Monthly Archives: February 2012

Paris

Dance me through the Musée

This week I had an unexpected 32-hour layover in Paris (trust me, my life is not as glamourous as it sounds). With the mental and monetary resources for only one museum, I chose the Centre Pompidou. Their current special exhibition, Danser Sa Vie, interweaves elegant works by the likes of Rodin, Matisse and Warhol, with videos, photos and sketches of dancers such as Isadora Duncan, Merce Cunningham and Yvonne Rainer. The contemporary works that were part of the exhibition happened to be some of the more interesting video pieces I have seen in a while –either that, or video art is ideally viewed through the haze of jetlag.

Still from Movement Microscope, 2011(c) Olafur Eliasson

Olafur Eliasson’s Movement Microscope, made especially for this exhibition, is a 15 minute video that documents a day in the life of his studio. Interspersed with the regular routine, were moments of synchronicity between  people, conversations through gestures and the occasional body going refreshingly awry.  Throughout, the line blurred between performative movement and the measured motions of practiced craft and habit. Though not a new idea, Eliasson’s piece captured simply the ideas of much of the modern dance pieces in the previous rooms: the link between interior and exterior; the body as machine versus the body as natural force. The video also provided an interesting insight into the contemporary art studio as a collaborative space, where technology, nature and humans all collide.

Another piece that had me hypnotized, was French artist Nicolas Floc’h’s Performance Painting #2. In this piece, dancer Rachid Ouramdane stands in one spot, under two steady drips of black paint. The tension mounts as the black residue builds up on the performer’s clothes and skin, growing more menacing with each drip, and his gestures progress from small reactive twitches, to refined responsive motions and then to aggressive flinging of his limbs.

Video Still from Performance Painting #2, 2011 (c) Nicolas Floc’h

Performance Painting #2 played opposite the iconic video of Jackson Pollock at work and a still of Carollee Schneeman’s  Up to and Including Her Limits, underlining the obvious ancestral link between these pieces: all three artists use a very simple set-up to trace the movements of their body through space, and document the drama that evolves within one solitary human. Perhaps the black paint within which the performer dances and flails represents the anxiety of influence; perhaps it is a reference to forms of seemingly innocuous torture; or maybe it is just an excuse to watch the human body do it’s thing. Whatever the artist’s intention, the  quiet darkness had me entranced.

Towards the end of the exhibition were a pair of Felix Gonzales-Torres works, Untitled (Go-Go Dancing Platform) 1991 and Untitled (Arena) 1993.  Arena consists of a square of lights, strung in a corner, with two headsets on the adjacent wall. I watched as a middle-aged German couple put on the headsets and started to dance together under the lights.  This piece provides the conditions for intimacy and, similar to his well-known Perfect Lovers, emphasizes the transience and vulnerability of a harmonious union–once the dancing couple stopped, the square of light became an active emptiness, eerily peaceful but longing for human occupancy. I don’t know what music the headsets played as I didn’t venture into the work, but I imagined something poetic and bittersweet: Gonzales-Torres was painfully aware that humans don’t run like clockwork and all dances come to an end.

Los Angeles

Someone to Fight Against

On Monday, I stood in front of The Two Fridas for the first time. As with many well-known and frequently reproduced images, it did not occur to me that I had never actually seen this painting in person, until I was standing in front of the canvas. It’s a rare and exhilarating sensation to be seeing something very familiar, but totally new. You can feel yourself wake up.

The Two Fridas, 1939, Oil on canvas, 67" x 67", Collection of the Museo de Arte Moderno, Mexico City

The two Fridas are very matter of fact, addressing their pain and exposure with clinical clarity. The drama in the image –blood, gore, storm brewing, love broken– is balanced by Frida’s calmness, and by the sheer weight of her double presence. Rather than a person divided against herself, Frida’s depiction of her two selves (German and Mexican) serves to give her strength and solidity. This is a smart painting that plays with traditional wedding images, relationships and sexuality, but what I am consistently drawn to, is the slump of her blue belly. She’s a fellow human, present in all her awkward, fleshy glory.

Clumsy, 29" x 42" x 42", thread on stained tablecloth, 2007

The blood dripping onto Frida’s embroidered skirt, reminded me of a piece of Nava Lubeski’s that I saw at the Museum of Art and Design in 2007. Nava had spilled wine on a table cloth and then delicately stitched around the edge of each spill, transforming the results of her clumsiness, into something assertive and intriguing. Frida performed a similar process of transformation in her paintings, turning her traumas into powerful and unapologetic declarations of self-hood. What the Lubeski piece makes particularly clear, is the difference in time lines; a careless mistake happens in seconds, but the painstaking process of repair enfolds slowly. Many artists, myself  included, actively cultivate mistakes and obstacles in the art making process, so as to have something to fight against. It is funny that we don’t embrace the same attitude towards our lives outside of the studio.

A couple of days before seeing the Kahlo at LACMA, I visited the studio of Michelle Carla Handel and was confronted by Trouble Feeling My Feelings, a soft sculpture that sits somewhere between bondage  equipment and throw pillows. The title aptly describes my initial reaction to the piece.

Trouble Feeling My Feelings, vinyl, fabric and fiberfill, 76" x 36" x 36", 2011

This sculpture squirms awkwardly on the floor, while simultaneously trying to pull it’s self together and sit up straight. It might be inviting you to lie down, it might be waiting to spring into attack. It’s a little silly, but by sheer fact of its size, and the care that went into making it, you know you have to take it seriously.

I walked away from the piece still not sure what my feelings were, and I think that might be its success. Trouble embodies the process of negotiation and identification that takes place between intertwined individuals, and between the conflicting elements within a single person. Like Frida’s painting, it tells the story of marriage and divorce, of having someone to both fight against and swim towards, and then of being left alone, with only your other self.

Los Angeles

Dorothea Tanning (1910-2012)

Fantastic Heliotherapy, Dorothea Tanning
Fantastic Heliotherapy, 1944, ink on paper.

Dorothea Tanning passed away on Tuesday. She was 101.

As I read through various articles and obituaries, then roamed the archives of her life’s work, I stumbled across the drawing Fantastic Heliotherapy and immediately settled on that as the title for this blog. Though Tanning was very definitely a Paris/New York artist, the image of a figure struggling to find shelter from the ocean winds in an overgrown sunflower, seems a fitting image for my life as an artist in Los Angeles.  The concept of heliotherapy encapsulates many of the stereotypes about Angelinos (superficial sun worshippers, health and image obsessed, way too relaxed to be serious), and the art produced here (feel good, color field art), whilst, I hope, alluding to the emotionally and intellectually complex work that undercuts those stereotypes, and thrives in this environment.

Certainly, taking Tanning as my patron saint couldn’t hurt. This fiercely creative woman was a prolific painter, who went on to explore sculpture, poetry and prose. She has been a part of my artistic vocabulary since I was an undergraduate, and paintings such as Death and the Maiden, and Eine Kleine Nachtmusik transformed my understanding of Surrealism. I had thought of it as a macho movement, full of clever mental twists, but emotionally distant. Not so with Tanning. Her works use absurdity and whimsy as a method for communicating something dark and personal. In Death and the Maiden the classical theme of death/rape is retold in a deadpan and non glamorous fashion, simultaneously funny, sad and uncomfortable, not that unlike a Miranda July movie.

Though she is best known for her paintings, it was her visceral soft sculptures that grabbed my imagination in recent years. Edward Goldman described the one currently on view in LACMA’s In Wonderland show, as “nasty, very nasty”. Tanning herself described the process of making these writhing masses as “very close to lust” and I can believe it. Forty years after their completion, they still pulse with raw erotic energy.

Fingers crossed, some of that seductive daring will rub off on my writing.