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.
While not a consistent member, Joseph Kurhajec was affiliated with the Rhino Horn group on more than one occasion, and displayed his work in some of their exhibitions. He was a longtime friend of the founding members, especially Peter Dean, with whom he co-founded the short-lived “Torque” group, which also included painters Peter Saul and Leon Golub.
Kurhajec, like many of the artists of his generation, was trained in University art programs, and travelled internationally to study the traditional modes of art making. However, Kurhajec’s career trajectory has been anything but traditional. When he first emerged as an artist, whose medium was primarily sculpture, he eschewed the trend of minimalism that had largely prevailed throughout the contemporary art scene of the 1960s. Instead, Kurhajec looked outside of the modern and contemporary art canon and found inspiration and a spiritual connection with the work of African art. He was particularly interested in the symbolism of power within Nkishi figures, and began to wrap his own works in fabric and fur, or attach objects like nails, metal spikes, and animal horns, in order to express social and emotional connections to the natural and spiritual world. Some of his figures combine human and animal imagery and blur the lines between benevolence and malevolence.
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.
On my other blog (Artfully Learning), I relate contemporary and art historical concepts, movements, and artists to key educational theories. One of the main reasons for my lack of updates on this blog is the fact that I have been working towards my certification in Art Education. I started Artfully Learning to synthesize my practice as an art educator with my background working in the fine art world. This is why the passing of Tim Rollins had such a profound impact on me, and I felt compelled to respond as both an emerging educator and a seasoned art historian and curator. This post is a general response to Rollins’ work as a collaborator with the artist activist collective Group Material (1979) and the collective he formed with students from the South Bronx called Kids of Survival (K.O.S) (1984). I won’t focus as much time on his pedagogy and how his work can be implemented into any art educational curriculum. For that aspect, you can read my reflections on ‘what we can learn from Tim Rollins,’ which I published yesterday morning on Artfully Learning.
Tim Rollins was an enigmatic individual within the New York City art scene of the 1980s. He grew up far from city life in rural Maine and was a devout Catholic. The fact that he was deeply religious, as well as politically engaged (he taught at the New York Marxist school for a year), and a member of the LGBT community, was quite unique and even seems somewhat absurd in the context of how we typically view the art world today. While political artists during the Postmodern era appropriated religious iconography, they often implemented it as a form of irony or burlesque satire. For Tim, and many of his collaborators in K.O.S, the religious connections between subject and visual imagery was taken with the upmost sincerity. Cultural critic Eleanor Heartney, mentioned how the spiritual faith of Rollins and K.O.S was reflected in many of their works. For example their series of paintings based on the book Invisible Man (1952) by Ralph Ellison depict the large letters IM overlapping pages from the book. I and M have several connotations, the most obvious being that it is the initials for the title of Ellison’s novel, but more importantly, as Heartney pointed out, IM references both the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., who stated “I am a Man,” and the phrase “I AM,” which was the name g-d gave to Moses and the Jewish people. The books and texts that inspired Rollins and K.O.S were astutely and thoroughly interpreted with each member of the collaboration lending their insight to the final project. Therefore, the work of Rollins and K.O.S. is very much open ended and up for interpretation and discussion.
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.
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.