Thursday, November 29, 2007

James Rosenquist at SAAM

Last month when I learned Jim Rosenquist would be lecturing at the McEvoy Auditorium in the basement of the Smithsonian American Art Museum I quietly rejoiced and then began showing students images of his work on Google.

Back story: Two years ago I was helping Barbara Rose move stuff to New York, and after a long day of working we sat chewing the fat over a bottle of wine. She asked me who I thought the five best living US painters are. I spit out Rauschenberg, Johns, Stella, and Rosenquist before I could blink an eye. Then I stopped speaking and sheepishly admitted I couldn't think of any other living painter that I was passionate about. I think I followed up with , "Elizabeth Murray, I suppose. " (I know she's no longer with us... this was 2005.)

Barbara stated sharply - "Now, Jim Rosenquist. That's interesting. He has to be one of the most gentlemanly artists I have ever known." Perhaps I am paraphrasing.

The lecture Jim Rosenquist was supposed to give was entitled Fine Art Is Not A Career. I don't think he ever broached the subject. His talk was mostly war stories: growing up in the Midwest; his parents being aviators; working as a sign painter with ex-convicts in ND, SD, NE, IA, & WI painting signs for Phillips 66; a scholarship to New York; the cost of George Grosz's apartment in the 1950s; his first apartment in Coenties Slip; and the differences in price between paintings he sold in the 1960s and what they recently sold for at auction this year. Basically, things you could read in the catalog published by the Guggenheim five years ago, during his retrospective.

But, my, was he entertaining! He speaks with a voice reminiscent of a quiet Harvey Keitel. He fidgeted with his glasses, wiped his face with his hands, hiked up his trousers, lost his place in his lecture, and told little more than amusing anecdotes. He had the charm of an afternoon out with my grandfather, sitting in a boat, lines in the water, waiting for the catfish at the bottom of the river bed to come up for a bite. And he was capable of mastering that poise in front of an audience of hundreds. He's as cool as his paintings.

Sunday, November 25, 2007

Thanksgiving recap.

Thanksgiving involved a five hour drive to New Jersey on a Tuesday evening, and near six hour return on a Saturday afternoon. This afternoon as Gretchen and I listened to the radio we heard I-95 was jammed up and down the Eastern Seaboard between New York City and Richmond, Virginia. No doubt the bottle necks somewhere south of Exit 8 in Jersey, and somewhere south of Ikea in Northern Virginia - where six lanes of traffic become three and two respectively - contributed to this. So too did the Deleware Memorial Bridge. We paid $7 between the two ends of a four mile stretch, waiting 40 minutes to drive through it.

More trains in the Easter corridor, please. At least more rail cars would be nice. A drop in ticket prices would be beneficial to buoying the mass-transit commute along the coast. Less gasoline will be consumed. More people will read books and periodicals. And, when not reading, they'll be rocked to sleep like babies, or skimming the landscape with wide-eyed curiosity. Better than sitting in a parking lot, wading through a sea of brake lights in the EZ-Pass lane, a kettle of anger boiling over in the sternums of thousands, reflexively displaced to the accelerator stitching accidents between lanes of traffic at 90 MPH.

Sunday, November 11, 2007

Mark Cameron Boyd at Galerie Ingrid Cooper

A little over a week ago I traveled up the Rockville Pike to see Mark Cameron Boyd's recent exhibition at Galerie Ingrid Cooper. Seldom have I ventured north into Maryland to view an exhibition, and I became a bit dumbfounded to learn the gallery was in the White Flint Shopping Mall. This would be curious, at least.

Art in a mall conjures up images of strange poster/prints replicating paintings derived from movie stills and promotional advertising for movies: stuff to hang in a dorm room. But, the idea of selling and purchasing art in a shopping mall makes perfect sense. There is a high volume of foot traffic; people are going there specifically to spend money; and there is no limit to that money to spend. Down the hall a visitor may spend several hundred or thousand dollars on furniture, commercial jewelry, shoes, literature, computer equipment, or cooking gadgets. Never mind the pop melodies of Amy Grant and Debbie Gibson in the background! If the opportunity should arise, "how much is that painting in the window?"

Ingrid Cooper has been operating her small boutique for a dozen years. Raised and educated in Germany, she mentioned that students were exposed to two hours of art education every week. "That doesn't mean it was quality; that depended on the teacher you had," she said. Students were educated about the aesthetics of composition, about classical art, and about how art evolved into and through the 20th Century. Though Ms. Cooper modestly questioned the quality of the art education as a whole in Germany, there is no question that she had it - something that a growing number of Americans cannot say they have had. For many in the States, mandatory art education stopped before the end of elementary school, if it was even offered. Keeping Ms. Cooper's education in mind, it will be certain that the "painter of light" will never make an appearance in her quiet space - painted prints of cozy cottages on canvas tend to clash with DeStijl walls and stainless steel counter displays (Galerie also displays artisan jewelry).

Mark Cameron Boyd has received his fair share of recognition lately for his chalkboard pieces: phrases or statements, written on alternating stripes of slate and tape, with tape removed, something he calls text bisections. What is revealed are half-strings of words that Boyd allows the viewer to sometimes fill in with an abandoned stick of chalk. They are ephemeral, require audience participation, involve looking and reading. The chalkboards might be too theoretical for the mall.

Created between 1998 and 2003, Boyd's work, currently on display at Galerie Ingrid Cooper, is a plausible step backward in time to what influenced the chalkboard pieces. Each composition is painting and decollage: an act of collage that involves cutting and tearing away from the compositional surface.

Decollage first came into vogue during the middle of the 20th Century when artists like Mimmo Rotella, Jacques Villegle and Raymond Hains admired the abstract nature of the vandalized posters on their respective city streets to such an extent that they pulled the posters down from the walls, carted them to their studios, and pasted them onto canvas and board.

Boyd's work does not share the vocabulary of street poster. Instead, it has newspapers from several cultures piled atop one another and stripped away. The layering of languages - Japanese, German, Spanish, French, English - is the cacophony of the DC street, the texture of sound heard passing between point A and point B, the poetics of language. Through the act of decollage, and the design of painting, the work becomes unified and whole.

Seeing the influence and execution of decollage from earlier work, the process for the chalkboards begins to make sense. Removing a strip of Japanese newspaper in the past is similar to removing a text-strewn strip of tape from a chalkboard.

Mark Cameron Boyd's exhibition at Galerie Ingrid Cooper will be on display through November 19. Galerie Ingrid Cooper is on the second floor of the White Flint Mall, 11301 Rockville Pike.

pictured: Thing in a Ringer, 2002, courtesy Mark Cameron Boyd.

Wednesday, November 07, 2007

Get Thee to the Katzen

I had half an hour today and wandered over to the Katzen between meetings at American University. Between the Feminist work on the ground level and Botero upstairs I was blown away. I cannot recall who was on the second floor - Metropolis in paint - but even that was astounding.

Last month there were nothing but lemons hanging in the Katzen. I've actually blocked those shows out of memory - they were so bad. And, in looking at the work on exhibit now, I can see why: the energy of the past year has been invested in this month, these shows, this opening. And, it might be the best grouping of exhibits, in one space, in all of DC, at this time.

Botero may be one of my least favorite artists. It is possibly because his stylized paintings of rotund figures never "speak" to me. I find them as empty and hollow as Jeff Koon's bunny rabbits. His images of Abu Ghraib, however, truly capture that Joseph Conrad-ian psychological fracturing of humanity. What does it take to bring one human being to such moral depths that he or she performs those acts to another human being? It is more than just a fissure in the system.

But, it does make me think, under the proper conditions, there might be some sort of evil inside each of us that could take us to those depths. That might be the most frightening thing about Botero's paintings. When humanity and self-respect are lost, we become animals - rabid as dogs on the end of a tightened leash. Abu Ghraib is what happens when that leash goes untethered.