“My Brain is a Collage Brain:” In the Studio with Delphine Diallo

In July I went to the opening of “African Spirits,” a group show of African photography from the 1950s to today, at Yossi Milo gallery. Upon entering the space, I turned to my left to start my stroll around the room’s perimeter when I met his gaze, and was immediately drawn in.

The Herculean man had neon-green hair on his head and chin, piercings in his nose and in his hulky pectorals, and a kinky leather collar. His vintage blue shorts were buttoned up to the middle of his smooth abdomen, and a diminutive fanny pack pinched his waist. His Doc Martens were decorated with black and pink furry pompoms, and, completing his fantastic ensemble, an electric pink robe, rolled at the wrists and suggestively falling off his left shoulder. Like Manet’s Olympia, he projected so many wonderful paradoxes: at once confident and vulnerable; seductive and guarded; masculine and feminine; insistent in his queerness, but untrusting of our voyeuristic presence. Perhaps somewhere under that campy pink robe was some scar tissue—wounds from years of rejection by a bourgeois society that does not understand him. Wounds which heal themselves when he can “live the fuck out loud” at the Afropunk Festival where this picture was taken.

I was mesmerized.

Delphine Diallo - Afropunk - Pink Fur, 2016, framed (mid)
“Afropunk – Pink Fur,” 2016, image courtesy of the artist.

I proudly added the photograph to my art collection, and reached out to the French-Senegalese artist Delphine Diallo to arrange a studio visit.

Based in Brooklyn since 2008, Diallo was born in Paris to a French mother and Senegalese father. She studied at the Académie Charpentier School of Visual Art and upon graduating in 1999, started working in the music industry as a visual effects specialist, graphic designer and editor. In 2008 a friend invited her to a dinner, where she happened to sit next to the photographer Peter Beard. “It was very surprising; I was meeting someone who was 72, and I was 31, and our energy was the actually same,” she remembers. They shared the same “curiosity, and openness, and discovery—like a child.”

Beard asked to see her work—an intimidating request for any young artist, but all the more nerve-wracking because Diallo admits she had never shown her work to anyone. Beard immediately recognized her talent, and invited her to join him on his next photoshoot for Pirelli in Botswana. On location, Beard showed her everything she needed to know to be a photographer. The most important lesson? Learning to let go and let the art happen: “You set up 50, 60 precent, ensure the set or the subject is the right person. But then after you can’t just control everything, you have to let go. And the space where [I] let go…the pictures that were the best ones were the pictures where [I] let go.”

Delphine Diallo - Boy in Senegal
“Stay Strong,” 2009. “You have it,” Peter Beard told Delphine Diallo upon seeing this photograph. Image courtesy of the artist.

Yet there were other formative experiences on the Botswana shoot as well: Diallo objected to what she saw as the “oversexualization of the male gaze,” particularly of the black female body, which she felt in Peter’s work and in the fashion industry in general. She also said there was editorial friction between her and the Pirelli production staff, who dismissed her as one more of Peter Beard’s pretty models (he has a reputation…). As painful as the dismissal was, it motivated Diallo to take her life in a new direction: she would move to New York on an artist’s visa, and devote herself to empowering and celebrating female beauty and energy—simply put, the Divine Feminine.

“The patriarchy is dividing us too much,” Diallo notes. We only see three or four archetypes of women represented in our society, whereas Diallo wants to “access many dimensions”: nature, humility, transcendentalism, emotionality, childish whimsy, and anger. “The woman is a real subject, because she is changing, she is transforming, she is sensitive, she is very emotional, she might be the most emotional creature on Earth. And to be able to photograph it, to be able to see her transformation…it’s not actually being shown that much in photography.”

Diallo - Collage for New York Magazine
A large collage Diallo and a few assistants created then photographed as the splash page for the article “Everywhere & Nowhere: What It’s Really Like to be Black and Work in Fashion,” by Lindsay Peoples Wagner for New York Magazine, 2018. Image courtesy of the artist.

Diallo works across a spectrum of styles, shooting street and documentary photography, portraiture, and fine artwork. When Diallo does take on commercial projects (she has worked for such publications at Time, The New Yorker, The Washington Post, Essence and more), she prefers assignments that meet her mission, or at least endeavors to lend a more thoughtful interpretation of the female body.

In her more artistic pursuits, Diallo captures the Divine Feminine in photographs of women in quiet repose; other times, she explores the Divine Feminine through the lens of religious iconography, mythology, or symbols of energy that are ancient and universal: she’ll paint her models with spirals, yin yangs or “the third eye.” Surveying the work, I thought, some of these portraits of feminine energy were quite literal. But then I asked myself: how does one capture something as elusive yet ever-present as the Divine Feminine—especially in photography? Abstraction seems an obvious choice for capturing “energy” (think the Action painters), but then how does one differentiate feminine and masculine energy on a canvas, without falling right into gendered language that reinforces sexist divisions and stereotypes? Whereas abstraction would deny the female body, Diallo and her models reify the female body as the vessel of our unique feminine energy; Female Empowerment occurs in the performance of the Divine Feminine.

Diallo - Photo Collage
“Decolonized,” 2018, featuring a photograph by Diallo at center, framed by collaged antique and vintage photos and clippings. Image courtesy of the artist.

In more coded imagery and language, Diallo’s collages were some of the best work I saw in her studio: richly layered works that do beg comparison to Peter Beard, although with a decidedly more feminist tone. Unlike Beard, Diallo maintains, she “treats collage in a transformative way…[my] use of ink and narrative is totally different.” Many works also address the racial legacy of African colonialism, a topic of which Americans are too ignorant, Diallo laments. But addressing racism, she says, is not her primary concern, because the Divine Feminine transcends all: “I am a woman,” she declares. “That’s the first struggle.”

Diallo - Photo Collage2
“Decolonized,” 2018. At center is an antique colonial photograph, in which white siblings pose with their instruments, while their parents hold up the backdrop. Diallo has framed the photo with images of African masks and statuary. Image courtesy of the artist.

Diallo and I talked for over two hours—well, I should say she talked, and I listened. She covered quite a lot in those two hours, and admittedly not always in a comprehensible way; it is not always easy to translate a visual message into a verbal one, especially for artists discussing their own work. “My brain is a collage brain,” she said at one point. It wasn’t until I was walking back to the subway from her studio that I realized what a self-actualized statement that was: Diallo had laid out snippets of her life and worldview—a shuffled deck of scraps that did not make perfect sense at first. But as we spoke, she tested, contrasted, and rearranged the pieces. By the time I left her studio, I had a clear vision of the collage: she had artfully composed a portrait of herself, quite without my noticing.

Diallo - Surrealist Collage
“Killing the Minotaur,” 2018. Image courtesy of the artist.

Spring 2019 Auction Roundup: a ‘KAWS’ for cheer?

Let’s get one thing straight: any market that generates over $7 billion a year is doing fine. But, as has been the case the past few years, there’s mixed results reflected in the auction seasons: there are statistics we can examine in the spring 2019 sales that speak to bullish growth, enthusiasm and collector confidence; and there are other statistics that speak to a slowly waning art market. This fickle data requires collectors, advisors and appraisers to pay close attention to the nuances of each auction, and the fluctuations in each artist’s own market.

The nearly 2,000 lots offered this past May by the three major houses (Christie’s, Sotheby’s, and Phillips) grossed just over $2 billion; the equivalent sales last May brought in more than $2.8 billion—a gloomy decline. Another ominous statistic: Sotheby’s, the only publicly traded auction house of the three major houses, reported a 2018 income of $108.6 million, down from $118.8 million in 2017. For the first quarter of 2019, the auction house declared a loss of $7.1 million—worse than its $6.5 million loss for the equivalent period last year. One can perhaps attribute Sotheby’s decline to poor business decisions or structural issues, resulting in their recent decision to sell the company back to private hands for $3.7 billion. But one wonders if this regression is reflective of the secondary market as a whole (as privately held entities, Christie’s and Phillips do not report their profits and losses).

Another interesting fact: the number of guaranteed lots declined at both Christie’s and Sotheby’s from this time last year. In his New York Times preview of the spring sales, Scott Reyburn noted that this reflects seller confidence in the market; that these sellers don’t need the guarantees, and are confident enough to take on the risk that the good ol’ fashion auction model is all about. But seen another way: could the lack of guarantees reflect hesitation on the part of third-party guarantors—including the (possibly cash-strapped) auction houses themselves?

When we start to break down the sales themselves, the statistics get more nuanced. The “less good” news first: the Impressionist and Modern market generally continues to slow. Christie’s and Sotheby’s New York Imp and Mod day sales each sold below their aggregate estimates, respectively selling only 72% of their lots. Sotheby’s New York’s Imp and Mod evening sale came in just under $350 million, with the lion’s share of the revenue coming from the highlight of the spring season: a spectacular, luminous painting from Claude Monet’s haystacks series, which sold for $110.7 million—the new record for any Impressionist work at auction.

Monet Haystacks
Claude Monet, Meules, 1890, sold for $110.7 million at Sotheby’s, setting the record for any Impressionist work.

Yet despite the record-setting Monet, and a general sell through rate of 91%, other statistics from the Sotheby’s evening sale paint a different picture: twenty-five lots (nearly half of the offerings) sold below their low estimates, and some highlight works failed to sell at all, such as William Bouguereau’s La Jeunesse de Bacchus (1884), which stalled at $18 million, below its $25 million low estimate. And while this recent Imp and Mod evening sale did top Sotheby’s equivalent sale from 2018 ($318 million), both auctions relied heavily on the income of one major masterpiece (in 2018, half of the revenue of the evening sale came from Amedeo Modigliani’s $157 million Nu couché sur le côte gauche. As any business owner (myself included) will tell you: it’s never healthy to have your income so unevenly reliant on one source.

Cezanne Still Life
Paul Cézanne, Bouilloire et Fruits (Pitcher and Fruit), c. 1880s, sold at Christie’s for $59.3 million.

Speaking of blue-chip masterpieces: Christie’s Imp and Mod New York evening sale reached nearly $400 million ($50 million more than Sotheby’s), thanks in large part to the esteemed collection of the late Condé Nast juggernaut S.I. Newhouse, who passed away in 2017. Five artists alone accounted for more than $100 million of the Estate’s sales, including a $40 million Van Gogh landscape, and a Cézanne still life that was famously stolen in the 1970s and recovered in 1999, when Newhouse bought it at auction for $29.5 million. In their May sale, Christie’s sold it for $59.3 million.

As has been the case for many years, the news is better for the Postwar and Contemporary sales: the total sales for the three major houses was $1.214 billion. The gross revenue for the evening sales was $981 million, up 6.6% from the same sales last May. According to Artsy, this spring’s evening sales results were the biggest week for P&C auctions since November 2017 (which was greatly skewed by the $450 million sale of Leonardo da Vinci’s Salvator Mundi), and the best spring sales result since May 2015.

Koons - 1986 Rabbit
Jeff Koons’s Rabbit, 1986, broke David Hockney’s auction record for a living artist when it sold for $91.1 million at Christie’s.

Love him or hate him, the big headline-grabber of the week was Jeff Koons, whose Rabbit (1986) broke David Hockney’s recent auction record for a living artist when it sold for $91.1 million at Christie’s (Christie’s increase in buyer’s fees, introduced February 1, just tipped it past Hockney’s $90.2 million record). This work was also from the collection of S.I. Newhouse, and purchased by art dealer Robert E. Mnuchin on behalf of a client.

Bourgeois - 1997 Spider
Louise Bourgeois, Spider, 1996-97, sold for $32.1 million, a new record for the artist.

The art market trend–or correction–for works by women and artists of color continued: Louise Bourgeois’s massive Spider sculpture (1996-97) sold in Christie’s evening sale for $32.1 million—a world record for the artist, and a new record for a contemporary sculpture by a female artist. If artist Dana Schutz’s market felt any fallout following the controversy around her Emmett Till painting in the 2017 Whitney Biennial, it appears to have recovered, with two back-to-back auction records: her 2009 painting Signing set a record of $980,000 at Phillips, only to be shattered a few hours later at Sotheby’s when Civil Planning (2004) burst past its $400,000 high estimate to sell for $2.42 million (backed by an irrevocable bid).

Other notable sales by women and/or artists of color this spring included British artist Cecily Brown’s Confessions of a Window Cleaner, which sold for $3.62 million at Sotheby’s New York evening sale, and British-Ghanaian painter Lynette Yiadom-Boakye’s Leave a Brick Under the Maple (2015), sold for 795,000 GBP (about $1 million) at Phillips London, almost double its high estimate. The latter’s market may be benefitting from her inclusion at the Ghanaian pavilion at this year’s Venice Biennale, as well as a forthcoming retrospective at the Tate Britain next year.

Yiadom-Boakye Leave a Brick Under the Maple
Lynette Yiadom-Boakye’s Leave a Brick Under the Maple (2015), sold for 795,000 GBP (about $1 million)

A record was also set for Toyin Ojih Odutola’s Compound Leaf, a self-portrait of the Nigerian-American on paper, which brought 471,000 GBP ($597,000) at Phillips London, well above its high estimate of 150,000 GBP ($191,000). And Tschabalala Self, the young African-American artist currently in residence at the Studio Museum in Harlem, set a new record when dozens of bidders competed for her 2015 collage Out of Body, ultimately selling for 371,250 GBP ($415,000).

Tschabalala - Out of Body
Tschabalala Self, Out of Body, 2015 (detail), broke a record for the young artist when it sold for 371,250 GBP ($415,000) at Christie’s.

It is remarkable that such recent works by young, trending artists are already coming up for auction, as galleries—and artists—struggle to keep up with the demand for fresh work. Some galleries have waiting lists for their hottest artists, and sellers are clearly willing to bypass galleries and put their works directly onto the secondary market, bringing prices that rival or even exceed gallery prices. Collectors are sometimes flipping their purchases after only a few a years: the seller of Odutola’s aforementioned Compound Leaf only acquired it in 2017, and a collector who bought Barkley L. Hendricks’s Yocks (1975) for $942,500 in May 2017, sold it this season for $3.74 million (against an estimate of $900–$1.2 million). This also speaks, however, to a still volatile and uncertain landscape for young artists who are not market-tested, and I urge collectors to make educated and measured decisions; we can learn lessons from artists like Jacob Kassay, whose auction market exploded rapidly between 2011–2013, and deflated just as quickly.

KAWS album.png
KAWS, The KAWS Album painting, 2005, sold at Sotheby’s Hong Kong for $14.8 million

The other much-discussed winner of the spring sales was the street artist known as KAWS (aka Brian Donnelly). KAWS has not usually been taken seriously by critics, but his Instagram-friendly and accessible art has bypassed the usual market trajectory of artistic success (i.e. through critics and curators); Scott Nussbaum, head of 20th century and contemporary art at Phillips, especially credits a young, emerging class of collectors from Asia for boosting KAWS’s market. Following a whopping $14.8 million sale at Sotheby’s Hong Kong this spring for The KAWS Album (2005)—a parody of the Beatles’ famous Sargent Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band album cover, with characters from The Simpsons—for the first time, all three major houses simultaneously included works by KAWS in their sales (19 works total). In these recent auctions, KAWS’s pieces continuously surpassed their estimates, including 2012’s The Walk Home, a large painting featuring SpongeBob SquarePants which sold at Phillips for an impressive $6 million, 10 times its low estimate of $600,000–a ‘KAWS’ for celebration (sorry, I couldn’t help myself). We’ll see what the fall sales have in store for him and the rest of the P&C market.

Until the next market report!

KAWS - The Walk Home
KAWS, The Walk Home, 2012, recently sold for $6 million at Phillips.

Artist Spotlight: Jillian Mayer

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.

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.

Mayer - 400 Nudes
Jillian Mayer, Examples from 400 Nudes. Photos courtesy of the artist.

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.

Spring Art Fair Highlights: Scope Art Fair

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!

Serwan Baran‘s solo presentation at XOL Gallery’s booth was the cream of the crop at Scope. Baran will be representing Iraq at the 2019 Venice Biennale.

Serwan Baran Hounds of War
Serwan Baran, Hounds of War, 2017, acrylic on canvas. XOL Gallery, Baltimore and Amman. Photo by Emily Casden.
Serwan Baran Fifth Column
Serwan Baran, Fifth Column, 2019, acrylic on canvas. XOL Gallery, Baltimore and Amman. Photo by Emily Casden.

Fifth generation quilter Phyllis Stephens updates the African-American tradition of quilt-making with fresh but nostalgic urban subject matter.

Phyllis Stephens Back in the Days
Phyllis Stephens, Back in the Days, 2019, quilt with sustainable fabric, Richard Beavers Gallery, Brooklyn. Photo by Emily Casden.

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.

Hans van Bentem sculptures
Hans van Bentem, Group of sculptures with interchangeable pieces, 2019, porcelain. NL=US Gallery, Rotterdam. Photo by Emily Casden.
Hans van Bentem Rocket 2019
Hans van Bentem, Rocket, 2019, in the style of Chinese celadon porcelain NL=US Gallery, Rotterdam. Photo by Emily Casden.

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.

Mike Stilkey Suds in Your Eyes
Mike Stilkey, Suds in Your Eyes, 2019, acrylic on repurposed books. bG Gallery, Santa Monica. Photo by Emily Casden.

Trevor Guthrie‘s beautiful charcoal drawings hint at eerie and unsettling narratives.

Trevor-Guthrie-Wald-Taxi.-Drawing-95x65cm.-a-space-gallery
Trevor Guthrie, Wald Taxi, 2017, charcoal on paper. a-space gallery, Basel. Photo courtesy of the artist/a-space gallery.
Trevor Guthrie Crash III
Trevor Guthrie, Crash III, 2017, charcoal on paper. a-space gallery, Basel. Photo by Emily Casden.

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.

Laurence de Valmy instagram paintings
Laurence de Valmy, Marys Joins the Impressionists, and Edgar’s Resting Dancer, 2019, acrylics on canvas. Kahn Gallery, London. Photo by Emily Casden.

Very impressive photorealistic snapshots of New York life by Yigal Ozeri. Hard to believe it’s painted.

Yigal Ozeri New York Story
Yigal Ozeri, Untitled: A New York Story, 2019, oil on paper mounted on wood. Rutger Brandt Gallery, Amsterdam. Photo by Emily Casden.

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.

Sarah Sitkin Body Suits
Sarah Sitkin, Body Suits, 2018. Superchief Gallery, Los Angeles. Photo by Emily Casden.

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.

Laura Jane Petelko Soft Series
Laura Jane Petelko, The First Time You Were in My Dream, from the Soft Series, 2018. Contemporary Art Projects, USA, Miami. Photo by Emily Casden

Spring Art Fair Highlights: Spring/Break

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.

Spring/Break

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.)

Meng Okubo installation shot
Lulu Meng and Naomi Okubo, Real Fairy Tale, installation shot at Spring/Break art show. Photo by Samuel Morgan Photography, courtesy of Lulu Meng.

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.

Emily Casden - Lulu Weng install
Me (Emily Casden), viewing one of Lulu Meng’s sculptures for her “Fairy Tale” installation at Spring/Break. Photo courtesy of Lulu Meng.
Naomi Okubo Fairy Tale
Naomi Okubo, from the series “Fairy Tale,” painting on canvas. Photo by Emily Casden, courtesy of Naomi Okubo.
Naomi Okubo Fairy Tale Mirror Mirror
Naomi Okubo, from the Series “Fairy Tale,” etched mirror (on reverse of painting). Photo by Emily Casden, courtesy of Naomi Okubo.

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.

Jennifer Dalton Hello I'm
Jennifer Dalton, Hello, I’m, 2015, custom-printed stickers and stickers dispensers. Detail image below. Photos by Emily Casden, courtesy of Jennifer Dalton.

IMG_5589

McCoy - Adeline 2016
Jennifer & Kevin McCoy, Adeline, from the Broker Glass Series, 2016, cast glass. Installation shot from a previous exhibition. Photo courtesy of Jennifer & Kevin McCoy.

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!

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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.

Chris Cohen installation
Chris Cohen, White Noise, partial view of Spring/Break installation. Photo by Joanna Gmuender, courtesy of Chris Cohen.

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.

Everything_KeyArt
Click the image to be redirected to a 10 minute “trailer” for the “Everything” game by David O’Reilly.

Below are a few other works I enjoyed from the fair.

Yelena Yemchuk Lady in the Lake
Yelena Yemchuk, The Lady in the Lake. Room curated by Sara Vanderbeek. Photo by Emily Casden, courtesy of Yelena Yemchuk.
Arghavan Khosravi She Had a Dream
Arghavan Khosravi, She Had a Dream, 2018, acrylic on found wood block printed fabric, acrylic on cotton canvas mounted on two separate wood panels. Room curated by Kristen Smoragiewicz. Photo by Emily Casden, courtesy of Arghavan Khosravi.

Some of the more political art at the fair…

Margaret Roleke Weapons of Mass Destruction
Margaret Roleke, Weapons of Mass Destruction, 2019, light box with video (video not pictured). Photo by Emily Casden, courtesy of Margaret Roleke.

The translucency of this large painting by Anthony Goicolea makes for a luminous effect.

Anthony Goicolea Reverse Repoussoir
Anthony Goicolea, Reverse Repoussoir, 2018, oil paint on double-sided mylar film. Photo by Emily Casden, courtesy of Anthony Goicolea.

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.

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Spring Art Fair Highlights: the Armory Show

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.

Armory Show

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.

Gustavo Diaz
Gustavo Díaz, Variaciones sobre un bosque hipotético previo a la Gran Bifurcación – Modelo 002/ Era Prearbolítica,” 2019. Cut out paper. Photo by Emily Casden, courtesy of Sicardi Ayers Bacino, Houston.
Gustavo Díaz Cut Out Sculpture
Gustavo Díaz, work displayed at 2018 Armory Show.

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?

Rodney Graham Vacuuming
Rodney Graham, Vacuuming the Gallery, 1949, 2018, monumental lightbox installation. Photo by Emily Casden, courtesy of 303 Gallery, New York.

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.

Moffat Takadiwa Sculpture
Moffat Takadiwa, Bottled Water, 2019, found blow molding pre-forms, plastic bottle caps, cuttings. Photo by Emily Casden, courtesy of Nicodim Gallery, Los Angeles and Bucharest.
Florine Démosthène installation shot
Florine Démosthène, installation view of her works on paper at Mariane Ibrahim Gallery at the Armory Show. Photo by Emily Casden, courtesy of Mariane Ibrahim Gallery, Seattle.

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!

Lee Mullican Untitled 1965
Lee Mullican (1919-1998), Untitled, 1965, Oil on canvas. Photo by Emily Casden, courtesy of James Cohan Gallery, New York.

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.

Sailstorfer bronze
Michael Sailstorfer, Kopf und Körper Marzahn 02, 2017, bronze and concrete. Photo by Emily Casden, courtesy of Proyectos Monclova, Mexico City.

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.

Chapman Disasters of Yoga
Jake and Dinos Chapman, The Disasters of Yoga, 2017, set of 80 reworked Goya etchings from The Disaster of War series, with glitter. Below: two details. Photos by Emily Casden, courtesy of Blaine Southern Gallery, London.

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Below, a few offerings from the excellent Yossi Milo gallery:

Pieter Hugo Hyena and Other Men
Pieter Hugo, From the series The Hyena and Other Men, Digital C-Print, from an edition of 9. Photo by Emily Casden, courtesy of Yossi Milo Gallery.
Nathalie Boutte FH Hawpine
Nathalie Boutté, F.H. Hawpine, 2019, Collage of Japanese paper, ink. Photo by Emily Casden, courtesy of Yossi Milo Gallery, New York.
Boutte Hawpine detail
Nathalie Boutté, F.H. Hawpine, 2019, detail. Photo by Emily Casden, courtesy of Yossi Milo Gallery, New York.

Nick Cave, dazzling as always, at Jack Shainman Gallery.

Nick Cave Hustle Coat
Nick Cave, Hustle Coat, 2018, mixed media including a trench coat, cast bronze hand, metal, costume jewelry, watches, chains, and vinyl. Photo by Emily Casden, courtesy of Jack Shainman Gallery, New York.

Mel Bochner. Still got it.

Mel Bochner Out of Your Fucking Mind
Mel Bochner, Are You Out of Your Fucking Mind?, 2018, etched and silvered glass. Photo by Emily Casden, courtesy of Two Palms, New York.

Hard to photograph, but beautiful assemblage by Lyle Ashton Harris at David Castillo Gallery.

Ashton Harris Black Hummingbird 1
Lyle Ashton Harris, Untitled (Black Hummingbird #1), 2019, unique assemblage (Ghanaian cloth, dye sublimation prints, ephemera). Photo by Emily Casden, courtesy of David Castillo Gallery, Miami Beach.

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.

Massinissa Selmani No Plan is Foolproof
Massinissa Selmani, Untitled No.11, from the No Plan is Foolproof series, graphite and color pencil on paper. Photo by Emily Casden, courtesy of Selma Feriani Gallery, Sidi Bou Said, Tunisia.

Spring Art Fair Highlights: The ADAA Art Show

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!

Dario Robleto Curious Confront Eternity
Dario Robleto, The Curious Confront Eternity, 2019. Cut paper, various cut and polished seashells, urchin spines, squilla claws, butterflies, colored powder pigments, plastic domes, prints on wood and paper, foam core, glue and frame. Photo by Emily Casden, courtesy of Inman Gallery, Houston, Texas

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.

Dario Robleto installation

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Dario Robleto, Small Crafts on Sisyphean Seas, 2017-2018, detail. Image courtesy of Inman Gallery, Houston.

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.

Kalman installation view
Maira Kalman, The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas, by Gertrude Stein, 2019, installation view at the ADAA Art Show. Thirty-five gouaches on paper. Image courtesy of Julie Saul Gallery, New York.
Maira Kalman - Alice & Gertrude
Maira Kalman, Alice and Gertrude in living room with Cezanne painting, 2019
gouache on paper. Image courtesy of Julie Saul Gallery, New York.

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.

William Villalongo Zero Gravity 1 2018
William Villalongo, Zero Gravity 1, 2018, paper collage and cut velour paper. Image courtesy of William Villalongo.

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?

Grosz The Wanderer 1934
George Grosz, The Wanderer, 1934, watercolor on paper. Image by Emily Casden, courtesy of David Nolan Gallery, New York.
Grosz The Wanderer 1956
George Grosz, The Wanderer, 1956, watercolor on paper. Image by Emily Casden, courtesy of David Nolan Gallery, New York.

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.

Jean Arp Head 1925
Jean Arp (1886-1966), Head; Object to Milk, 1925, painted collage, gold leaf and fabric on board. Image by Emily Casden, courtesy of James Goodman Gallery, Inc.

Classic Joan Semmel nude.

Joan Semmel Beachbody 1985
Joan Semmel, Beachbody, 1985, oil on canvas. Image by Emily Casden, courtesy of Alexander Gray & Associates, New York.

Part of an installation by Leslie Dill.

Lesley Dill Emily Dickinson 2017
Leslie Dill, Emily Dickinson and the Voices of Her Time, 2017. Oil on paper, thread on fabric-backed paper. The image depicts Emily Dickinson, Sojourner Truth, Walt Whitman and Thomas Wentworth Higginson. Image by Emily Casden, courtesy of Nohra Haime Gallery, New York.

Toby Mug by Judy Chicago. I would love to see this on the table at The Dinner Party!

Judy Chicago Toby Mug 2010
Judy Chicago, Two-Faced Toby Mug, 2010, multi-fired china paint on porcelain. Image by Emily Casden, courtesy of Salon 94, New York.

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.

Gaston Lachaise Draped Figure
Gaston Lachaise (1882-1935), Draped Standing Figure, 1931-32, pencil on paper. Image by Emily Casden, courtesy of Debra Force Fine Art, New York.

Joan Bankemper’s whimsical and intricate porcelain constructions at Nancy Hoffman Gallery, New York.

Joan Bankemper Belmont Ceramic
Joan Bankemper, Belmont, 2018, ceramic. Image by Emily Casden, courtesy of Nancy Hoffman Gallery, New York.

Another Grosz. Man he’s good.

Grosz They Found Something
George Grosz (1893-1959), They Found Something, 1946, watercolor on paper. Image courtesy of David Nolan Gallery, New York.

Artist Spotlight: Dario Robleto

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?).

Robleto Naturalist Lament 2018
Dario Robleto, The Naturalist’s Lament, 2018. Cut paper, various cut and polished seashells, urchin spines, green tusks, squilla claws, mushroom coral, colored powder pigments and beads, colored crushed glass and wire, plastic domes, prints on paper, colored and mirrored Plexiglas, foam core, glue, frame. Image by Emily Casden, courtesy of Inman Gallery, Houston.
Robleto - Naturalist Lament detail
Dario Robleto, The Naturalist’s Lament, 2018, detail. Image courtesy of Inman Gallery, Houston.

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.

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Dario Robleto, Small Crafts on Sisyphean Seas, 2017-2018.  Cut and polished nautilus shells, various cut and polished seashells, various urchin spines and teeth, mushroom coral, green and white tusks, squilla claws, butterfly wings, colored pigments and beads, colored crushed glass and glitter, dyed mica flakes, pearlescent paint, cut paper, acrylic domes, brass rods, colored mirrored Plexiglas, glue, maple. Image by Emily Casden, courtesy of Inman Gallery, Houston.

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.

shell_install
Dario Robleto, Small Crafts on Sisyphean Seas, 2017-2018, detail. Image courtesy of Inman Gallery, Houston
Robleto_Inman_Sisyphean_detail_1
Dario Robleto, Small Crafts on Sisyphean Seas, 2017-2018, detail. Image courtesy of Inman Gallery, Houston.

Censorship in Cuba: Decree 349 and the Future of the Havana Biennial

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.

lidzie-alvisa-revolucion.jpg
Lidzie Alvisa, Revolucion at the 2015 Havana Biennial. Image courtesy of in-cubadora.org

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.

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Arlés del Río’s installation at the 2015 Havana Biennial. Image courtesy of the New York Times

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.)

Kcho at 2012 Biennial.png
Kcho (Alexis Leyva Machado), The Conversation, installation at the 2012 Havana Biennial. Image courtesy of the New York Times

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.

Arles del Rio - Times Square
Arlés del Río with his Times Square installation Fly Away in 2014. Image courtesy of Times Square Arts

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.”

Walfrido Valera - 00 Biennial
Exhibition in the studio of Walfrido Valera during the 2018 Alternative 00 Biennial in Havana. Image courtesy of Hyperallergic

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 Journal that 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 Times piece.

Tania Bruguera
Artist and activist Tania Bruguera, performing Self-Sabotage in 2009. Image courtesy of W Magazine

Siu Wong Camac & The Prince Street Gallery (in Chelsea)

“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.

Camac - So I Changed My Name

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.

Camac - Who Needs Ken

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 & Foundon 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

Camac - Skaters    Camac - The FieldsCamac - Three's a Crowd