In New York, we love lines. If there is a line, that is where we want to be. So, in the last few years, we have stood in line for events like Christian Marclay’s The Clock, Yayoi Kusama’s infinity room at David Zwirner, Doug Wheeler’s light room also at David Zwirner, the rain room at MOMA. And now, the place to be is the Kara Walker exhibit at the soon to be torn down Domino Sugar Factory in Williamsburg, Brooklyn.
Kara Walker is a contemporary mid-career artist who is known for scenes done in black paper-cut silhouettes. At first glance, the paper cuts look like something you might stencil in the baby’s room, but they depict scenes involving rape, violence, sex and slavery. Although the images in her work are mostly from the pre-Civil War south, they are also a commentary on abuses that exist around the world today.
The scale of her pieces can go from one extreme to another — from floor-to-ceiling wall murals (above) to small cut outs in vitrines or on table tops (below).
Walker’s work, which deals with issues of race, gender, violence and sexuality can be unsettling and repulsive and ambiguous and contradictory. It can be very controversial. A recent New York times feature mentions how veteran black artist Betye Saar criticized Walker for “her negative stereotypes of blacks as both victims and aggressors.” Walker has been awarded a MacArthur genius grant, her works are included in many museum collections.
Her current installation is different from her well-known silhouettes. On Friday afternoon, June 27th, the line to get into Walker’s current show stretched for about six blocks down Kent Avenue in Williamsburg.
Once in the show, you walk into the cavernous, now abandoned, sugar refinery to see a giant sphinx-like sugar mammy at the opposite end. Entitled “A Subtlety,” there is nothing subtle about it. (By the way, a subtlety is a medieval sculpture made of sugar or marzipan for royal families, often to decorate tables)
As you walk towards her, there are smaller molasses children. Many of them are carrying baskets. To me they seemed to be reminders of child labor (which I had just seen featured the night before on The Daily Show in a feature about children working in tobacco fields). Walker based them on some 10-inch slave boy knickknacks she had purchased on amazon.
At this point in the exhibit–which has been open since April–a number of the sugar children have melted under the heat of the factory and have toppled to the ground and broken.
Kara Walker’s installation deals with many of the issues she has addressed in the past. The sphinx is a stereotype of the handkerchief wearing mammy who took care of white families’ children. In addition, she represents a stereotype of an overly sexualized black woman.
In 1984, Sheena Easton had a controversial hit with the song “Sugar Walls” written by Prince.
Some of the lyrics:
“Come spend the night inside my sugar walls
I can tell you want me
It’s impossible to hide
Your body’s on fire
Admit it come inside
My sugar walls
My sugar walls
My sugar walls
My sugar walls”
TV and radio stations refused to air the song because sugar walls referred to the walls of a “vagina.” Well, Kara Walker’s sculpture includes the ultimate “sugar walls:”
The Domino Sugar Refinery was built in 1856 and for some time was producing half of the sugar in the United States. The refinery, which is about to be torn down to make room for luxury residences, still has the smell of molasses and sugar can be seen every where–dripping down the walls, at the top of pillars, in every crevasse and behind every wall. Sugar, which was at one time a luxury product, is making room, for a modern day luxury product.
The walls of the refinery look like abstract paintings:
The show ends July 6, 2014
NY Times on the exhibit
An excellent ten-minute in-depth look at the creation of the project (video with Walker in it)
Interview with Walker in The Brooklyn Rail on how the exhibit developed
Jerry Saltz’s reaction to the exhibit
Poetry, prose and illustrations related to the exhibition’s central themes, from five innovative and internationally renowned writers and artist on the Exhibit’s website
A discussion and guide to Walker’s art work
Video from the Live at NY Public Library Event (excerpt of interview starts 2 minutes in)
Meg Cranston at Fitzroy Gallery
I walked into Fitzroy Gallery at 195 Chrystie Street and immediately liked the works of Meg Cranston. Most were quite large (around 72 by 56 inches) works of oil, acrylic and silkscreen, but the one above (collage and gouache on paper) was only 14 by 11 inches.
I loved the collage element of the works, the colors, the mix of abstract images and images found in popular culture. I found the works both stimulating and mysterious. Cranston is a Los Angeles artist and is acting chair of the Fine Arts Department at Otis College, where she has been on the faculty for over 20 years. She works in many media–often sculpture, video, and performance. The exhibit is on through June 15th.
Meyer Vaisman at Eleven Rivington
I also enjoyed the Meyer Vaisman exhibit which is in both of Eleven Rivington’s gallery spaces: 11 Rivington Street and at 195 Chrystie Street. These works are abstract images on plywood that have been created with an inkjet printer. Though they have been created without the artist’s hand, they are playful and give the illusion of “action”. Most of the works were signed twice–so the owner must decide which is the top and which is the bottom when hanging the works.
Vaisman is the same age as Meg Cranston (both were born in 1960). Vaisman was born in Venezuela, went to art school and worked for some time in New York, but has been based in Barcelona for 14 years. This is his first solo show in New York since 2000. The show is up until July 3rd, 2014.
Philip Pearlstein at Betty Cuningham Gallery
I was surprised to find the Betty Cuningham Gallery at 15 Rivington Street, the former home of Dodge Gallery. Turns out Dodge closed after 4 years in the space. Betty Cuningham originally opened in Soho in 1972 and spent 10 years in Chelsea. Chased out of Chelsea by high rents, she has moved the gallery and the final exhibit of the Chelsea space has become the inaugural exhibit on Rivington Street. Chelsea has become home to super galleries with exhibits of major artists that rival museum shows in quality and curatorial ingenuity. For the last few years, the lower east side was where you went to see emerging artists with unfamiliar names. Though a couple of established galleries have opened spaces in the Lower East Side area (e.g. Lehmann Maupin opened an auxiliary space on Chrystie, while keeping their Chelsea space and Sperone Westwater built a remarkable building on the Bowery), to me, the arrival of Betty Cuningham who represents well-established artists like 90-year old Philip Pearlstein truly indicates a change in the face of the art scene both in Chelsea and the Lower East Side.
By the way, I’m not a Pearlstein fan, but that’s me. The Philip Pearlstein exhibit is on display at the new space through July 25, 2014.
In addition to viewing paintings, I got to walk through a House of Mirrors during my quick romp through a couple of galleries on the Lower East Side.
At the Lehmann Maupin Gallery at 201 Chrystie, the highlight of the exhibit of works by Korean artist Lee Bul is an installation (Via Negativa II) that made me feel like I was at a fun house at a carnival.
When I walked in, I was told I needed to put on some booties if I wanted to enter the exhibit room which has a mirrored floor.
The central sculpture looked like a number of slabs of mirrored glass with newspaper type print etched on them. At first, I thought I could get the whole effect from outside the room without bothering with the booties. But I was wrong.
There were a few sculptures, including this one:
Lee Bul’s works reminded me a lot of Yayoi Kusama. The house of mirrors has a lot in common with her infinity rooms and the Monster Black sculpture uses forms similar to the the stuffed fabric potato/phallic forms in many of Kusama’s works.
People waited hours to get into Yayoi Kusama’s infinity rooms. There was no line at Lehmann Maupin–so get there quick. The show is on view through June 21st.
I spent the afternoon in Chelsea. It is a great place to see art. There are about 350 galleries and they are so concentrated that it is easy to walk from one to another. Many of the exhibits are as good or better as any museum shows and they are all free. Sometimes the doors are barely marked and you can’t tell what is behind the opaque glass. You just have to take a chance and walk right in. On my most recent visit, I only covered the territory between 18th Street and 22nd Street. Here are some highlights:
Hauser & Wirth opened this gallery space in the from Roxy nightclub space less than 2 years ago. But it has been recently announced it is going to be torn down and a high rise condo building will be built here. In the meantime, to enter the gallery, you must walk up an extra wide flight of stairs with striking stripes on the walls. Through July 25th, the large gallery space is housing the works of L.A. artist Sterling Ruby. I’m familiar with him as a sculptor, but the show includes spray paint paintings, fabric collages and cardboard collages. The sculptures are monumental in size. They employ a wide variety of materials, colors and styles.
The most striking is the cup:
It is about 10 feet tall. The sculptures stands out first because of its bright red color. But then one notices that the red looks like bloody viscera that repulses, as if Ruby has just binge-watched the TV show “True Blood”.
I had a similar dual reaction to another work, Big Yellow Mama:
At first, it looks like a large Alice in Wonderland type chair for children to play on, but then I realize it is more like an oversized electric chair.
The Hauser and Wirth show includes a ceramic “Basin” sculpture like the works of Sterling Ruby that are currently included in the Whitney Biennial.
I don’t know anything about Glenn Brown and wasn’t sure what to expect as I walked into the gallery where I have seen amazing museum quality shows of artists like Monet, Picasso, Frankenthaler and Rauschenberg. At first it didn’t look like something I would enjoy, but the more I looked, the more I found myself drawn into these colorful, yet grotesque paintings and scuptures.
A few examples:
The show is on view until June 21st.
Tom Duncan at the Andrew Edlin Gallery, 134 Tenth Avenue
Also on view until June 21st is the Tom Duncan show at the Andrew Edlin Gallery. The show features sculptural assemblages, both large and small, inspired by Duncan’s childhood memories. I liked many of these works, especially the small ones, most of which were sold.
No Problem: Cologne/New York 1984-1989 at David Zwirner Gallery
Another museum quality show is at the David Zwirner galleries on 19th and 20th streets. It features artists who showed in both New York and Cologne between 1984 and 1989 and includes works by Americans Barbara Kruger, Sherrie Levine, Jeff Koons, Richard Prince and Jenny Holzer, and German artists Albert Oelen, Gunther Forg and Walter Dahn. Many artists included in the show have been the subject of recent solo museum shows in New York, such as Cindy Sherman, Christopher Wool, George Condo, Martin Kippenberger, Rosemarie Trockel, and Mike Kelly. The show is on view until June 14, 2014.
I spent an afternoon wandering through Chelsea galleries. One of the stranger art exhibits I came across was in the David Zwirner Gallery space at 519 West 19th Street.
The artist, Oscar Murillo, who lives and works in London, has been called “a 21st century Basquiat”. Best known as a painter, Murillo has somehow installed a fully functional candy-making factory, workers and all, in the gallery space.
Murillo is originally from Colombia. His hometown is home to the factory of candy manufacturer, Colombina, and many people in the town, including Murillo’s parents, worked at the factory.
Now, when you open the doors to the gallery, you first see racks of candy packages.
The desk of the gallery workers has the usual literature on the exhibit and is also half covered in more packages of candy.
When you turn away from these candy wrappers, the first thing you see is a multi-screen video display,
A couple of the screens show a conveyor belt of chocolates.
The room opens up into a warehouse like space, in the middle of which sit containers of unwrapped candies and more wrapped candy
Along a side wall are Jeff Koons limited edition Dom Perignon boxes each with a drawing by Murillo inspired by a Jeff Koons balloon.
On another wall, there is an unexplained framed job application of Belisario Caicedo Florez, dated September 20, 1982.
But all the action is going on behind some shelving units full of boxes. Through the gaps, I see people in white uniforms and head coverings presumably at work making candy.
I am not allowed to go into the back factory area. Visitors are allowed in the factory in back between 1 pm and 3 pm when the workers are not making candy.
The gallery press release says: “by turning the gallery into a fully operational production site, [Murillo] opens up for consideration not merely . . . trade and globalization, but also . . . individual relationships and communities, roots and immigration.” Roberta Smith of the New York Times has a mixed review of the show. She says “there’s little that doesn’t feel obvious and generic in this laborious re-creation of life as art.” And while she finds the show overly “warm and fuzzy”, she says that the effort “deserves some credit for exposing, with unusual directness and resonance, the gaps created by race, class and nationality in an art gallery, one of the world’s more privileged spaces.”
For New York magazine art critic Jerry Saltz, the show just represents one big disappointment. He points out that 28-year old Murillo is already selling artworks for a few hundred thousand dollars each, yet most people haven’t heard of him and don’t even know what his art looks like. Saltz was hoping to see paintings. He’s “not a chocoholic” and he doesn’t even “really like marshmallows”.
Did I say that viewers are allowed to take as much candy as they want? The candies are chocolate covered marshmallows, the signature candies of Colombina, called Chocmelos. The candy wrapper says “Made in Colombia by Colombina”—but it also says “Produced as part of A Mercantile Novel, 2014 by Oscar Murillo at David Zwirner Gallery”.
It is not the first time that candies have been featured in an artwork. Cuban-born artist Felix Gonzalez-Torres is perhaps best known for his 1991 sculpture which consists of a pile of individually wrapped candies on the floor in a corner of a room. Viewers are invited to take a piece of candy—making the art work something which changes and eventually disappears. The piece was a representation of the artist’s partner who was dying from AIDS.
Brazilian artist Vik Muniz makes giant paintings from chocolate syrup or sugar and then photographs them, turning the works into something more permanent and a more manageable and saleable size.
In 1961, the artist Piero Manzoni packed his own excrement into cans, signed them and sold them as art. Supposedly, no one opened the cans to verify the contents. They wanted to ensure that they maintained their value as art objects. In 2014, however, I opened the Oscar Murillo candy wrapper, removed the candies and gobbled them down.