October 28, 2008
Nature girl I am not, but the manicured lawns of Madison Square Park are tame enough for anyone to handle, and this month Japanese artist Tadashi Kawamata added something special to the site. He built ten pine houses and put them up in, you guessed it, the park’s trees.
There are deep themes underlying the work. These roughhewn ivory towers, which are out of reach and have no obvious egresses, explore classism and elitism. The fun and adventure of play spaces are also complicated by Kawamata’s tree hut design, which echoes the look of the flimsy shelters often erected by the homeless.
At first I was really put out that you couldn’t actually go inside the houses. But then I remembered all the times I went into tree houses as a kid. They were always a letdown—awkward seating and sparse accommodations. But it was having a space away from everyone else that was more appealing than the space itself. So don’t bypass the chance to go and see Kawamata’s installation for that reason. There is much to appreciate with your feet on the ground.
October 13, 2008
Greening our lifestyles is a big trend right now. Photographer Chris Jordan is doing his part by raising a flag about the fact that America’s mass consumption of stuff, anything and everything, is in overdrive. Jordan’s love-hate relationship with trash started when he was in the port of south Seattle and took a picture of a compressed ton of garbage. He pinned it up on the wall of his studio and kept coming back to it, troubled by the fact that the picture couldn’t begin to show how much trash there really is in the country.
Jordan started going to landfills and junkyards, taking aerial views of these places to try and capture the scale of our rampant consumption. His series, Intolerable Beauty, tries to visually comprehend overwhelming statistics about consumption that can be really hard to envision—426,000 (the number of cell phones thrown away in America every day); 1.14 million (the amount of paper bags used in supermarkets every hour); and 60,000 (how many plastic bags are in the U.S. every five seconds). He does this by taking a relatively low number of these items, usually 200 or so, and making a digital photo of them. Then he splices the image together over and over until, mathematically, the photo shows the huge number he was shooting for.
Most concepts are more difficult to comprehend in the abstract. It is hard to make mass consumption meaningful because we can’t experience numbers and statistics in and of themselves. We can’t feel or see these amounts. But Jordan is trying to bridge that gap and get us to fess up to an addiction to stuff that, thanks to him, has been dragged into plain sight.
September 16, 2008
When I read that people were protesting the display of Jeff Koons’ work at the chateau de Versailles, I sat there waiting for the punch line to sink in because, really, how could that not be a joke. The artist and site couldn’t be better suited.
Versailles’ ostentation is the perfect backdrop for Koons’ kitsch sculptures. Both take ornamentation over the top, whether gilding everything in sight with silver and gold, or making life-size sculptures of balloon dogs in metallic hot pink. Though centuries divide the two, they both resonate with Rococo excess.
They both are exuberant, lighthearted and fun. Versailles was originally intended as a garden pleasure palace away from it all, and its visitors put play and fantasy first. Koons’ work is the same. Tacky in the best possible way, his work transports low art and makes it glittery and lively. Part of me thinks that if the Sun King was alive today, he’d not only be pleased Koons’ work is on display in his house, he’d hire the artist on the spot.
Image above courtesy of clemmm8/Flickr
September 10, 2008
Centuries ago, skill and mastery of technique got an artist a lucrative commission or helped secure a patron’s favor. Innovation had its place, but skillful execution was key—an artist was only as good as his last work. The ability to perform was crucial, but that wasn’t always easy to pull off given the complexity of certain techniques.
One of the most difficult artistic skills to master is fresco painting. It is a labor-intensive process where plaster is applied to a wall, images are traced onto the plaster (usually using charcoal and a perforated preparatory sketch) and paint is applied. All of this must be done quickly and without error because the plaster hardens within a matter of hours, sealing the image inside.
I’ve never frescoed myself, so maybe the hype is just that, but most accounts claim that this is a tough way of painting. Michelangelo struggled with it in the Sistine Chapel. Leonardo had trouble working quickly and getting it right the first time, so he invented his own way of doing things, much to the detriment of conservators later working on his Last Supper.
But now there’s an artist in Pisa, Luca Battini, who plans to bring fresco back. He’s planning a 1,700-sq-ft mural of the life of Pisa’s patron saint. What is fun about the project is that Battini is holding casting calls to find figures he’ll feature in the work. Some are prominent citizens; others just have the look the artist wants. People are taking this pretty seriously because the shelf life of a fresco is often hundreds of years, so those who are picked will be a part of history. I can’t wait to see if he can pull this off, but it turns out I’ll be waiting quite a long time—three years or so, which is about how long it takes to finish a project of this magnitude.
Image above: Detail from an earlier mural depicting the life of Pisa’s patron saint, St. Rainerius.
August 26, 2008
To get ready for the fall season, I found out what is coming down the pike at two museums that have been really great to visit in the past year or so. Let the slugfest begin.
Museum of Fine Arts, Boston has four shows headlining their fall roster. The first is an exhibition of Assyrian art traveling from the British Museum. Yes, a slow start, but they follow that up with a look at the career of celebrity photographer Yousuf Karsh, who shot everyone from Albert Einstein to Audrey Hepburn to the Kennedys. The third act is a small show of Japanese ink paintings, which looks a lot more interesting than it sounds. Rachel Whiteread runs the last leg of the race. The last show of the season is devoted to her most recent work, Place (Village), which is an installation of handmade dollhouses.
The Brooklyn Museum of Art starts with an exhibition of four short films from Jesper Just. Their second show pulls together 40 works from the museum’s growing contemporary collection, specifically pieces that were made after 2000 and resonate with the museum’s rich ethnic and artistic locale. After that, the last stop of an international tour of the work of Gilbert & George arrives. This could be the sleeper, as there are 80 or so stellar works in this retrospective. The final exhibition brings together feminist works that comment on the “house”—whether the historically male-dominated museum or the home as the principal domain of women.
Put side by side like this, I’m torn about which venue comes out on top. And choosing a winner before actually seeing any of the shows is probably foolhardily premature. But I’m ready and willing to take bets.