Wednesday, April 25, 2007

Stenvall - Finnish Embassy

Below is a rejected submission to DCist. They thought it was too serious for a show about paintings of Donald Duck. Which is kind of my point. There are enough frivolous things in the world; why should paintings also be? Isn't the Washington Color School enough? Not that painting (or art) should (always) be serious. But, I'm guessing these duck paintings are the equivalent of Sanjaya.

Okay... they aren't that bad. You get my drift.

The banner hanging at the Finnish Embassy depicts what Kaj Stenvall’s website labels as a “very familiar duck,” and is, indeed, a direct representation of Donald Duck. The duck is seen seated in a chair overlooking the water, a brown libation in his hand. The Finnish Embassy so often exhibits the work of Modern Architecture typical of Scandinavia, with an emphasis on wood and curved forms. Such exhibits are reminiscent of the giants Alvar Aalto or Eliel and Eero Saarinen (Eero’s work can be seen in the St. Louis Arch and Dulles International Airport). So, it’s not out of line to say that this duck, this iconic symbol of American kitsch since the mid 1930s, seemed out of place.

Birdhouse, the title of the exhibit, consists of over 30 small and medium sized oil paintings by Kaj Stenvall. Created over the course of the last ten years, these wonderfully drawn but thinly painted illustrations take the figure of Donald Duck into a series of anecdotes with reminiscent tones of Hopper, Magritte, or Whistler. They capture the duck bathing, swaddled in bed linens, and urinating from the passenger side of a classic automobile. The paintings touch on the surreal: his head stored in a bell jar or constructed from the petals of a flower. Then there are the witty strains of puns masquerading as irony: the duck as a Roman Catholic Cardinal, or the duck as a swan. All of these have a dose of allegory, but not in the Classical sense where Pagan mythological themes stand in line for Catholic virtues. Instead, their allegory is the rich history of previously painted subjects within art’s cannon: art about art.

This is, perhaps, what the catalogue alludes to when it suggests that the paintings are, "jumping off points… to draw the viewer deep inside." But, at best, this is a farce. Because, if it is art about art, then it would give us greater information on still life, or portraiture, or a reflection on contemporary culture. His best bet on the later is the mixed identity of the duck. It ages between youth and the elderly. It stands in for male and female figures. And, periodically, the duck has had its white down replaced with black. But, so what? If it is an effort to interpret human emotions, why not simply use humans?

The above applies to only some of the paintings. The rest are insipid replacements for sappy inspirational posters that middle management might hang in the office above the photocopier to encourage the lower staff to "go the distance." It is the only appropriate analogy to be made of a duck ballerina dancing on the beach at sunset. But, if all you need on an afternoon out is an opportunity to get away from all the color field stuff that is rampant throughout the District, this may be the place. The paintings do serve as a wonderful laugh even if they are, at best, one-liners.

Birdhouse runs through May 13th at the Embassy of Finland, 3301 Massachusetts Avenue, NW.

Wednesday, April 18, 2007

Gestalt Newsstands Hit the Street

On April 16th, between 3:30 and 5:00, two newsstands for Gestalt hit the street in conjunction with Multimediale. The contents of the periodical consist of interviews with the artists involved in the event and discussions about the significance of individual works and the exhibition as a whole. One newsstand will be placed in the gallery throughout the duration of the exhibition and the other shall remain on the street. After April 23rd, they will no longer exist in the public sphere.

The process for putting them there has not been easy. Earlier I reported how I went through a circle of bureaucracy to determine with whom I should speak regarding the placement of the newsstands. This circle began and ended with Jose Colon.

I finally got a hold of Matthew Marcou of the Department of Transportation (DOT), in early February, and he was very prompt, helpful and receptive to at least determine with which agency within the DC government I was supposed to speak. And, indeed, it was in the jurisdiction of Sam Williams. I no longer remember why I had to speak with the DOT. It probably had something to do with the intention to place the newsstand near the Dupont Circle Metro stop. In the crazy circle of DC politics, for some reason it made sense at the time.

When I first spoke with Mr. Williams it was in early March. Apparently his phone had been broken throughout the month of February. (And, possibly his e-mail, too). He said I should just get permission from the ANC (Which stands for Advisory Neighborhood Commission, I would later learn. ANC 2B to be precise - he never said which one, or what ANC meant.) But, since he wasn't certain with whom in the ANC I should speak, he thought it best to speak with Ed Grandis of Dupont Circle Merchants and Professionals Association (DC MAP). DC MAP acts like an advisory board with no real say on anything in Dupont Circle. But, Mr. Williams assured me, that if the ANC did not approve of the newsstands that I could then apply for a permit to the tune of fifty cents.

Mr. Grandis is a lawyer and was very cut and dry when we spoke in the early part of mid March. He informed me the ANC meets once a month. And, to get on the itinerary I had to contact them one week prior to their meeting. Mr. Grandis and I spoke six days before the ANC meeting, and the itinerary had already been set. We did not speak again until after the ANC met. The newsstands were not on the itinerary and he advised me to contact them.

Them is a void. An e-mail that was never returned, to an inbox I gather is seldom checked. Them consist of nine names and six phone numbers. Since I am teaching five classes this semester between three schools, and was prepping for two shows, I decide to sidestep a phone call. Phone calls that, from my experience with Mr. Williams, never get returned.

I called Mr. Williams and, after several messages, got a hold of him in the beginning of April. I asked to proceed with the permit process. He said they were done selling permits this year - that they had finished selling permits in the beginning of March (incidentally, before I spoke with him in the beginning of March). But, I should go ahead and put them outside anyway. He suspected there would be little concern raised over the newsstands.

We shall see.

Monday, April 09, 2007

Multimediale Commericals

My Video

My Student, Apollo Gonzales' Video

Refract, Reflect, Project

Were I to be the type to indicate my top ten favorite shows at the end of a blogging season I can declare with certainty that number one has come and gone. Refract, Reflect, Project: Light Works from the Collection at the Hirshhorn Museum ended its exhibition on April 8.

While there were several pieces that might otherwise be declared lemons, concepts that fell apart both aesthetically and conceptually, there were three pieces that compensated for anything else that faltered.

Olafur Eliasson Round Rainbow; Robert Irwin, Untitled; and James Turrell, Milk Run.

The first time I encountered Eliasson's work was at the 2003 Venice Biennale where an incarnation of Room for One Color was being exhibited. Simply described, it is a room of such intense yellow lighting that optically cancels out all color within the space. Passers by glimpse into a yellow space where the occupants are blanched of color, reduced to a grey-scale. Occupants within the space capable of looking out of their yellow shroud notice the world still passes them by, filled with color. It is more than an effect on the rods and cones of the eye, it is also visible in 35mm and digital photography.

Round Rainbow is much less shocking, but is certainly meditative. Rotating slowly from the ceiling above, an acrylic disc arcs intense white light like a prism onto the surrounding walls. It is from both the deprivation of light as much as it is from the rotating rainbow of colors that is soothing. The piece, while easy to figure out, none-the-less is admirable for its capactiy to splinter the spectrum.

Robert Irwin's Untitled has this quiet intensity that at first is so casual that people pass it by with the assumption to not give it a second thought. But, the work is capable of doing something to the eye, even in periffery. It's ability to dissolve, both the piece and the wall behind it, is the captivating force that inspires a second glance. If the eye focuses on it too long, at the proper distance, the only other thing it inspires is vertigo. What is lost, thanks to the grey band that stretches across the middle, is comprehending where the piece ends and the shadows begin. Or, if there is even a piece there at all.

Turrell and Irwin both participated in light deprivation experiments early in their artistic careers, and the effects have been most vivid in Turrell's installations. Intended for just a few people at a time, he has been quoted as saying that his pieces should "become a record of how you see, so that you see yourself seeing." As critic Robert Hughes has emphasized in the text and video American Visions, "Turrell's work doesn't happen in front of your eyes, it happens behind them." While he has several dozn pieces with the title Milk Run, the particular piece that was deinstalled at the Hirshhorn was the essence of light deprivation, with a single beam of yellow, red and blue light emitted from a crevice in the wall. Opposed to the multiple images you may find on Google Images with the same title, The Hirshhorn's Milk Run's lack of light transformed the materiality of the room, expanding the walls infinitely beyond their natural boundary. This caused the visitor to constantly clutch for the wall, often grasping nothing. Those visiting on weekends to the space would tread with caution, careful not to bump into another person as they tip-toed through the space. Those who visited during the weekdays would tread with caution, convinced the floor no longer existed.

Though the three examples above could be reduced to smoke and mirrors, what part of art isn't? The Renaissance Window we so conveniently recognize as painting today was bound to astound the first viewers of its convention in the Renaissance. We know the figures of the frescoes in Italy are painted, but what is difficult to determine still is where the real architecture ends and the painted architecture begins. The great difference is that the Renaissance Fresco is an image, and its careful execution is the dependent factor of its success or failure. While the three works of art mentioned above still deal with issues of perception, they do not deal with an image.