– Ever since the Obamas portraits were unveiled, there has been a lot of public discourse around their likeness. I recently wrote about how the portraits are important in helping us to experience and connect to our personal/collective identities more repletely. Contemporary art takes time to comprehensively interpret and viewers need to consider the multiple facets and meanings of an artwork when viewing it. The lack of meaningful reflection from many critics of the Barack Obama’s portrait was the basis for Seph Rodney’s article about how many Americans seemingly struggle to engage with art. “The Obama portraits should not be the subjects of hot takes. They are designed to be viewed through the distance of time” writes Chiquita Paschal, who says that the fervor over the paintings shouldn’t come at the expense of critical dialogue.
– Benny Andrews was a great documenter of his era, which included a strong cast of artists, poets, writers, and musicians. Two of Andrews’ portraits featuring his contemporaries will be on view at Forum Gallery in the exhibition titled “Artists By Artists: The Artist as Subject.” The first portrait by Andrews is a mixed media collage and depicts an unidentified poet, while the second portrait, rendered in pen and ink, features the Soyer brothers (Raphael and Moses). The exhibition will be on view through February 24th at 475 Park Avenue at 57th Street.
– Pollock, a play by Fabrice Melquiot, presents a theatrical portrait of Jackson Pollock and his complex relationship with Lee Krasner. However, Paul David Young argues that the play actually upholds the mythos of the ‘heroic male painter’, and does so at the expense of Lee Krasner.
– There is a great profile piece in the New York Times about the San Francisco based artist Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, who is the grandson of the founder of the Pakistan Peoples Party (P.P.P.). In his work, which is comprised of visual and performance based methodology, Zulfikar Ali Bhutto “explores the intersection of Islam, sexuality and masculinity.”
Winter Landscape, 1970, watercolor, gouache, and graphite on paper
Recounting a horrific part of one’s national identity is an excruciating task, more often avoided than addressed directly or repletely. In modern history, Nazi Germany has been a case study of how a contemporary nation heals, reflects, and moves on from the atrocities committed by its previous government. Today, Germany is a pillar of Western Civilization, revered for its economic and social policies. However, the three hundred pound Nazi elephant in the room is still an issue that some of its citizens and elected officials choose to ignore or “deal” with selectively, through banning symbolic references to the Third Reich such as swastikas and Nazi salutes.
Anselm Kiefer’s artwork forces his country to remember how the Nazi’s atrocities violently changed the German cultural landscape during the mid-20th Century. However, instead of appearing didactic and scornful, Kiefer believes that visual art can mend Germany’s sense of pride (or lack there of) for its past. Through his use of Nazi imagery juxtaposed with natural landscapes or cultural relics prior to Hitler’s reign of terror, Kiefer is asking us to question what makes up a nation’s collective cultural identity, and offers a cathartic means for addressing an unforgivable part of a Germany’s history. The Nazi’s may have appropriated many vital elements of German culture, however, should everything they touched (art, architecture, music, literature, etc.) be deemed non grata in society today? Has banning the symbols and rhetoric that the Nazi’s used, changed the fact that Germany is still struggling with anti-Semitism and white nationalist groups? These are some of the ‘big questions’ Kiefer investigates through his visual art practice, which includes painting, printmaking, installation, and photography. Kiefer’s art counters the collective amnesia regarding Germany’s unfavorable history and digs up its skeleton’s for us all to reexamine. By doing so we, the viewers, reflect upon our own collective cultural identity. As Americans, do we not have our own cultural demons to coexist with? We have to remember that political correctness often leads to rash censorship, when it may be more effective to meaningfully address sensitive issues outright. Addressing and presenting uncomfortable and sensitive issues is the crux of Kiefer’s artistic process. Therefore, Provocations is a fitting title for his current solo exhibition at the Met Breuer. If political art leaves us yearning to expose, interrogate, and overcome our sense of guilt through empathy and reasoning, then it has been highly effective.
Gigantomachy II, 1966, oil on linen
Upon entry to the 4th floor gallery at the Met Breuer, where Leon Golub: Raw Nerve is on view, viewers are greeted with the colossal tour de force of the 9 feet, 11 1/2 inches x 24 feet, 10 1/2 inches, unstretched, oil on linen painting titled Gigantomachy II (1966). The larger than life canvas depicts a ferocious battle of nude muscular Olympian gods and giants (the title refers to a battle from Greek Mythology), who through a deliberately rough treatment of paint, appear savagely brutalized. Immediately upon gazing at this work of art, we are given an unapologetic overview of Leon Golub’s epic career as a Humanist artist, whose paintings are a scalding condemnation of the evil that men do.
The 19th-20th century philosopher, George Santayana, stated “those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” Golub’s paintings are a visual paraphrasing of that famous statement. In fact, Golub was an astute scholar of both history and art history, however, he viewed the canonical legacy of both through the lens of a skeptic. Golub references the Western canon of art history in paintings like Dead Bird II (1955) and Colossal Torso (1960), however, his treatment of Classical imagery is anything but glorious, nor representative of the Democratic label that often accompanies Greco-Roman culture. The rough surface texture on Colossal Torso, realized through a process of layering paint and peeling it away again, is akin to the act of sculpting. Golub even used tools that are more common in a sculptor’s toolkit than a painter’s. His additive and subtractive methods of transforming the surface of the canvas result in an unfinished look or a feeling of decay. The material appearance of these rough canvases typically lends itself to strong visceral and reflective feelings from the viewer. The emotional response is further exemplified through Golub’s use of unsettling and uncomfortable subject matter, which is steeped in a grotesque critique of Western empires that span from the Greco-Roman era through the 21st century.
Unfortunately, sometimes the success and recognition of an artist isn’t truly revealed until they’ve passed on from this world. Perhaps, Peter Dean, who died in 1993, was ahead of his time during his prolific career. His most iconic imagery expressed burlesque and grotesque expressions of the social and political turmoil starting with strong reactions to the Vietnam War and continued to make bold commentary on social and political themes throughout the following decades. His talent was recognized by the influential Marcia Tucker, who exhibited his work at the 41st Venice Biennale in 1984. However, Dean’s potent use of the figure and his commitment to painterly expressionism, while that type of painting was being eschewed (see: Pop Art and Minimalism), kept him mainly at odds with the concurrent trends in art during his career. Dean’s subject matter was tough at times, but through careful examination, he was creating poignant narratives that sought to question and scrutinize contemporary life. Upon re-visiting his work today, a viewer might realize that Dean’s response to his era was synonymous, or similarly connected to what is currently happening around us.
Dean painted vibrant scenes from American History, which he interpreted using his fantastical imagination. Through combining history and fantasy, Dean created mythological narratives that invite us to see historical events through new perspectives. For example, one of his most famous works Dallas Chaos (parts I and II), presents several overlapping and conflicting narratives for the assassination of JFK and questions what we think we know as fact and reality, which is all the more relevant in the current era of “Fake News.” Dean was weary about the blind acceptance of things as facts. He understood that events are interpreted and reinterpreted through several lenses, depending on who’s recounting the story and what their motives are. These paintings implore us to question the nature of things more carefully and become more informed about what is going on all around us.
Massacre-Boston-El Salvador, 1983, oil on canvas, 84 x 64 inches
Peter Dean, Second Kiss, Courtesy of CCMOA
There’s a lot to catch up on in the world of Rhino Horn. Lot’s of current events and recent exhibitions to report on! Full reviews will follow, but for now, here’s a short list:
- Peter Dean: Visions and Fantasies was recently on view at the Cape Cod Museum of Art. The exhibition featured a selection of both real and imagined landscapes as well as the vivid mythical narratives that Dean is most known for painting.
- Works by Benny Andrews were featured in Michael Rosenfeld Gallery’s recent exhibition titled Figuratively Speaking. The exhibition examined works by a diverse group of figurative painters throughout the early and mid-20th century.
- Andrews is also featured in a current exhibition at the Ulrich Museum of Art (at Wichita State University) titled “WE THE PEOPLE: American Art of Social Concern”. The exhibition is on view through March 25th, 2018.
- Joseph Kurhajec was featured at the Outsider Art Fair in New York. He presented a combination of historical works and his most recent works, a series of totemic masks made from palm fronds.
- Jay Milder and Peter Passuntino were part of the seminal group show Inventing Downtown, which debuted last year at NYU’s Grey Gallery in Greenwich Village. The exhibition’s theme explored the plethora of artist run galleries, which fostered an inspirational and experiential environment for many avant-garde artists during the 1950s and 60s. The exhibition travelled to NYU’s campus in Abu Dhabi, where it recently closed. A review was written in Harper’s Bazaar Arabia.
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.
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.”
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.
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.
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.