Monthly Archives: April 2012

Los Angeles

Sometimes a car with flashing lights is just a car with flashing lights.

I don’t want to devote too much brain or internet space to art that doesn’t excite, disturb or intrigue me. But I have had a recent bout of disappointments and I need to talk about at least one of them so that my feelings don’t fester.

Cai Guo-Qiang, what happened?

I remember the first day we met. It was 2004 and I had driven from Middletown, Connecticut to Mass MOCA in North Adams, Massachusetts. After two hours in the car, I was hungry for something spectacular.

The first gallery held a collection of paintings from the New Leipzig School; Matthias Weischer and Tim Eitel are the two that I remember most clearly. As a 21-year-old, I drank in every example of painting I could find, eager to explore the potential –and limits– of my new medium, and these calm, reserved works from Germany caught my attention. Weischer’s slightly decrepit interiors and Eitel’s solitary humans impressed me because of their technical precision, sparse compositions and suggestive narratives.

Left: Matthias Weischer, Zweiteilig (Bisected), 2003. Right:Tim Eitel, Boot, 2004.

In the following 8 years I have seen more of both these artists and continue to respect them, though my tastes have changed. But then apparently so have Weischer’s, as he recently exhibited a series of sunny, fragmented garden paintings, similar to Hockney’s current work. Is this a plein-air trend? The thinking painter’s excuse to let loose and use pretty colors? In the case of Weischer, it is refreshing to see established artists go through transitions and take risks: it suggests that they are striving to grow their ideas. I might not like every piece they create, but I respect the process and will wait to see what the work reveals.

But back to Cai.

In 2004 I walked into the main atrium at Mass Moca and WHAM! After the quiet, cool paintings meditating on emptiness, here was the definition of spectacle: cars, flashing lights, precarious motion on a grand scale. I read the piece as a commentary on the seductive pleasure of violence and disaster. Smart and sexy? I had an art crush.

Cai Guo-Qiang, Innopportune, Mass MOCA, 2004.

In an adjacent room, stuffed tigers twirled through the air pierced with arrows, mirroring the cars pierced with light. Upstairs hung a collection of simple circular gunpowder paintings which added weight to my admiration: this was a serious artist, referencing ancient Chinese forms with a contemporary and daring twist. I have since seen his pieces in other museums and though nothing has replaced that first thrill, until last week I had not seen anything to make me reevaluate my initial read of Cai as a contemporary master.

But then last week I went to his exhibition Skyladder at MOCA in Los Angeles. To be fair, the work was housed next to Transmission LA, an exhibition that included a Mercedes Benz bathed in light that flashed to the beat. Macho, excessive and completely impersonal, this “art” (I have a very open definition of art, but even I don’t think it can stretch to a car advertisement and I think it’s an irresponsible choice by a museum to suggest otherwise) represented much of what I dislike, so it didn’t put me in the most receptive or meditative of moods.

Skyladder contained three large gunpowder drawings and a crop circle installation the whole length of the room. The crop circles were nice. The drawings were literal and boring. One dealt with childhood fantasies of space, another the chaotic destructiveness of nature, and the third told the story of humanity’s desire for flight. These could all be compelling starting points, but the images didn’t provide any further insight or fresh discoveries. The desire to defy gravity is fertile ground for discussions of freedom and hubris, but Cai doesn’t take us there. This lack of a “so what” made the gunpowder feel like a gimmick, which in turn threw my whole previous understanding of Cai into question. Had I been seduced by a car with flashing lights and no conceptual backbone? I hope not.

Maybe this installation is a result of over commitment or of working with volunteers to create the piece. Perhaps Cai is burned out and exploring new avenues and he has yet to hit a new rhythm.  I am willing to give this work the benefit of the doubt, but I expect better next time.

Short & Sweet

Short & Sweet: Nederlands Dans Theater

Nederlands Dans Theater 2, Photograph by Chris Nash

As an early birthday present I was treated to a performance by the Nederlands Dans Theater 2 that had me completely spellbound. The evening included three 30 minute pieces: a strange interpersonal drama, a meditation on the edge of sanity and a charming, self-aware extravaganza. Motion, emotion, seduction, humor, the human body, and an intimate wrestle with personal demons — I can’t think of a better way to mark the beginning of a new year.


London Los Angeles

Seductive Technique: Christian Marclay and David Hockney

Film Still from Christian Marclay’s The Clock, 2009

To create The Clock (2009), Christian Marclay edited together thousands of film clips showing time pieces into a literal clock: a 24 hour artwork that constantly refers to the precise time. LACMA purchased the piece and recently screened the film for a second time. When I showed up at 5:45 on a Saturday night, the large auditorium was packed.

The day after I saw it, someone told me that this is their favorite piece of visual art. EVER.

Film Still from Christian Marclay’s The Clock, 2009

The Clock is a compelling meditation on how we conceptualize and experience time, interwoven with a  journey through cinematic history. Marclay plays to the human brain’s predisposition for patterns and the pleasure of recognition, while skillfully using the tools of cinema to subvert our expectations of the medium: anticipation builds and falls, builds and falls, teasing the viewer but never quite reaching a climax.

When I was in London last month, I was lucky enough to witness a similarly hypnotic and popular spectacle: Hockney’s The Bigger Picture that closed this past week at the Royal Academy.

Woldgate Woods, East Yorkshire, 2006.Photograph: David Hockney

Even as he focuses on Yorkshire landscapes, Los Angeles’ influence on Hockney’s viewpoint is clear: cinematic, bright, playful and, especially in some of the totem pieces, slightly apocalyptic. In the more interesting pieces on display at the RA, Hockney’s tendencies for crisp light and striking patterns mingled with the damp, pastoral prettiness of the English countryside to create paintings that were seductive, specific and odd–the landscape painting equivalent of magical realism.

A Closer Winter Tunnel, Feb-Mar, 2006.Photograph: David Hockney / Art Gallery of New South Wales

After moving through nine or ten rooms bursting with trees and pigment, the exhibition led me into a darkened room displaying Hockney’s video pieces. The videos were reminiscent of his photo-collages of the 1980s, capturing space –the woods and paths of Yorkshire as well as his studio interior– using multiple perspectives. The subtle movement and quiet sounds created a gentle rhythmic effect, similar to riding in a train or bobbing in a boat on calm waters. When I was there, a crowd of at least 60 people sat totally mesmerized, watching leaves rustle in the wind.

Just like after the Marclay show, post-Hockney someone told me that they weren’t aware of having a favorite artist before seeing The Bigger Picture (not counting their friends of course) but now Hockney was their number one. Perhaps my friends are particularly prone to hyperbole, but I think that their reactions are a fair sampling of the art-viewing public. So why were  these two shows so popular, especially at a point in time when we are being constantly told that our attention spans are decreasing?

7 November 11.30am & 26 November 9.30am 2010, Woldgate Woods, East Yorkshire. Film still. Photograph: David Hockney

Both Hockney and Marclay use familiar imagery and emphasize visual pleasure. But more than that, they create a specific type of mental experience, that allows the viewer to get lost.  The mind is not able to leave the building and ponder the same stressful thoughts it carries around all day, but it is also not so busy trying to follow the narrative or critically analyze the material that it has to be completely present. Instead, these artworks encourage the audience to turn off some part of their rational mind and relax into the imagery, creating the sort of focused day dreaming that is supposedly excellent for our creativity and mental health.

I think artists sometimes forget that art viewing can be simultaneously stimulating and relaxing –to be honest sometimes I forget that viewers exist at all– and that if the goal is to create better viewers–viewers who are sensitive, imaginative and mindful human beings– then perhaps a lulling seduction is more effective than an aggressive assault.