The Masks We Live In – Contemporary Musings on Gender and Abuse

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Nancy Grossman, Three Heads, 1971, patent leather and zippers over wood and polyester resin, each 16 3/4″ high.

Nancy Grossman’s masked heads have a mysteriously intimate and ominous quality to them. Her use of leather and zippers recall sexually charged images of BDSM and bondage subcultures. We gather that these figures are submissive because their heads are almost entirely covered. I have long been interested in the history of these works; surely they come from a very personal place.

It seemed appropriate to revisit Grossman’s iconic work in the light of the Harvey Weinstein sexual abuse/harassment case. There’s something unsettling about these works and the power dynamic they represent that seems more apparent than ever before. Although they are seemingly male gendered the artist has suggested that they are autobiographical. Grossman is compelling us to look beyond male/female dichotomy, and focus more astutely on the relationship between the sexes and the fluidity of gender. In doing so, the narrative of victim and abuser transcends binary gender roles. This puts Grossman alongside the contemporary intersectional feminist movement, where social identities are accepted as being diverse and intersect/overlap to form a whole embodied identity.

For example, when looking at the social injustices in our society: racism, sexism, classicism, homophobia, transphobia, xenophobia, anti-Semitism, or other religious, physical, and social hatred; it is not simply an issue of one or the other. Intersectionality reflects multiple forms of discrimination. An example would be how in the light of the Harvey Weinstein scandal the response has largely focused on the cis female perspective, while not fully considering or being open to the trans female or non-gendered (gender fluid) individual. In an intersectional model, the dialog would affirm that sexism, racism, and transphobia are interwoven as issues that should be addressed simultaneously.

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Torture

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Andres Serrano, Cross, 2015

Andres Serrano has explored a number of socially engaged themes in his work throughout the years. From early on, the artist was interested in the power dynamics that exist within civilization. He first came to prominence during the Culture Wars of the late 1980s with a work called “Piss Christ,” which was a photograph of a plastic crucifix suspended within a plexiglass tank of the artist’s own urine. The work is stunning in its formal beauty, and addresses the artist’s faith in Christianity, while being critical of organized religion’s embrace of capitalism and tokenism. Serrano, a self-proclaimed Christian, has been interested in the way humans treat each other in the name of religion, politics, and social justice. He has photographed homeless individuals, the Ku Klux Klan, and bodies in the morgue. He was also previously commissioned by New York Times Magazine to create a photo-essay to accompany a story on the methods of torture that were being used on prisoners at Abu Ghraib.

His current show at Jack Shainman Gallery revisits the theme of torture, through conceptual photographs that recreate horrific imagery of abuse. The photographs were taken inside of a large empty warehouse that provided the isolated and haunting setting necessary for these images to strike a visceral chord within the viewer. There is no obvious narrative, Serrano brilliantly leaves room for our interpretation. We occasionally see the actual victims, however, in the majority of the images, the victim is covered by a hood or obstructed in a way in which we can’t identify them. In the case where there are no figures, we are presented with evocative still lives featuring chains, bloody objects, iron masks, and hulking ominous structures, through which we can only begin to fathom the amount of pain that was inflicted upon the individuals. What we see clearly overall, is the physical and psychological trauma that victims of abuse are subjected to.

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Mother of War

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Peter Passuntino, Mother of War, 1969, Oil on canvas, 69/5 x 61/5 in.

During the 1960s the poignant images and narrative of the Vietnam War had far reaching effects on generations of American and Vietnamese citizens. In America, the civilian resistance to this war was wider spread than any previous historical conflict and it gave rise to new forms of progressive grassroots movements that were active in multiple facets of American life. The Anti-War movement was also emotionally supported through the vibrant music and fine arts scene. For example, the cost of the war in terms of physical and psychological devastation was the inspiration for Peter Passuntino’s yearlong series of works that expressed his anxiety and disgust with the Vietnam War. 

Passuntino was working as an artist in New York, while the war in Vietnam was happening. At that period, coffins carrying the bodies of young men were arriving in droves, and due to the mandatory draft, friends and loved ones were separated from each other with uncertainty as to whether they’d ever be reunited.  The visions and first hand accounts of the trauma surrounding the Vietnam War compelled the artist to create a grotesque vessel, using paint, pastel, and ink, that would express the horrific nature of war and the turbulent issues like social justice that we’re still dissecting and grappling with today. He aptly titled the resulting works “Mother of War.”

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Separate, not equal: A Look at the Problematic discourse of African American subject matter at the Whitney Biennial.

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Dana Schutz’s Open Casket (2016) & Henry Taylor’s The Times Thay Aint A Changing, Fast Enough! (2017)

 

Every two years, the Whitney Museum presents a survey of the most topical, and aesthetically profound works of art being made in America, at least in respect to the vision of the appointed curator(s). Often this means that there is a certain bias and a string of controversy or criticism directed at the Biennial’s selection and display of artworks. This year’s show was no exception, in fact, the controversy and criticism has been amplified to a level that has not  (in my memory) ever been experienced in the show’s history.  The following critique will comment upon the controversy around the display of a painting of Emmett Till by Dana Schutz (a white female painter), and compare it to a painting by Henry Taylor (an African American painter) portraying the murder of Philando Castile at the hands of the Police. While Taylor’s painting has been celebrated, Schutz’s painting has faced opposition by those who have advocated not only for its removal from the show, but for its physical destruction.

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Raymond Pettibon: Visual Vehemence

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After Donald Trump was elected as the forty-fifth President of the United States of America, several cultural commentators and contemporary artists mentioned the importance of art as a form of resistance. In fact, art has always had the means to provide a powerful rebuttal to the corruption of culture, and Political art has continuously existed within the aesthetic discourse of art. For example, we can observe artists similarly protesting issues like police brutality in Thomas Nast’s 1874 wood-engraving Jewels Among Swine, which depicts the police as swine with batons, engaging affably with gangsters, while arresting female activists protesting against the lack of enforcement against crime; Spain Rodriguez’s 1969 comic strip Manning, a film noir inspired narrative of a crooked detective who takes little issue with using his authority to lie, cheat, steal, and brutalize innocent civilians; and more recently, Dread Scott’s installation A Man Was Lynched by Police Yesterday (2015), a stark re-appropriation of the NAACP’s banner (which read A Man Was Lynched Yesterday) that was hung from their New York City office during the 1920s. Dread Scott, a self proclaimed revolutionary artist, made the piece in response to the epidemic of black men across the nation being killed in cold blood by police officers.

As a young man venturing out into the (real) world during the George W. Bush years, art, music, and politics became the backbone of my grappling with the human condition in the midst of what I interpreted to be a grave point in the history of Western Civilization. Punk rock music and the revolutionary, anti-establishment charged imagery of underground comix, would have a lasting impression on myself and a generation of contemporary artists, writers, and musicians. It was during this time that I first came across the work of Raymond Pettibon, a major forerunner of today’s counter-cultural scene. He began his career drawing album art and posters for California’s Hardcore Punk rock scene in the 1980s. His most iconic work during this period is the art and the logo for the highly influential band Black Flag (Pettibon’s older brother Greg Ginn was a founding member). Pettibon’s current exhibition, “A Pen of All Work”, at the New Museum on New York City’s Lower East Side is a breath of fresh air in the midst of today’s foul political and social climate.

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No Fear. Yes Art

This editorial was originally published in alt break art fair‘s Responses to Community Building (2016) publication. It has been edited slightly. To read the publication at large click here: alt_break_responses_to_community_building

Life can be boiled down to two key components: fear and love. After the results of arguably the most polarizing election in our nation’s history, many individuals are expressing either one or the other. Shock turned to mourning, then to anger, and now we must turn our emotions into a unified response. It is as important now as ever that love reigns supreme over fear. We should be emboldened by acts of kindness and compassion and rise above hateful actions and discourse so that the hard fought freedoms so many gave their heart, soul, and bodies for is never in vain.

As artists we have a job to do. Throughout history, the arts have been a means to confront and take on difficult issues. Artists have resoundingly responded to devastating wars, fascist regimes, and social injustices. Participating in the arts allows us to communicate our experiences repletely and expressively. We are active participants in shaping the cultural landscape and therefore we need to come out from our studios into the community. We should learn from others, hear their experiences, and help them to tell their story. Now is not a time for self-righteousness or ego, as artists we can facilitate the kind of change that civilization needs.

The day after the election I revisited and was moved again by the words of Toni Morrison who wrote  a poignant essay about why the arts are necessary, especially when despair seems to outweigh hope:

“This is precisely the time when artists go to work. There is no time for despair, no place for self-pity, no need for silence, no room for fear. We speak, we write, we do language. That is how civilizations heal.

I know the world is bruised and bleeding, and though it is important not to ignore its pain, it is also critical to refuse to succumb to its malevolence. Like failure, chaos contains information that can lead to knowledge — even wisdom. Like art.”

We will survive this period and many other moments when the situation seems bleak. The best we can do is to embrace uncertainty and not give in to the fear. Don’t fear failure, because we are all flawed, however, we can challenge the conditions of humanity and push the limits of our creativity to un-chartered territories. My colleagues (Audra Lambert, Kimi Kitada) and I started the alt break art fair because we saw artists as great advocates for change. Through partnering with non-profit organizations that work tirelessly to help those in need, we hope to raise both an awareness and participation in humanitarian efforts amongst the art community and the community at large.

As an artist, curator, and arts educator, I will do my part to impart hope, strength, and knowledge wherever I can. I hope to see you on the frontlines in our community.

Benny Andrews’ Bicentennial Human

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Benny Andrews, Circle, 1973, oil on twelve linen canvases with painted fabric and mixed media collage, 120 x 288 inches. Courtesy of Michael Rosenfeld Gallery

The Michael Rosenfeld Gallery presents a seminal series of collages and drawings from Benny Andrews’ Bicentennial Series (1970-1976). The series’ six thematic groups that are the basis for this exhibition include the Symbol Series, Trash Series, Circle Series, Sexism Series, and Utopia Series. Within these themes, Andrews reflected on his experience as an African American in the post-civil rights era and during the two hundred year anniversary of the United States of America. At the time series was conceived, it was evident that African Americans had made innumerous significant cultural contributions both locally and nationally, yet their role in shaping American history had been vaguely reported and celebrated. Additionally, the national dialogue surrounding the celebratory attitude of the bicentennial seemed naive and dishonest in light of the social and economic conditions across the country.

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Rhino Horn Artist Updates!

There’s quite a lot of exciting news involving past-Rhino Horn artists. Co-Founder Benny Andrews currently has work in a group show titled Hereat the Arts and Sciences Center for Southeast Arkansas. The show, which runs through October 15, 2016, presents a selection of art by African-American artists from the museum’s permanent collection.

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June Leaf, Twin Volcanoes, 1951, Ink on paper, 8.5″ x 9″ Courtesy of Ed Thorp Gallery, New York.

June Leaf has two important upcoming retrospectives in New York City.  The first is Leaf’s major retrospective at the Whitney Museum of American Art, which opens tomorrow, April 27th. The exhibition will focus mainly on her incredible large scale drawings. The second exhibition, organized by Edward Thorp Gallery will showcase works in a variety of mediums during her career from 1949 to most recently and will open on Thursday, April 28th. The exhibition will run concurrently with the Whitney show. June Leaf has been represented by Edward Thorp Gallery located in New York City since 1985.

Jennifer Samet recently spoke with June at her New York City studio and has published the inspiring conversation on Hyperallergic in a segment called “Beer with a Painter.

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Jay Milder, # 13, 2016, Oil Stick on Rag Paper, 20″ X 26″, Courtesy of the artist and Quogue Gallery.

Rhino Horn Co-Founder, Jay Milder’s latest work will be on view at Quogue Gallery beginning May 12 and running through June 15, 2016. The exhibition titled Noah’s Ark: Many Views focuses on Milder’s recurring Kabbalistic interpretations of the covenant between G-d and humankind, envisioned through vivid works on paper and canvas that recall spray-can graffiti and embody a brilliant spectrum.

Suggested Reading: Spring Ahead Edition

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– “a lot of curation today leads to the homogenization of emerging cultures — emerging from the perspective of the West — instead of forming collaborative exchanges with people that fall outside the dominant art world.” Art-world darling and sometimes provocateur Oscar Murrillo says that flushing his passport down the toilet mid-flight to Australia wasn’t done in protest. via New York Times

– Two major museum surveys organized by the Centre Pompidou and Sharjah Biennale feature the art of the Egyptian Surrealist Movement. Unfortunately, Egypt’s Ministry of Culture has rejected this art historical movement. via The Cairo Review

– Art Historian, Harriet F. Senie published a new book titled Memorials to Shattered Myths: Vietnam to 9/11 (Oxford University Press), which examines the way we memorialize contemporary tragic events. Some of the main issues Senie addresses is how to define the new memorial paradigm that conflates memorials and cemeteries; consider the practice of heroicizing victims; point out what is lost when any mention of the perpetrators is eliminated; and emphasize problematic aspects of the memorial process. Senie will give a talk at Pen & Brush on Tuesday, April 19th (don’t forget to vote in the NY primaries!). Her talk will focus on two specific events, which she covers in her book, The Oklahoma City Bombing and Columbine. via Pen & Brush

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