Miami-based multimedia artist Jillian Mayer’s work explores our fraught relationship to technology, and its effects on our lives, bodies and identities. There is a wonderful yet unsettling tension in Mayer’s art thanks to her acute use of irony. The artist masterfully employs her media to enable our addiction to and fusion with technology, whilst also critiquing its artifice and falsity. Sometimes the work invokes cautionary fear; sometimes it invokes absurdist humor. But overall, Mayer’s art holds up a mirror to the viewer, presenting him/her with an existential challenge: do you succumb to and participate in the digitization of humanity? Or do you—can you?—resist?
Mayer’s sculptural furniture constructions, for instance, are designed to better prop up our bodies when we’re engaged with our devices. Of course, the glitter and color of these utilitarian sculptures entices and encourages phone interaction (especially selfies), yet the works are mockingly called Slumpies—a reminder of the deleterious effect technology is having on our bodies.
Jillian Mayer, Slumpie, in use at the Perez Art Museum, Miami. Photo courtesy of the artist
Jillian Mayer, Slumpie 32 – Privacy. Photo courtesy of the artist
In her project 400 Nudes (2014), the artist staged and re-shot women’s nude selfies that she had found on the internet, merging and manipulating them into composites with her head on other women’s bodies. But Mayer then re-uploaded her own doctored images onto the web, thus participating in the consumption of these images (for a primarily male audience). This gesture adds an extra layer of complexity to the series: Mayer is contributing more “noise” to the artifice and falsity that the internet represents, but simultaneously satirizes men’s consumption of these images—little do they know this is an art project! These aren’t real! Joke’s on them!…Or is the joke on us? Is the subversive manipulation of the images irrelevant if the consumers can’t tell the difference (or don’t care)? It is this double-edged tension that pervades Mayer’s whole body of work, and makes her art very powerful.
Some of Mayer’s most effective works are her videos: of particular note is the YouTube hit I am Your Grandma (2011), a music video message from the young artist to her unborn grandchildren. The Dadaist assemblage of crazy costumes is weird, funny, and affective. In the artist’s own words, “the work challenges notions of mortality, celebrity, and the universal impetus for creation and legacy. By placing the video in a public forum (YouTube) Mayer conducts a phenomenological study of why people ultimately share their personal feelings with anonymous strangers.”
Also be sure to see her collaboration with Luther Campbell, aka Uncle Luke from the rap group 2 Live Crew, called The Life and Freaky Times of Uncle Luke. The film is described as a modern adaption of a 1962 French short film called La Jetee (The Jetty), and depicts a mostly fictionalized autobiographical narrative of Campbell through Mayer’s installations and artistic vision. Uncle Luke is excellent in it!
Mayer currently has a solo exhibition, Timeshare, at the University of Buffalo Art Gallery (on view through May 11), which will travel to the Bemis Center for Contemporary Arts, Omaha, NE in the fall of 2019 (preceded by an artist residency for Mayer at Bemis this summer). Mayer is co-director of Borscht Corp, a non-profit film and art collaborative in Miami, and is represented by David Castillo Gallery, Miami.
It’s the most wonderful time of the year! The spring art fairs are like Christmas for the art world—a belated and much-needed Christmas in March to pull us out of our winter blues. “Armory Week,” as it has come to be called, is a cultural smorgasbord of art fairs, parties, openings, panel talks, lectures, and performances that happen around the city. As you can imagine, there’s so much to pack in a few days that I do not have the time to write reviews in real-time (I can’t even get to all of the fairs and events I want to go to!), but I have, in a series of posts, covered some highlights and personal favorites that I saw at the venues I was able to cover. Check out my other posts for highlights from the ADAA Art Show, the Armory Show, and Spring/Break.
Scope Art Fair
I can be a nerd for art theory. The most common of these philosophical head-scratchers is the question of whether there is good art or bad art. Who are the arbiters of taste? That is, who decides what art is good, and what is bad? Isn’t beauty in the eyes of the beholder, one might ask?
Here are my short answers: yes, there’s good art and bad art. The people who decide what’s good and bad are the experts. What makes them experts? They spend a lot of time studying that thing. This goes for a variety of fields: I can’t tell the difference between a real 1961 250 GT California Ferrari and the fiberglass prop they used in the movie Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, but I bet Jerry Seinfeld can. Ergo, those with limited exposure to art may not appreciate the difference between a splashy abstract giclée painting sold at Ikea, vs. a genuine mid-century abstract painting from an avant-gardist of the New York School.
But in the end, that is OK. Because art should be accessible—both intellectually and financially. A broad range from the decorative copyists up to the museum-quality masterpieces means there is always something for everyone. And art experts should do well to remember that, because we have a reputation for being—what’s the word?—ah yes, pretentious and elitist assholes. As an art advisor, I love educating clients, and getting them excited about good art (so yes, I think taste can be learned through exposure). But ultimately, if they’re unconvinced, I’d rather see a Thomas Kinkade on their wall than nothing at all.
That’s all to say that, in this expert’s opinion, much of the offerings at Scope Art Fair this year were schlock. A fair amount of work struck me as ornamental, without much to say. In our era of social media, there has been a rise in Instagram art—works that reproduce well on your 2 x 4-inch screen, but don’t have much substance behind them. But hey, if that’s what works for you, that’s OK. To borrow from the lexicon of addiction, Scope is like a “gateway” art fair; it’s a novice’s dosage of art to which you will eventually develop an immunity. And that’s when you’ll be ready to pack your bowl with a Spring/Break or an Armory show. And if we continue with the extended metaphor, as an art advisor, I want to get everyone high! So I’d rather the Scope audience get excited about this art than be bewildered by the more experimental fare at Spring/Break and write off the arts altogether.
That said, there were some diamonds in the rough (or buds in the oregano? Nope, I’m done with drug metaphors). Below is a tasting. Bon appétit!
Fifth generation quilter Phyllis Stephens updates the African-American tradition of quilt-making with fresh but nostalgic urban subject matter.
Dutch artist Hans van Bentem revives glass and porcelain traditions from around the world, merging pop and antique imagery into imaginative new creations. The pieces are interchangeable, allowing for an ever-interactive and evolving sculpture.
Mike Stilkey‘s clever repurposing of unwanted books creates artworks that interact dynamically with our lived space. According to his gallerist, Stilkey has become a favorite commissioned artist for libraries.
Trevor Guthrie‘s beautiful charcoal drawings hint at eerie and unsettling narratives.
For me, the thing that saves Laurence de Valmy‘s Impressionist Instagram works from being gimmicky is the real art historical dialogue happening in the comments.
Very impressive photorealistic snapshots of New York life by Yigal Ozeri. Hard to believe it’s painted.
Fair-goers had a great time trying on Sarah Sitkin‘s highly realistic body suits. It was remarkable how transformative it was to those who tried on a suit, but the pieces also remind us that our sense of self is not defined by our skin.
According to Laura Jane Petelko‘s website, her series “Soft Stories” was inspired by retreats in the Canadian wilderness for the “furries” subculture. With artist and designer Sara Wood providing the costumes, Petelko’s images convey a longing for connection and intimacy in a bleak and indifferent landscape.
It’s the most wonderful time of the year! The spring art fairs are like Christmas for the art world—a belated and much-needed Christmas in March to pull us out of our winter blues. “Armory Week,” as it has come to be called, is a cultural smorgasbord of art fairs, parties, openings, panel talks, lectures, and performances that happen around the city. As you can imagine, there’s so much to pack in a few days that I do not have the time to write reviews in real-time (I can’t even get to all of the fairs and events I want to go to!), but I have, in a series of posts, covered some highlights and personal favorites that I saw at the venues I was able to cover. Check out my other posts for highlights from the ADAA Art Show, the Armory Show, and Scope.
For most people “spring break” might conjure images of drunk frat boys and sorority girls at Daytona Beach, but for the art world it is one of the fresher and more experimental art fairs you’ll experience during Armory week. The talent tends to be more emergent to mid-career, with all its positive and negative connotations: some works still have the undercooked whiff of a recent MFA degree, but many also show greater ingenuity than some of the commercial crap you’ll find at the grander fairs. The best part of Spring/Break, though, is that many artists are onsite to discuss the work, which is my absolute favorite thing to do. And to boot, the art of emerging artists tends to be very affordable! So many wins all around. (Note that unfortunately, I did not have time to get through the whole fair—especially when I stop to talk to each artist for a half an hour—so there is surely more great work that I don’t cover below.)
The theme of this year’s fair was Fact and Fiction. In the case of Lulu Meng and Naomi Okubo, they explored the fantasies and falsities of fairytales in a joint installation of their respective work. In Meng’s work, dome-shaped cases have two-way mirrors, which, when a migrating interior light switches on, reveal an image inside each case. The images within allude to fairytale narratives, but the fragmented display disrupts the narrative, and draws attention to the imperfection of memory (the series of little display pods and wires itself mimics brain cells). Hanging from the ceiling, Okubo’s double-sided paintings feature the artist in classic fairytale stories, with mirrors on the reverse side bearing quotes. But these enchanted fables are not what they seem: the paintings have sinister overtones, and the quotes on the back are unsettling variants of fairytale excerpts (Mirror mirror on the wall, please tell me who I am…). As I discussed with Lulu, both artists feel—and I wholeheartedly agree—that fairytale narratives disenfranchise and delude girls, compromising our identities well into womanhood.
Another delightful installation was the room curated by artists Jennifer McCoy, Kevin McCoy and Jennifer Dalton. The “TV Guide” theme of the room was somewhat tenuous for some works, but the living room arrangement was curated with choice art nonetheless. The crowd pleaser of the room was Dalton’s Hello, I’m (2015), a series of ten sticker dispensers, bestowing visitors with various custom-made phrases to match their mood, such as “wearing the wrong shoes,” “enjoying proximity to wealth,” and the one I chose—”in my element”! I enjoyed a lovely conversation with Jennifer McCoy about the glass sculptures she constructs with her husband Kevin, casting glass from broken shards of fancy stemware and crystal. The sculptures could be read as either the detritus of a wild, decadent party, or they can be interpreted more darkly, as artifacts of an as-yet-to-happen sociopolitical revolution. I can’t but help to see the latter.
I had an interesting conversation with artist Melissa Maddonni Haims about her knit-wrapped trophies. Melissa has been diagnosed with bipolar disorder, a disorder that she feels is not adequately discussed in our society. With her two-sided trophy sculptures, Haims celebrates our complex psychology, embracing the idea that anyone can hit highs and lows and come out the other side. The front side of the yellow trophy awards the owner as “super sunshiney”; when the top ornament is showing you her rear, the trophy is for “most miserable.” The sculptures are very affordable–and she takes commissions!
I spoke with artist Chris Cohen about his highly personal work, exploring the fact and fiction of family narratives, history and memory. Working from his own family albums, the artist remakes portraits and candid shots of relatives to mine his own fraught relationship to his highly religious family. Aptly titled “White Noise,” curator John Ros installed the work in an intimate living room setting.
The last piece I’ll address at length is an ambitious and beautiful project by Irish artist and animator David O’Reilly. When I looked up O’Reilly, I learned that he has an expansive studio practice that covers works in the entertainment industry, music industry, television and gaming (the most recognizable project to me was that O’Reilly created the animation sequences in Spike Jonze’s Her, with that little punky marshmallow puff). For Spring/Break, curator Yve Yang showed a trailer for O’Reilly’s Everything, a “video game” that isn’t really played so much as lived and experienced. In the ultimate effort to bestow and spread concepts of cosmic empathy, in Everything you can literally be anything: a speck of pollen, a lion, a plant, a universe. You can create universes within universes. In our era of tribal politics, ravaged Mother Nature, and all around dark times, the karmic message at the heart of this game/art is deeply moving. Suffice it to say it’s better to experience the trailer than have me explain it to you (click image below). In fact, you can buy it or download for your computer or Nintendo Switch for the low cost of $15! Worth every penny.
Below are a few other works I enjoyed from the fair.
Some of the more political art at the fair…
The translucency of this large painting by Anthony Goicolea makes for a luminous effect.
I spoke with Chris Walla about this series of colorful bandanas, embroidered with models from gay magazines. Connecting to the quilting roots of the AIDS crisis, Walla crafted these in response to conservative political discourse during the Bush Jr. administration. Walla’s sculptures on view–phrases made from dangling ball-chains–are poignant and deliciously tactile. Check out my video of its beautiful movement.
It’s the most wonderful time of the year! The spring art fairs are like Christmas for the art world—a belated and much-needed Christmas in March to pull us out of our winter blues. “Armory Week,” as it has come to be called, is a cultural smorgasbord of art fairs, parties, openings, panel talks, lectures, and performances that happen around the city. As you can imagine, there’s so much to pack in a few days that I do not have the time to write reviews in real-time (I can’t even get to all of the fairs and events I want to go to!), but I have, in a series of posts, covered some highlights and personal favorites that I saw at the venues I was able to cover. Check out my other posts for highlights from the ADAA Art Show, Spring/Break and Scope.
The Armory Show got off to a rocky start this year: one week prior to opening, the fair organizers discovered that Pier 92 was structurally unsound, causing a last-minute call to postpone the Volta satellite fair that would have been at Pier 90, and move one-third of the Armory exhibitors over to that space. Despite the snafu, the art was generally strong at the twenty-fifth presentation of the Armory Show. Once again, I didn’t get to see everything, and there are too many great works to address in one blog post, but I shall highlight a few personal favorites.
I was delighted to see again the work of Gustavo Díaz, the Argentine-born artist who constructs incredibly intricate and delicate worlds in cut-out paper. I became enamored with his work at the 2018 Armory show, in which his gallery Sicardi Ayers Bacino displayed some of his miniature sculptural cities. On view for the 2019 edition, SAB showed Díaz’s wall-hung works: webs of cut paper that magnificently toe the line of man-made construction and something topographical or organic, like an ancient, skeletal cross-section of an anthill. The scale and method of construction (hand-cut, I believe) is technically astounding.
Moving along through the show, I loved the monumental (and difficult to photograph in its entirety) 2018 lightbox installation by Rodney Graham, Vacuuming the Gallery, 1949, apparently inspired by a vintage photograph of art dealer Samuel Kootz smoking a pipe in his gallery. The artist upends the airs of the art world, as well as gender stereotypes, in the cheeky tableau. The classic mid-century vacuum also conjured the image of Richard Hamilton’s 1956 collage, Just What is it that Makes Today’s Homes so Different, so Appealing?
Like most visitors taking in the display of recycled plastic tapestries at Nicodim Gallery, my first thought was that El Anatsui was back in action (according to his own website, he hasn’t really had a group or solo show since 2016). But the gallerist informed us it was the work of newcomer Moffat Takadiwa, a young Zimbabwean artist. The themes of Takadiwa’s sculptures share many of the same concerns as Anatsui—reflections on consumerism, waste, colonialism and the environment—but are satisfying works in their own right, and surely more affordable than his well-established predecessor.
I think I have a crush on Mariane Ibrahim. The young gallerist, who has been based in Seattle but will be relocating to Chicago in 2019, has been killing it at the art fairs, promoting the work of some excellent talent from Africa and the African Diaspora. Her monographic display of glittering works on paper by Florine Démosthène sold out on the first day at $7,000 a pop—a total steal in my opinion.
One of my favorite sculptures of the fair was Alan Rath’s Yet Again (2017) at Bryce Wolkowitz Gallery, a dynamic pair of swinging arms resembling something sentient, like birds or snakes, engaged in a mating ritual. The artist wrote a code for the kinetic sculpture in which the movements of each arm is random, making each movement and interaction between the two unique. Photographs do not do it justice—click on my short video clip below for a taste of this dancing, flirtatious piece.
Below are just a few more works that I enjoyed—some by established artists, some by emerging artists. I wish there was time and space enough to discuss them all—if you’d like to discuss anything, feel free to leave a comment or email me with questions!
Love the vibrant palette of this Lee Mullican painting. It feels so much fresh and contemporary, but was painted over fifty years ago!
The artist Michael Sailstorfer cultivated a beehive inside the concrete base in the picture below; he then used the hive to create a mold to cast these delicate bronzes. He went through several attempts, and only saved a few as satisfactory for sale.
Brothers Jake & Dinos Chapman’s sardonic revision of Goya’s Disasters of War etchings, entitled The Disasters of Yoga, (an anagram of Goya), is wonderful. The violence that is obscured and denied by the glitter is, instead, present in the brothers’ bronze sculptures of suicide vests nearby (not pictured). Apologies I couldn’t get a clear shot of the whole installation together, but see some details from the Yoga series below.
Below, a few offerings from the excellent Yossi Milo gallery:
And lastly, love supporting the “young” galleries and their emerging to mid-career artists, such as Massinissa Selmani at Selma Feriani Gallery (Sidi Bou Said, Tunisia). Selmani takes images from the media and recreates them in new, drawn arrangements. The vast negative space of the drawings opens up the narrative to questioning and interpretation.
It’s the most wonderful time of the year! The spring art fairs are like Christmas for the art world—a belated and much-needed Christmas in March to pull us out of our winter blues. “Armory Week,” as it has come to be called, is a cultural smorgasbord of art fairs, parties, openings, panel talks, lectures, and performances that happen around the city. As you can imagine, there’s so much to pack in a few days that I do not have the time to write reviews in real-time (I can’t even get to all of the fairs and events I want to go to!), but I have, in a series of posts, covered some highlights and personal favorites that I saw at the venues I was able to cover. Check out my other posts for highlights from the Armory Show, Spring/Break and Scope.
The ADAA Art Show
This year the annual Art Show, hosted by the Art Dealers Association of America, kicked things off a week before “Armory week,” so as not to conflict with the grand art fair at Pier 92/94. At the Art Show you tend to find more modern art than the other fairs of Amory Week, as well as contemporary offerings. Many galleries continued their “correction” of representation, curating their booths to highlight works by women and artists of color. Overall the Art Show was, in my opinion, very strong: I enjoyed some singularly great works by established modernists, and discovered new contemporary artists. Below I share a sampling of both. Enjoy!
One of the great joys of the art fairs is to be exposed to galleries from around the country and world (it is also a tragedy—to discover a great gallery that isn’t a subway ride away!). In this case, I must find a good reason to go to Houston to see Inman Gallery and the work of Dario Robleto. I was drawn into Inman Gallery’s booth by Robleto’s intricate collages and large, ecological installation. I had a fascinating conversation with the gallery owner, Kerry Inman, about Robleto’s interest in Victorian traditions of collection and display, but my mind was truly blown when Kerry told me about Robleto’s artist residency with the SETI Institute. That’s right: the Search for Extra Terrestrial Intelligence Institute has an artist-in-residence program, in case we must communicate aesthetically with alien life. I loved this work so much I wrote a spotlight blog post on it—learn more about Dario’s work here.
Other delightful contemporary work at the exhibition included a fantastic series of illustrations for a forthcoming edition of Gertrude Stein’s The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas, by multi-disciplinary artist Maira Kalman at Julie Saul Gallery. Kalman doggedly went through archival material to base her gouaches on real photographs and people. The suite of thirty-five drawings lends a contemporary warmth and intimacy to the book, which should be coming out in 2020.
I would be remiss to not mention Susan Inglett Gallery, and the impressive cut-outs of artist William Villalongo. I have really enjoyed Susan’s recent shows, including her current Wilmer Wilson IV show, “Slim…you don’t got the juice” (catch it before it closes March 16). Villalongo’s large, velvety cut-outs are not only technically and graphically masterful, their message of the struggle and resilience of the black male body is palpable.
Amid the modern art highlights at the fair, David Nolan Gallery had an exquisite exhibition of works by German artist George Grosz (1893-1959), focusing on his work during his New York years, 1933-1958. Grosz was one of the foremost German artists of the twentieth century; his modern, socio-politically charged works were among those singled out by Hitler as “degenerate,” and he fled to exile in the United States in 1933. A particularly fascinating contrast in the Art Show display are two watercolors that bookend his time in America: the first, a somber 1934 drawing called Wanderer, sympathetically depicting a cast-out Jew crossing a pond-like body of water; the second, a fiery 1956 composition, also called Wanderer, showing a blazing blue figure wading through a sun-soaked swamp. Who is the 1956 Wanderer? Is it an allegory, or perhaps Grosz himself, raging against the injustice of history?
I could go on and on about the great art I enjoyed at the fair, but alas, time does not allow for full discourse on each piece. Below are other great highlights of modern and contemporary works from the fair. If you have any interest, contact Avant-Garde and we can assist you with a purchase.
Lovely, playful collage by Jean Arp.
Classic Joan Semmel nude.
Part of an installation by Leslie Dill.
Toby Mug by Judy Chicago. I would love to see this on the table at The Dinner Party!
Check out this badass mama by Gaston Lachaise! I love the matting job, as if the figure is interacting with the mat. Really brings the work to life.
One of the great joys of the art fairs is to be exposed to galleries from around the country and world (it is also a tragedy—to discover a great gallery that isn’t a subway ride away!). In this case, I must find a good reason to go to Houston to see Inman Gallery and the work of Dario Robleto. His body of work that was on view at the ADAA Art Show (February 28 – March 3, 2019), Small Crafts on the Sisyphean Seas, is rife with beautiful tension and complexity.
I was drawn into Inman Gallery’s booth by Robleto’s intricate collages, which reminded me of Victorian curio cabinets. I engaged the gallery owner, Kerry Inman, in a fascinating conversation about the work, which indeed has its inspiration from the Victorian impulse to collect, categorize, arrange and display. Given that man-made climate change is endangering our planet and oceans to a catastrophic point, there is an ominous undertone to the preservationist quality of the work (will these species exist by the end of the century?), but the pleasing, decorative compositions soften the more sardonic implications of the piece. Robleto’s tightly organized tableaus at once poke fun at humans’ hubristic attempt to control and dominate our natural environment, but at the same time, we marvel at Robleto’s (read: Man’s) monk-like patience and ability to create the intricate details of the work (isn’t this why we’re at the top of the food chain?).
But my mind was truly blown when Kerry told me about Robleto’s artist residency with the SETI Institute. That’s right: the Search for Extra Terrestrial Intelligence Institute has an artist-in-residence program, to pose the incredible question: what if mathematics is not the universal (literally) language with which to communicate with alien life? What if we must communicate with E.T. visually, aesthetically? All art seeks to communicate in some way, but this is the first art I have experienced that seeks empathy with an alien species.
At the core of his cross-species aesthetic program, Robleto focuses on the shell, particularly the nautilus: not only is it one of the oldest biological forms on our planet, but it does contain math in the golden ratio of its construction. Now we (read: Man) marvel at the power of Nature, and find empathy with Nature’s ability to create beauty as we do. The artful symmetry of the shell has made it a favorite decorative object for humans for millennia, for use in jewelry, ritual objects, and even currency. These intergalactic offerings encompass biology, history/time, mathematics, beauty and cultural significance–to quote the gallery’s press release, they perform “archival and emotional communication.” Any alien who would reject such a gift clearly has no taste at all.
In May of 2015 I had the great privilege of visiting Cuba for the Havana Biennial, about a month before President Barack Obama announced a restitution of diplomacy with Cuba. Just a few months prior, in April 2015, Obama and Raúl Castro had made history when the U.S. and Cuban leaders met for the first time in fifty years; just a few weeks later, I was eager to see what Cubans made of this historic moment.
We were greeted at José Martí International Airport by our government-assigned tour guide, Mirelys. On the bus to our hotel she expressed joy at the thawing relations, and noted that Cubans were eager to embrace Americans. But while our bus idled at a stoplight, I looked out the window to a billboard with a morbid picture of a noose, and text that read in Spanish, “the American embargo is the noose around Cuba’s neck.” I pointed at the sign and asked Mirelys if indeed Cuba was warming up to the U.S.; she provided a nonsensical and almost certainly government-fed response that Cuban-American businessmen in Miami had paid for that billboard. Such Cold War emblems were at odds with the generally warm reception we received as tourists; I could tell this place would be rich with fascinating contradictions.
Such paradoxes were only magnified on the grounds of the Havana Biennial. I was impressed and surprised by the volume of politically loaded art in a state-authorized art fair. Artist Lidzie Alvisa, a Havana native, departed from her photographic explorations of the body to install a green chalkboard with the word “Revolucion,” erased and rewritten several times. Cuban artist Arlés del Río hung colorful, elongated snorkel tubes from the ceiling, like plastic stalactites; the snorkels a symbol of leisure, but also tools for swimming underwater, undetected by those policing the shores. Another artist (whose name, sadly, I did not record and cannot locate in Google searches) presented a simple photograph of the ocean, with a black light dangling nearby. When a viewer raised the black light to the image, the ghostly letters of at least a hundred names appeared—the names of those who had died trying to flee the island in times of crisis. Perhaps the biggest illogicality of all was learning that the artist Kcho, whose frequent use of boats conjures both Cuba’s fishing economy and the desperate exodus of its citizens, was one of Fidel Castro’s favorite artists. (As a symbol of the island’s physical and socio-political isolation, the ocean is an important and consistent theme for Cuban artists.)
But not all dissident art was tolerated. Performance artist Tania Bruguera has frequently been harassed and arrested in the past twenty years, and her “artivism” was under careful watch of the Cuban government. For the first half of 2015, Bruguera had been forbidden to leave Cuba for “disturbing the public order,” and so naturally, she opened the biennial with a public reading of Hannah Arendt’s 1951 The Origins of Totalitarianism, which landed her another arrest. (Unsurprisingly, the itinerary of my government-approved guided tour kept us away from Bruguera’s performances.)
Despite such unsettling instances of censorship, and despite the fact that Mirelys’s rosy assessment of Cuban life didn’t always line up with what we observed around us, I would say that in 2015 there was hope among young Cubans that real change was coming to Cuban society. For artists, an influx of curious (and well-heeled) American collectors was a good thing. In fact, Cuban artists were already benefiting from the global art market: they were exhibiting abroad at international galleries and art fairs; they were permitted to travel more freely than the average citizen; and they were making real money beyond the modest income afforded to them in the closed and tightly regulated economy of their native country. Arlés del Río, for instance, has gallery representation in Florida, and exhibited an installation in Times Square in 2014, among other international shows. But recent developments seem to have halted this progress for the creative community in Cuba.
First, there was the issue of the cancellation of the 2018 Havana Biennial (since 1994 the event has in fact been triennial). News outlets reported that the biennial was postponed due to severe damage caused by Hurricane Irma in September 2017, which did indeed have a serious impact on the country’s already fragile infrastructure. But as some astutely noted, the 2018 Biennial was also scheduled to follow on the heels of Cuba’s biggest political event in nearly half a century: a transfer of power to a non-Castro family member, Miguel Diaz-Canel, who was handpicked by eighty-five-year-old Raúl Castro to take over as president. In such a delicate time of political transition, the last thing the government needed was a Tania Bruguera performance to disrupt the state’s broadcasted socio-political “unity.”
In light of the cancellation of the 2018 Biennial, a group of artists decided to put together an independent art festival—the “Alternative 00 Havana Biennial,” the first artistic event organized without the involvement of the state, which ran in May of 2018. The various artistic events took place in artists’ homes, studios, and other found spaces. Hyperallergic reported that the Alternative Biennial was approved by the Cuban government, but several artists reported harassment and, later, fines and other penalties for participating. The Havana Times published the following dismissive response from state-led artistic organizations:
“Very few people have joined this abomination of a Biennial, without any important works mostly, who, maliciously or confused, are after the fame that this mercenary platform and overexposure on social media can give them. They have announced that it will be held at non-important venues and is only a failed attempt to attack the government’s cultural policy, where quite a few of them are skirting with the law. They want to mislead artists so that they use their studios, which have institutional support, so as to provoke the government.”
Now, at the close of 2018, the Cuban government put into effect a more direct and antagonistic assault on artistic freedom of expression: Decree 349, a law that regulates the subject matter and display of art in Cuba. The law requires that artists must obtain government approval before performing or displaying their art, and certain taboo subjects—such as sexually explicit language or addressing racial discrimination—are forbidden. Government authorities are empowered to cancel shows and confiscate property, and revoke artists’ license if they deem it necessary.
The law has elicited an outpouring of rage and remonstration: 250 artists signed a letter in protest, and met with cultural officials to address the danger of such censorship. Tania Bruguera has reported that she is under constant surveillance by the state, and other artists have organized demonstrations against the new draconian measures. But few have any faith that their concerns will be addressed in a meaningful way. One exiled Cuban artist told the Wall Street Journalthat the decree was in direct response to the new freedom and wealth that artists were enjoying: “The purpose of the decree is to regulate a new world: private businesses, art galleries, people working from their homes. The alarm went off because it is a sector that is not under state control.”
What will the 2019 Havana Biennial look like under Decree 349? Will it apply to just Cuban artists, or international artists as well? If the latter, surely most international artists will not tolerate such cultural regulation, and will pull out of the biennial altogether. This new crackdown on the arts is, in a word, awful. The world must do its part to pressure the Cuban government to lift this restrictive law.
To learn more about the decree, as well as a brief history of censorship in Cuba, read this New York Timespiece.
“You can’t have a golden age without gold,” someone quips in the recent HBO documentary on the billion-dollar art industry, The Price of Everything. To this, New York Times film critic A.O. Scott comments, “by that standard we are currently in the epoch of platinum.”
Between the headline-grabbing sales of hundred-million Basquiats and Hockneys and da Vincis; the closure of small and midsize galleries, competing in the shadow of powerhouse galleries; and a collecting class that just seems to keep accumulating more wealth, the reputation of the art world has become one of bloat and excess. In this current atmosphere, one would be forgiven for assuming that one needs to be a millionaire to afford to buy art. But as I often remind people, there is good art in this town at far more affordable prices. And while we can always celebrate the success of artists who deserve critical and popular acclaim, it is also an important to support emerging artists, so the art market can stay strong from the ground up.
That is why I am taking a moment today to introduce you to the Prince Street Gallery and its current solo show, Lost and Found, works by Siu Wong Camac. The Prince Street Gallery began in 1970 as an artists’ collective called the Alliance of Figurative Artists; over the years they expanded their mission to include abstract as well as figurative art, and in 2001 the collective moved to their Chelsea location at 530 West 25th Street (but maintained their downtown roots by keeping the Prince Street name). In addition to shows of their represented artists, the gallery hosts juried exhibitions with some past notable jurors, including artists Philip Pearlstein, Yvonne Jacquette, and Susanna Coffey.
Siu Wong Camac, a member of the collective, currently has a solo show of her recent work on view at the Chelsea space through February 23. I happened upon the show while checking out some other gallery openings in the same building, and I was immediately drawn to the work for its vibrant palette, deft brushwork, and palpable and evocative moods. Finding inspiration from printed matter, found photos, films and stories, Wong Camac explores concepts of nostalgia and memory, capturing “recollections lost, then found:” the tone of the paintings range from warm innocence, to dreamy whimsy, to occasional unease and apprehension. Wong Camac’s facile ability to capture a spectrum of narration, sensation and emotion is a testament to her empathetic skills as an artist.
And now for the icing on the cake: all the works in the show range in value from $800–$3,400. Well worth the value, in my opinion! Support emerging artists and check out Lost & Found, on view at Prince Street Gallery now through February 23 (530 West 25th Street, 4th floor).
Works by Siu Wong Camac: So I Changed My Name, oil on wood, 2018; Who Needs Ken, oil on canvas, 2018; The Skaters, mixed media on wood panel, 2018; The Fields, mixed media on canvas, 2015; Three’s a Crowd, oil on canvas, 2018
To celebrate Morris’s prolific and varied career, I could talk about his roots as a founding father of Minimalism. Or I could marvel at his restless lack of complacency, that he continued to evolve and explore up to his last breath (he opened a show of new work at Castelli gallery four weeks before he died, on view through January 25). But instead of jumping into a full career analysis, I’m going to share one, illuminating story about the artist.
It was in my History of Aesthetics graduate class at Hunter College that I read that Morris (who, incidentally, also pursued an MA in art history at Hunter, and ultimately taught in the MFA program) issued a “certificate of de-authorization” when the architect Philip Johnson reneged on payment for one of Morris’s sculptures. In doing so, Morris declared the sculpture to be devoid of aesthetic content or meaning as a work of art.
The ballsy move presaged the Visual Artists’ Rights Act (VARA) and Banksy’s recent shredding shenanigans by decades, but also served as one of the most singular art theory anecdotes to get my wheels grinding: who has the ultimate authority to determine the cultural content of a work of art? Can the artist override collective consensus? Banksy’s intention to publicly destroy a work of art had the opposite effect; his sensationalized act made the work more famous and valuable (although Banksy seems perfectly fine with that: he did not disavow the work as he could have under VARA—which would really have made the work worthless—but instead “authenticated” it by renaming the work Love is in the Bin). Could Philip Johnson, or society at large, dispute Robert Morris’s dictum, especially before VARA (passed in 1990) gave him legal moral rights to disavow the work?
And when the roles are reversed and an audience rejects the aesthetic content of a work of art (that is, consensus is that the work is not good or successful), who is responsible for that “failure”? Throughout the history of modernism, the general public and critics often did not comprehend—and rejected—modern art, and many avant-garde artists were broke and unsuccessful in their time. But it is essentially requisite for the avant-garde to operate on the fringes of society; and indeed, we have romanticized the bohemian “starving artist.” Society eventually caught up with the avant-garde, and “re-authorized” the aesthetic content and value of modern art, sometimes decades after the artist lived. So cultural authority is not only a question of “who” but “when”: what kind of staying power do artists and audiences have to pass aesthetic judgment?
In the words of Robert Morris (quoting Chekhov), “art should ask questions rather than give answers.” RIP Robert Morris, and thank you for asking the tough questions. You can also read his full New York Times obituary here.
The fall auctions—the barometer of art market strength—closed the 2018 year with a generally healthy showing: the major houses of Christie’s, Sotheby’s and Phillips racked up $2.1 billion in their New York Impressionist & Modern, and Postwar & Contemporary sales. This is stronger than the 2018 spring sales ($1.9 billion), but less than the 2017 fall auctions, in which cumulative sales soared to $2.3 billion, led by the astronomical $450 million selling price for Salvator Mundi, attributed to Leonardo da Vinci.
Guarantees continue to be a rising trend that props up the high-end of the art market: according to ArtTactic, the value on guarantees for Impressionist, Modern Postwar & Contemporary art rose from a cumulative $554.2 million in the November 2017 auctions to $795.37 million for this season’s sales. For those who need an education, an auction “guarantee” is when third parties—or the auction houses themselves—put in an “irrevocable bid,” to use Sotheby’s terminology, guaranteeing that the work of art will sell, at a minimum, for the guaranteed price. If the third party is the high bidder, they win the work; if the bidding exceeds the bid, the third party will still make a percentage of the overage to their guaranteed bid. There is still much debate as to whether third-party guarantees help or hurt the art market (see these recent articles for and against the practice), but regardless of where your feelings lie on the spectrum, guarantees will likely continue to be common practice.
The Impressionist & Modern art market was a mixed bag this fall: according to ArtTactic, New York’s Impressionist & Modern evening sales were short of their cumulative low presale estimate by about $70 million, and were down 21.2% from the 2017 fall sales. It appears that the auction houses were aggressive in their estimates, as evidenced by a few high-profile flops: Coin de Jardin Avec Papillons by Vincent van Gogh (1887), and Pre-War Pageant, a 1913 colorful, abstract painting by Marsden Hartley, both failed to get a single bid. On the positive side, American modernist Edward Hopper set a personal record of $91.9 million for his 1929 Chop Suey in Christie’s sale of the collection of Barney Ebsworth (although as an American-made painting, this would not officially be counted towards the Impressionist & Modern statistics).
The hottest market continues to be contemporary art, which accounted for more than half of the $2.1 billion sold in New York this fall (with sixty percent of the overall sales backed by a third-party guarantor). The biggest highlight was David Hockney’s 1972 Portrait of an Artist (Pool with Two Figures), which fetched $90.3 million, making it the most expensive work of art by a living artist sold at auction (shattering Jeff Koons’ $58.4 million record for Balloon Dog at Christie’s New York in 2013). Notably, the seller—British billionaire Joe Lewis— was so confident in the market strength of the work that he rejected some competitive third-party guarantees, and even offered the painting without a reserve (minimum acceptable bid). Although less of a household name, Jack Whitten, a recently deceased African-American artist, also set a personal record this fall, when his fantastic painting Ancient Mentor I (1985) sold for $2.2 million at Sotheby’s ($1 million beyond it’s high estimate). And Henry Taylor’s I’ll Put a Spell on You (2004) set a new record for the artist when it hammered at $800,000, four times its high estimate.
These are just a few of the record-setting sales for African-American artists this year (see also my spring auction round up), and is part of a rising trend in the art world: the overdue reckoning of white men’s hegemonic stronghold on art to create a new cultural narrative that reflects a panoply of perspectives and voices. Museums are making a concerted effort to diversify their collections (and, in some cases, actively divesting themselves of all the extra “white guy” works), and collectors are paying top dollar for works by women and artists of color. In addition to the attention-grabbing shredded Banksy that sold at Sotheby’s London this fall (see footnote), British artist Jenny Saville set the record for the highest auction value for a living female artist when her self-portrait Propped fetched over 9.5 million GBP ($12.4 million) at Sotheby’s London. Although impressive, at about a tenth of the value of Hockney’s new record for a living artist, this made but a crack in the proverbial glass ceiling.
And in other record-setting news: for those of you who subscribe to my e-blasts, you’ll recall that I previewed Portrait of Edmond Belamy as a lot to watch at the fall auctions. The first publicly auctioned, AI-generated work of art appeared in Christie’s October Prints and Multiples sale, exploding past its high estimate of $10,000 to sell for a whopping $432,000, perhaps heralding what could be a completely new collecting category. The sale raises interesting philosophical questions of authorship, and the nature of human creation. But the portrait is now at the center of a legal debate of its origin, as a 19-year-old Stanford student claims the creators (a French art collective called Obvious), stole his algorithm to create the portrait. Escándalo! Read more about it here.
Until next time, I wish you and yours a happy holiday season and New Year!
Footnote: I had a ton of people ask my opinion on whether Sotheby’s was “in” on this, so here it is: Sotheby’s would surely have performed an inspection of the piece, and there is no way they would not have noticed the shredding mechanism in the frame. Second, the work was installed above the phone bank in a rather awkward corner of the room, rather than center stage with the auctioneer, safely clamped down (which would have obstructed the shredding). This, compounded with the fact that it was conspicuously the last lot in the sale (and would thus not disrupt the whole auction if/when the event happened), suggests that Sotheby’s created the circumstances for the shredding to occur. I don’t believe that the auction house colluded with Banksy. As others have pointed out, it wouldn’t be Banksy’s style to collaborate with an institution; as a street artist, his whole MO is anti-institutional (exhibit A: the shredding was an anti-commodification performance!). But I think Sotheby’s suspected something might happen, and they knew that there’s no such thing as bad publicity. Unfortunately, Banksy’s anarchic message was dampened by the fact that the shredder malfunctioned, leaving a half-shredded, but still satisfying, new composition. Moreover, the sensationalism of the event itself had the opposite effect of Banksy’s intention: the work is absolutely worth more following the stunt. But did Banksy really “lose”? This certainly helped his market. He could have disavowed the work under VARA (Visual Artists’ Rights Act), but he instead “authenticated” the work by christening it with a new name: Love is in the Bin. Everybody wins.