeah, really. [continued…]

Our February 13th gallery crawl began at  Howard Greenberg Gallery on 57th Street, in the magnificent Fuller Building, itself a fine example of Art Deco architecture.  We passed beneath the limestone frieze by sculptor Elie Nadelman, and headed up to the gallery to see an assortment of photographs from India.  There are three separate exhibitions on view, Betsy Karel: Bombay Jadoo, Sacred Sight, and Mary Ellen Mark: Indian Circus, all united by the theme of India . (On view until March 14th.)

Off in a side area is a very small selection of photos of Indian circus performers by Mary Ellen Mark.  You could easily make the mistake of bypassing the unobtrusive portal to this strange and impassioned world.  Mark’s camera seems to disappear, and the viewer steps right into her place, experiencing with a direct jolt the intensity of connection with her subjects.

Betsy Karel‘s “Bombay Jadoo” and the assortment of  photographs in the main gallery by ‘Anonymous’ to not-so-anonymous artists like Margaret Bourke-White and Henri Cartier-Bresson fully rounds out this large range of images that effectively transports one to India old and new, conveying little of the misery, and much of the jadoo (A Hindu term for magic or wonder-working).

From there, we saw Judy Pfaff‘s show Paper, at Ameringer Yohe Fine Art. [Exhibition closed Feb 21.]  An affinity between sculpture and drawing is often remarked upon, and that was clearly evident here.  These pieces exist somewhere in the realm between the two disciplines, leaning closer to relief sculpture and assemblage or collage, but none of those are fitting labels.  They are works on/of paper, but you can find just about anything else amidst the layered and cut paper, including  found images, ink, wire, artificial flowers, coffee filters, plant stems, fishing floats, and umbrella parts.  The colors range from earthy to day-glo, and as wild and chaotic as these pieces may be, one doesn’t lose confidence in Pfaff’s ability to orchestrate the entire composition.  It’s easy to envision how these pieces would evolve organically in the studio with the artist deliberating over each decision to build the complete whole, which deceptively looks as if it burst forth into being all at once.

Pfaff’s dynamic works encompass the complex experience of the natural world around us.  Within each piece one can find beauty and decay, messiness and fine detail, chaos and order, fear and delight — all the stuff of life.   Pfaff comes across as a fearless, mature artist who obviously loves her creative process — one of discovery and adventure.  Viewing this work, you feel you get to take that exciting ride along with her.

Next was Kori Newkirk’s show at The Project [up until March 20th].  There was something very affecting about being in The Project’s space.  Rounding the corner from the large, open main room, one turns to the left and enters the more intimate gallery spaces.  There are less than a handful of pieces in this show–three  drawings in the small front room, and then a lit, sculptural piece in the darkened back space.  The sensitive, seductive lines of Newkirk’s drawn self-portraits are done using bleach on pigmented paper, a sort of reductive process that appears paradoxically both ghostly and very physical. For such a spare show, Newkirk’s work fills the space with a silent forcefulness that has remained strong and persistent in memory.

At the front of the gallery, there is a display of literature on some of the other gallery artists.  I picked up a catalogue on Julie Mehretu, and although Meheretu’s accomplished drawings/paintings are much more tightly worked than Pfaff’s, there seemed to be a visual connection, a language in common between these artists of different generations.

Jack Sal at Zone Contemporary Art, [closed Feb 28th].  This show presented a varied cross-section from small, naturally weathered lead plates that look allude to landscapes and natural phenomena, to minimal works on canvas of gesso, ink, and silk surgical tape.

As noted in the gallery’s press release, Sal is an under-recognized artist in the United States, in spite of his long, accomplished career, including a series of site-specific installations in Europe, collaborative projects with William Wegman and Sol Lewitt, and inclusion in public collections such as MoMA. In the front of the gallery, one was able to get a nice sense of this artist’s journey by spending some time with a wonderfully installed wall of dozens of widely varied smaller pieces, hung salon-style.

We ended up at MoMA to see Rebus (closed Feb 23), curated by artist Vik Muniz, and while there, also stopped in to see the show of work by Marlene Dumas, both of which have been widely reviewed.  A “rebus” is a combination of visual images and symbols that piece together to add up to another meaning.  As a kids’ brainteaser, you might see a letter, then a plus sign, then an image that would add up to an unrelated word or phrase.

Muniz was the 9th artist in MoMA’s Artist’s Choice series to don the curator’s hat and hand-pick this show from the museum’s vast collection.  The pieces included are not just culled from the art collections, but also include many design items, such as a piece of bubble wrap, that may leave viewers scratching their heads.  But scratching your head is indeed part of Muniz’s intention, as this show is one big brainteaser.  You are intended to follow through it  as chronologically installed, and make a connection between each piece you see and the one situated before and after it.  This makes for some fun, especially if you’re visiting with friends.  Who can guess the connection first?

I feared Muniz’s concept would turn out to be a bit of a one-liner, leading one to dash away as quickly as one could figure out the connection,  rather than stopping to really consider the pieces in the show.  “Oh, it’s yellow, and the glass piece that looks like an egg-yolk is yellow, and next to that is a timer, like you’d use to time your egg, and next…”  But besides providing an easy in for looking at the work, it also provides a context to think about the ways art connects to our world, the ways it evolves from our world, the ways things are connected, and ultimately to the basic concept that making connections between things is a key to understanding.  The show’s first piece is the tremendous 1987 homage to Rube Goldberg in film by Peter Fischli and David Weiss called The Way Things Go, and it’s hard to go wrong with a start like that!

Countering the amusement of Rebus, the Dumas show, Measuring Your Own Grave, (closed Feb 16), was a roller coaster of ups and downs.  As the title would imply, pretty down.  Dumas has no shortage of technical skill, obvious in her ability to conjure human features out of  aqueous washes.  Although one of our gallery crawl gang described a room lined floor to ceiling with portraits as “100 paintings of village idiots,”  the portraits stood out as the strongest, and perhaps most honest, work in the show.  The sexuality or morbidity of much of her work, which has certainly fed the astonishing trajectory of her status as art-celeb, feels manipulative, cynical, and not particularly interesting no matter how technically adept.   The shock value Dumas seeks falls way short of that a painting like L’Origine du Monde by Gustave Courbet (warning: not safe for viewing at work!) still has, or at least half of the work by Egon Schiele (also not safe for work!).

Dumas seems to be present, her work at its best, with the riveting series of portraits.  There, she seems to be searching for something, and strange visions emerge from the depths of  her inky washes.  The more narrative paintings on sex, death, and racial politics, mostly fall flat, coming across as cold and calculated.  Of note, she works from photographs, and that safe distance from the realities of the flesh she’s depicting may be part of the problem.  It’s easy to draw a bead between some of this work and Andres Serrano’s photographs, which probably does not work in Dumas’ favor either. Painterly bravado aside, this show was a stark note on which to end the day’s gallery crawl thinking of the comparative difference in compassion and tenderness exuded by the work of Mary Ellen Mark, with whom we started (who has made pains to live amongst her models, including prostitutes), and Marlene Dumas (who runs from them).  But maybe those differing views are the whole point.

[Images above:  Contortionist with Sweety the Puppy, Great Raj Kamal Circus, Upleta, India, copyright Mary Ellen Mark , 19″ x 19″, 1989, Platinum print, printed later, courtesy Howard Greenberg Gallery; Benares, India 1956, copyright Marc Riboud, gelatin silver print, 40 x 30cm, printed later, courtesy Howard Greenberg Gallery; Konya, 2008, copyright Judy Pfaff, Layered/cut paper, Joss paper, found images, ink, wire, artificial flowers, wire, Crown Kozo paper, umbrella parts, framed: 94 1/2 x 94 1/2 inches, courtesy Ameringer Yohe Fine Art; Detail of drawing, copyright Kori Newkirk, bleach on paper, courtesy The Project Gallery; White/Wash III, 2008, copyright Jack Sal, courtesy Zone Contemporary Art; Yellow from the series Line, Form, Color, 1951, copyright Ellsworth Kelly, colored paper, 7-1/2 x 8″, The Museum of Modern Art; Yolk, 1999, copyright Kiki Smith, Multiple of glass, overall: 3/4 x 1-1/2 x 1-1/2″, The Museum of Modern Art; Timer  Model No. 152, 1960, copyright Rodolfo Bonette, ABS polymer, 2-3/8″ x 4-1/2″, The Museum of Modern Art; Installation view of portraits by Marlene Dumas at the Museum of Modern Art.]