Whitney Biennial

Last week, along with other alumni of my graduate school, I got to visit the Whitney Biennial and hear from three of the artists.  This survey of American art takes place every two years (there’s a 3 year gap since the last one due to the Whitney’s move).  This year’s show featured the work of  63 artists and collectives, covering a wide variety of media from painting to video.  Many of the works reflected on current issues – the environment, migration, economics, race, gender – often with a political tone. Like all shows of this nature, it was uneven – some very good works, some good works, and some others.  Here are my highlights.

Untitled photos, Dorian Ulises Lopez Macias, and Cairn, Beatriz Cortez

On the first floor, off to the right you’ll find Rafa Esparza’s round room, an adobe structure fashioned of approximately 3,100 bricks he made in Los Angeles (he learned brick laying from his father).  Called Figure Ground: Beyond the White Field it is meant to upend the white square gallery space that art is often forced to inhabit.  Esparza then invited other artists to show their work in his space.  Along one part of the wall were 5 large color photographic portraits of young men by Dorian Ulises Lopez Macias, from his  series, Mexicano.   In the center of the the room was Beatriz Cortez’ Cairn, made form igneous volcanic rock.

Infinite Regress XX, Eamon Ore-Giron, vinyl paint on adobe

Opposite was Eamon Ore-Giron’s Infinite Regress XX, vinyl paint on adobe.

Exodus, John Kessler, multi-media, figurines, wood, steamer trunk, i-phone, monitor, motor

On the 5th floor, John Kessler had two pieces, which both addressed climate change.  Exodus specifically looks at the issue of refugees who will be forced to leave their homelands because of rising seas levels (already happening in Bangladesh and parts of Asia-Pacific).  A white steamer trunk serves as a pedestal for  a rotating platform populated by figurines of (weary) travelers the artist sourced on E-bay.  A live i-phone camera facing a monitor, causes a video feedback, creating the impression of a Sisyphean parade of refugees. 

La Talaverita, Sunday Morning NY Times, Aliza Nisenbaum, oil on linen

Brooklyn-based artist Aliza Nisenbaum is the daughter of Russian refugees who settled in Mexico.  She started the paintings that were in the Biennial five years ago while working at Tania B’s  space in Corona, Queens (artist helping immigrants without papers), where she taught English through Art History. Over time Nisenbaum got to know her students and their families, many of whom are undocumented, and began painting them.  For Nisenbaum, this is an embodiment of the philosophy of Emmanuel Levinas, who said that ethics comes from face-to-face encounters; for Nisenbaum, sitting with someone is a mutual witnessing.  In her portraits she inserts an image (tiles, the Virgin Mary) from the sitter’s home country. 

Noah Fischer is part of the collective Occupy Museums, which grew out of a manifesto he wrote at the beginning of  Occupy Wall Street, connecting Wall Street and art.  He saw the same problems in both worlds, especially that of conflicts of interest in the boards of directors, and the issue of debt. Fisher pointed out that art school is now very expensive ($60K/yr at Columbia) meaning that fewer and fewer people can afford to take classes, and many have a hard time paying off their debt.   For Occupy Museum‘s installation Debtfair, artists were invited  to participate, but only if they agreed to talk about their relationship to debt – certainly not something comfortable for most people – nonetheless, about 500 artists answered the call to talk about their financial situation (which is not always dire).  The total amount of debt in the Debtfair is $55,552,069.84.

detail from DebtFair, Occupy Museums

One part of Debtfair  is inside a wall, where the works of 30 artists are embedded in a graph organized into 3 specific conditions:  artists connected to Puerto Rico and hence to Puerto Rico’s debt, which is related to colonialism; artists who owe $75K or more to Navient (Sallie Mae’s successor); and artists in default on their Chase credit cards (often because they have to pay for the installation of their own gallery shows). 

The graph is a vivid illustration of the link between artists’ debts, and the profits they generate for many members of museum boards:  one line shows the growth of the increasing trade in debts, and the other plots the growth of the ultra luxury asset market for contemporary art …..

This was a group show, with most of the works either projected against one wall or being shown on a computer.  It’s a very impressive work, and raises some important questions.

Handler, John Riepenhoff with Untitled, Michelle Grabner, papier-mache, fiberglass, wood, wire, fabric and shoes

John Riepenhoff is an artist and gallerist in Milwaukee, whose series Handler is an homage to many of the unseen workers who make the art world possible.  Each work is mounted on a papier-mâché sculpture of a pair of legs, modeled on his own, supporting the work of another artist.

Ivan F. Svenonius’ “Censorship Now” (spread 2 of 8) for the Whitney Biennial, Frances Stark, oil, gold leaf, ink and gesso on canvas

Frances Stark has hand-painted pages from the title essay by punk musician, cult figure, and author Ian F. Svenonius’ 2015 book Censorship Now!! While the text is strident, by recreating it on such a large scale (2 pages on a canvas about 6ft X 9ft) and underscoring certain portions of it, Stark highlights the relevant questions: when everything is art, what is art? can it have power? is it now irrelevant?  Give it a read.

Abandoned Painting E, John Divola, inkjet print

John Divola’s series Abandoned Paintings was inspired by the artist’s discovery of discarded student paintings in a dumpster near the University of California, Riverside, where he teaches. Divola hung these paintings, often unfinished, on the walls of abandoned buildings, which he then photographed to create ambivalent settings, some of which are very haunting.

Glimmer Glass, Carrie Moyer, acrylic with glitter on canvas

Carrie Moyer’s large scale paintings of poured acrylic and collage, glitter and flat paint, and the resulting bold, layered, colorful shapes often have an architectural feel, but are nonetheless joyous.  Her use of “pedestrian” and “feminine” materials are a great push-back against the masculine history of abstract painting.

Rug (gato chico), Ulrike Muller, wool

Tucked away in a corridor you’ll find this tapestry by Ulrike Müller, one of the rare pieces of fiber art in this show.

detail from stained glass windows, Raul de Nieves, paper, wood, glue, tape, beads, and acetate sheets

Raúl de Nieves had one of the largest installations, a site-specific “stained glass” floor to ceiling window of 18 panels made of paper, wood, glue, tape, beads, and acetate sheets.  You’ll notice that many of the windows have a fly, which for the artist symbolizes death and waste.  However, for de Nieves, death is metaphor for the possibility of spectacular transformation and rebirth.  I liked his use of color, and his play on ancient iconic images.

The longer I slip into a crack the shorter my nose becomes, Raul De Nieves, Yarn, dress, glue, beads, cardboard, found apple, taxidermic bird and mannequin.

In front of this “window” you’ll find several beaded sculptures, as well as elaborately crafted costumes which the artist has worn in his performances.

This is a very small selection of the works on view, and I encourage you to get to the Whitney to see the Biennial before it closes on June 11th.

1:54 – Bringing the Power of Contemporary African Art to New York

I immensely enjoyed the first two editions of 1:54 Contemporary African Art Fair , and this third one was also a delight.  Held once again at Pioneer Works in Red Hook, Brooklyn, it featured the work of about 70 African artists, represented by 19 galleries from Africa, Europe and the US.  The fair continues to be a testament to the variety of subject matter, techniques and media found on the African continent.  (The name, 1:54 means 1continent, 54 countries).  Here are some of my highlights.

detail from work by Zak Ové, plywood frame with sacking crochet doilies

Being an embroiderer, I headed straight to Vigo Gallery (UK) that showcased Zak Ové’s (UK) fantastic large scale (∼6ft x 4ft) collages created from crocheted doilies adorned with various embellishments.   You can see the influence of the Trinidadian Carnival (he divides his time between London and Trinidad) in his use of color and the musical rhythms of his compositions.  I’d find something new and delightful in his multi-layered works each time I looked. I love seeing traditional crafts being used in new ways.  Not your grandma’s doilies!

Kiosque Baye Fall, Cheikh Ndiaye, oil on canvas

 

Tapissier, CICAP, Cheikh Ndiaye, oil on canvas

Cheikh Ndiaye’s  (Dakar & NYC) cityscapes are master studies in composition and color – and restraint.  There’s nothing excessive about his use of color, and there are no extraneous elements in his paintings, in which he captures the everyday life of Senegal, yet takes it out of the ordinary.  Galerie Cécile Fakhoury’s (Abidjan)  booth included these two works above.

Untitled (diptych), Armand Boua, acrylic and collage on canvas

 

[title unknown], Armand Boua, acrylic and collage on canvas

Jack Bell Gallery  (London) had two very large canvases by Armand Boua (Ivory Coast) who applies tar and acrylic paint onto cardboard boxes and then strips them back to create his compelling and layered portraits of street children in his hometown, Abidjan. 

[title unknown], by Serge Attukwei Clottey, plastic, wires and paint

The Keepers, Serge Attukwei Clottey, bronze

Serge Attukwei Clottey (Ghanna)  uses material from everyday objects, especially the yellow gallon containers, which he cuts, drills, and reforms into kente cloth like tapestries, or melts and recasts as bronze  sculptures. These works are a powerful commentary on trade and consumption in modern Africa.   Gallery 1957 (Ghanna) displayed the above works by this multi-talented artist.

Dream in Tatters, Benon Lutaaya, paper collage on canvas

Room  Gallery (Johannesburg) featured the work of four emerging artists, including Benon Lutaaya (Uganda/South Africa) , who uses waste paper material to create abstract canvases that touch on personal space, identity and yearning.

Desunited States of Africa, Nú Barreto, acrylic on canvas, amulets, other objects

(S)itor/Sitor Senghor gallery (Paris) featured the work of several artists, including that of     Nu Barreto (Guinea Bissau/France) whose mixed media work, Desunited States of Africa took up most of the back wall.  I liked how, through it’s simplicity and directness, this work makes you reflect on symbols and patriotism.

Mbeka 2, Maurice Mbikayi

Officine dell’immagine (Milan) featured the work of Maurice Mbikayi (Kinshasa & Cape Town).  The artist collects discarded computer parts, reworking and combining them with other materials into mixed media collages and sculptures, as well as photographs, creating a commentary on electronic waste and its implications for Africa.  Sadly, I don’t think he’s going to run out of materials to use anytime soon.

“Potus” from the “Of Saints and Vagabonds” series by Marcia Kure, collage

The gallery also showed work by Marcia Kure (Nigeria)  who imagines alternative worlds, with stylized, striking, hybrid images that, like fairy tales and myths, are reflections of fears and destabilization – albeit in post colonial societies – as well as hope. 

[title unknown], Ndidi Emefiele, mixed media on canvas

Rosenfeld Porcini’s (UK) booth featured only the work of Ndidi Emefiele (Nigeria and UK), whose mixed media tableaus with their distinctive style of oversized head (often wearing glasses fashioned from unusual materials) on relatively small bodies, upend traditional oil paintings in their exploration of issues of gender identity and social norms. 

Congratulations to 1:54 on another outstanding show – can’t wait to have you back next year!

If you’ll be traveling this fall/winter, 1:54  will be in London on October 5th – 7th, and they will be hosting their first show in Marrakech on February 24th-25, 2018.

Spring Break in Brooklyn

The Spring Break Art Fair broke with convention:  it was held in Brooklyn, and it was free!  It also was a move away from the Fair’s normal curator-driven shows, as this one focused on artists and site-specific immersive art.

The cavernous space at CityPoint, a new commercial/residential development in Downtown Brooklyn was the perfect site for the show, which consisted of a dozen large-scale works that you could walk around or through. Many had a political and/or ecological theme. Here are some of my favorites:

Sky Diamond, Jason Peters, fluorescent lights and water

Sky Diamond reflected in its pool

Jason Peter’s geometrical light sculpture, Sky Diamond, graced the entrance.  Composed of 23 prisms stacked on one of their ends, the diamond is reflected in a black diamond shaped pool in which it sits – slightly off kilter – so that, depending on where you stand, the reflection in the pool expands or contracts. 

Social Dress New Orleans, Takashi Horisaki, latex and paint

Social Dress New Orleans, Takashi Horisaki, latex and paint

With Social Dress New Orleans, Takashi Horisaki  http://takashihorisaki.com/ created a full-scale latex replica of a New Orleans shot-gun style house that was demolished in Hurricane Katrina in 2005.  For three months, the artist worked with local volunteers, applying multiple layers of latex and paint to the house’s exterior, which was then left to dry until the summer of 2007, when they were peeled off to create a 3-D print of the structure.  This work makes the aftermath of Katrina very tangible.

Lux Aeterna, Adela Andea, neon and other light sources, plastic

detail, Lux Aeterna, Adela Andea, neon and other light sources, plastic

Adela Andea’s  Lux Aeterna was a wonderful kaleidoscope of light – whether as gently curving flex neon sketches, or floating objects of other materials that are illuminated.  The title refers to areas at the polar ends of the moon which are always in sunlight. 

Entre Nosotros (Between Us), Lionel Cruet, sand, boat, video, lights

Lionel Cruet  created an audio-visual installation Entre Nosotros (Between Us). With it’s rowboat resting on a sand “beach,” and video projections of a sun that repeatedly rises and changes color, and waves that continuously roll towards the shore, he’s created a scene that makes you think about the interactions between the sun, the sea, the shore, and us.

I’m looking forward to next year’s Immersive – where ever it may be!

Conception Arts Show in Soho

Making its NYC Frieze Week debut, Conception Arts hosted a pop-up show in Soho.  The fair, owned and produced exclusively by women – Art Director, Rachel Wilkins, and co-owner and producer, Jennifer M. Blum, Esq. – was created to focus on art by women and minority artists that promotes social and political change.  The show featured about 15 artists.  Works by three artists stood out for me:

The Sense of Place, Khaled Alkhani, acrylic on canvas

Z Gallery Arts  from Vancouver, Canada, featured the work of Syrian Artist Khaled Alkhani, who currently lives in Paris.  His work reflects the turmoil and disfiguration of his native country, which he fled in 2011.

#6 – A Kind of Masking Series, Kwesi Abbensetts, digital pigment print

Kwesi Abbensetts  is a Brooklyn-based photographer also known as Spaceship GeorgeThere were several works from his imaginative series A Kind of Masking, in which he uses dots of various sizes, colors and transparencies to either envelop the sitter’s face in a bubble of light or completely obscure the sitter’s face; alternatively he uses the dots as either a background or a framing device, which serves to highlight the sitter’s features.

portrait by Emma Worth

Liverpool-based artist Emma Worth  had this excellent portrait.

Conception Arts hosts events in NYC and other cities – you can find more on their website.  

Art and E-Waste

Liz Daly at the Gowanus e-waste center

I’m afraid my life isn’t all about  art openings and concerts and theatre…   I recently spent some time at the Gowanus e-waste center, disassembling hard drives and phones to get ready for the EXPO Gowanus, a carnival focused on art, science, and toxic waste!

You can visit their e-waste craft session booth and make mobiles, wind chimes, and other crafts out of disassembled phones, hard drives and other e-waste. No registration required!

EXPO Gowanus will take place on Saturday May 20th, 11AM – 5PM at Thomas Greene Park, 3rd Ave & Douglas Street Brooklyn, NY 11217.

You can bring your digital trash to the Gowanus e-waste center in Brooklyn, where they will re-cycle or up-cycle it, or resell it – they have a retail outlet and the staff is very helpful.  The e-waste center is part of the Lower East Side Ecology Center, which runs a number of recycling and environmental education programs.  For more information, visit their website. 

Constructions of Cultural Identity at the Bronx Museum

Love Thy Neighbor, the last of the 3-part installation The Neighbors is on view at the Bronx Museum.  The exhibit, curated by Sofia Hernández Chong Cuy, explores “the stranger” versus “the neighbor”; by reinserting them into contexts that are familiar but unknown, the artists explore the roles that  “the other” plays in a community.  The three featured artists have created new works for the exhibition.

Image from Antisocial, 2017 by Ignacio González-Lang

Ignacio González-Lang has been working on his series Antisocial for 10 years.  He creates collages using police sketches of either missing persons or people who have committed crimes, then overlays them on photos of people who match those images, which he’s found on Instagram at #NYC.  With his I-phone he photographs these combined images and laser prints them on ceramics. 

Image from Antisocial, 2017 by Ignacio González-Lang

Mr. González-Lang told me that by recontextualizing these images, he’s asking, “How do you know who you’re looking for?” His project calls the notion of identity into question in a very powerful way. You may notice that the 135 photos are displayed at a lower height than normal; this was done so they can be accessible to the school children who take classes in this gallery.

From the series Requiem for a border crossing of my undocumented father, 2016, Irvin Morazan

Irvin Morazan’s work revolves around movement and agency, evoking his own immigration as a child, alone, to the U.S. from El Salvador.  Many of his works reproduce maps from the Historia Toteca Chichimeca (a 16th century manuscript diagramming Spain’s territories in what is now northern Mexico), on which he then superimposes imaginary immigration routes as well as sketches made by undocumented immigrants.  In several of these drawings you’ll find characters from the cartoon series “The Flintstones,”  which his father drew as a young man.

Border Crossing Headdress, Irvin Morazan

A recurrent theme is that of El Coyote, the agents who help people cross the border.  When I attended the Museum’s Open House, Mr. Morazan performed “Volver, Volver”  (Return, Return) employing this Border Crossing Headdress, which is also in the exhibition.

Firelei Báez has two pieces in completely different styles, but that both investigate identity, especially Caribbean identity.

Untitled, Firelei Báez, acrylic on paper

Her large scale acrylic on paper started with two figures that are in  a struggle or an embrace; once she decided on the shape, then she chose the colors.  For the artist, the  struggle or embrace is beyond those two individuals – it involves society as a whole.  Ms. Báez told me that the idea for this piece  came from a wilding video on the Internet, in which girls are being encouraged to fight by  a parental figure (who, according to usual societal strictures should be discouraging them).  She then took apart the idea of having those two girls in the midst of an embrace/struggle, to see what comes out of it.  The wall label also notes that in her new paintings, Ms. Báez reinterprets the old fable of pollination between a wasp and an orchid, on which French philosophers Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari based their theories of identity.

Untitled (Daccessioned Book Pages), Firelei Báez, acrylic, ink and chine collé on found paper

This piece was created on a page from a deaccessioned book.  The woman wears a headdress that Ms. Báez based on masks of the Dogon people of Mali, with their intricate patterning and complex cosmology creating  a way of seeing yourself as being beyond your physical self. 

When Ms. Báez was a student at Cooper Union she learned that libraries all over the country deaccession books.  She sees this as not just a physical but also a conceptual clean up – observing that the figures she gathers on the Internet would have been excluded from the histories embodied by the books.  Ms. Báez also learned medieval bookbinding at the Center for Book Arts.  She noted how in miniature Persian books, the artists could put what they wanted to in the margins,  but not in the central figures because of history and cultural restrictions.  She observed that “Bringing the marginalia of current society to the forefront is reforming how we think of ourselves and what we consider proper.   What’s going on now could be a sensory overload or it could be a treasure trove”.

You’ll want to see Love Thy Neighbor before it closes on June 11th.  The Bronx Museum is at 1040 Grand Concourse (165th Street) in the Bronx.

Judith Leiber – Master of Craft, Glamour – and Grit

Judith Leiber at the Museum of Arts & Design, April 5, 2017

When you hear the name Judith Leiber, you immediately think of glamour, of red carpets, of those fantastic sparkling little handbags…  But you don’t necessarily think about her life before she became renowned for her minaudières – and what a life it was, as revealed in the new exhibit at the Museum of Arts & Design, Judith Leiber: Crafting a New York Story.

Born in 1921 into a wealthy family in Budapest, Judith Peto was sent at age 17 to England for her college studies, since Jews were not allowed to study in Hungarian universities.  But when WWII broke out, she returned to Hungary and went to work in a handbag manufacturer. Her father was sent to a labor camp;  some months later Judith was able to get a  Swiss pass that secured his release, and allowed Judith, her sister and her parents move into a Swiss controlled apartment – with over 20 other people. They were later forced to move to a Jewish ghetto, and then to the basement of their original apartment building, where they lived with 60 other people.   Judith began making handbags, and selling them to Americans. 

In 1945 Judith met Gerson “Gus” Leiber, an American GI; they married in 1946 and came to New York City.  Judith had a succession of jobs at different handbag companies, but they had an assembly-line approach to manufacturing, whereas Judith had learned to create a bag from start to finish – as if it were fine jewelry. 

Judith’s craftsmanship and creativity set her apart. Her first brush with fame came in 1953, when First Lady Mamie Eisenhower carried a handbag that Leiber had made (for the Nettie Rosenstein label) to the Presidential inauguration.  It wasn’t until 1966, however, that Judith Leiber opened her eponymous firm, with Gus.  And the rest, as they say, is history.

Against one wall is a timeline of seminal events, both in the designer’s life and in the world, providing a context for a career that pushed against some outstanding odds:  not only the war, but also the difficulty for immigrants and women to be taken seriously, whether as designers or businesswomen.  Judith Leiber’s story is exceptionally relevant for our times.  You’ll find cases along the walls with photos and documents from her years in Hungary.

Lyubov Sergeyevna Popova-inspired rhinestone-encrusted minaudière, Judith Leiber, 1990

Judith Leiber drew inspiration from myriad sources:  Japanese woodblock prints, Chinese iconography, the work of geometric abstractionists including Sonia Delaunay and Piet Mondrian… and her husband Gus’ paintings.  Even fruits and vegetables were transformed into rhinestone marvels in her hands. As you go through the exhibit, you also realize what a pioneer Leiber was in her use of materials, working not only with leather but also exotic skins, seashells, Japanese obis and fabrics from Iran and Africa.  While her bags are highly decorated, there is no excess in her designs, rather they are an incredible balance of form and color.  Below are some of her creations on display (it was really, really hard to narrow down the selection):

Sonia Delaunay-inspired multi-skin envelope, Judith Leiber, 2000

Leiber’s love of art has found its way into many of her designs, such as this multi-skin envelope inspired by the work of Sonia Delaunay.

Embroidered camel karung envelope, Judith Leiber, 1980

In addition to using leather, Leiber also employed exotic skins such as python, alligator, karung, ostrich and even mink!

Original chatelaine bag with crystal rhinestones, Judith Leiber, 1967

Lieber’s fame grew with the creation of the minaudière – a small, crystal-decorated bag, usually carried in the hand – that became a staple of red-carpet events.  Above is the first minaudière that she created, and it is a testament to her resourcefulness; the factory had shipped damaged gold-plated brass frames, and rather than discard them, she covered the discolored areas with crystal rhinestones.

Fish minaudière with rhinestones, Judith Leiber, 1978

Leiber also drew inspiration from nature:  the show contains wonderful examples of the bags she fashioned in the shapes of birds, flowers, fruits and vegetables.  This fish is one of my favorites (but there are so many!!)  All of the bags rest on mirrored surfaces, which allows you to see their undersides, too.

Rhinestone-encrusted minaudière after Faith Ringgold’s “Street Story Quilt,” Judith Leiber, 1987

Leiber collaborated with Faith Ringgold to create a collection of bags inspired by the artist’s quilts – the one above was inspired by Ringgold’s Street Story Quilt  (the exhibition contains Ringgold’s The Purple Quilt and a bag it inspired).

Wax model for lion minaudière by Lawrence Kallenberg 1974

Manufacturing minaudières is a complex process, involving several people.  For many years the New York based artist Lawrence Kallenberg created the wax models that were used to make the molds and then the cast-metal shells for Leiber’s sparkling clutches.

Peacock minaudière with rhinestones, Judith Leiber, 2004

In 2004, having designed 3,500 bags over 65 years, Judith Leiber retired – the peacock bag above is the last one she created.  Not only has she left a legacy of unparalleled artistry, beauty and craftsmanship, but at age 96, she can look back on a life that is testament to grit, resourcefulness in the pursuit of passion.  (The picture at the top was taken at the opening of the exhibit earlier this month).

You can find more of Judith Leiber’s handbags, as well as her husband Gus’ paintings in their museum in the Hamptons.

The Museum of Arts and Design (MAD) is running panel discussions and workshops around this exhibit.

Be sure to get to MAD before the show closes on August 6th – you’ll want to go back more than once!

Zinelli and Gabritschevsky: War, Science and Personal Narrative in Art

detail, Untitled, Carlo Zinelli, July 30, 1965, gouache on paper

I’ve always liked the American Folk Art Museum, as I’m constantly discovering new things when I go there, and their exhibits often make me look at art in a different way, or get me to look again at art that is not always easy to grasp.  They’ve just installed a new exhibit focusing on two self-taught artists who are not that well-known here: Carlo Zinelli and Eugen Garbritschevsky.  While both these artists, who are of similar generations, produced the vast majority of their works while living in psychiatric facilities, and were promoted by Jean Dubuffet, there’s not much else that binds them in either their biographies or their work.  Nonetheless, it’s interesting to see them together.  We’re also lucky to have their paintings – In general hospitals did not keep their patients’ work (especially that done by women).

Carlo Zinelli’s (1916-1974) story is one of loss.  Born in San Giovanni Lupatto, Italy, he was the youngest of 7 children.  His mother died when he was two; at the age of 9, he was sent to live on a farm.  There he not only learned to care for the animals, but also to dance and sing with his fellow workers.  This love of rhythm, repetition and movement stayed with him, and permeates his art, as do images of dogs, birds, goats, cows and other farm animals.  At 18, Zinelli was drafted into the military, serving as a member of the Alpini.  He later was a stretcher-bearer in the Spanish Civil War; after two months, he returned to Italy, shell-shocked.  At the age of 31, he was committed to the San Giacomo psychiatric hospital in Verona, where he participated in an art workshop funded by Scottish sculptor Michael Noble.  It’s clear that Zinelli’s life influenced his work, and you’ll find yourself reflecting on his biography as you go through the show.

The exhibit is divided into four parts, which roughly correspond to the changes in Zinelli’s style. He used the materials the hospital supplied, which is why he worked almost exclusively in gouache on paper, and his works are all of “standard” paper sizes.   In all of his phases, Zinelli used strong colors, block figures, animals, and sweeping sense of movement underlies it all.   His pictures are untitled.  Many of them are double sided, and are hung from the ceiling so that you can see both sides!

Untitled, Carlo Zinelli, 1957 gouache on cardboard

Phase 1 (1957-60) for me has a very naif feeling, with its use of bright reds, pinks, yellow and greens, and the way the people, dogs, trees and buildings are all jumbled together.  Here we get a glimpse of motifs that recur throughout Zinelli’s oeuvre:  lots of animals – especially birds and dogs – as well as people – all facing the same way. Sometimes a hand or a bird will dominate the center of the painting.   

Untitled, Carlo Zinelli, no date, gouache on paper

There’s also a strong rhythmic movement, not surprising given that he liked to dance. The “little priest” figures are also introduced, and they will become increasingly prominent in his work.

Untitled, Carlo Zinelli, 1963, gouache on paper

In Phase Two (1960-65) Zinelli starts to paint his backgrounds.  The images get bigger and thicker, and while some of the colors are a bit murkier, the reds become really bright.  This is also the phase where he places people, animals and objects in group of 4 (his “quaternity.”)    You’ll also notice that many of the people, animals and objects now have perforations in their bodies.  However, you can see the background of the painting through these holes.  The imagery is often evocative of war:  boats, wheeled transportation and planes start to appear, as do people with crosses.  Birds also feature prominently in this phase (the above picture made me think of Alfred Hitchcock’s classic film, The Birds)

Untitled, Carlo Zinelli, 1962 collage, gouache on paper

You’ll also find this example of the collage work Zinelli did briefly around 1962 (a heavy smoker, those are the bottoms of cigarette packages he’s attached to the painting), that still has the groupings of 4, the wheeled transport, and everyone facing left (although I’m not sure about that smudgy figure in the lower left). 

Untitled, Carlo Zinelli, 7/9/68, gouache on paper, (Side 1 of 2)

The work in Phase 3 (1965-67) is primarily black and white, with occasional flashes of color, especially red.   During this period Zinelli incorporates words, letters and numbers into his work, more as graphic elements, since they seemingly have no meaning or coherence, and they make you wonder what he was trying to communicate.

Untitled, Carlo Zinelli, September 13, 1968, gouache on paper

The figures are larger, often a man wearing an Alpini helmet (self portrait?) or a man with wings, their bodies often perforated with holes, crosses and now four-pointed stars.  

In this part of the exhibit you can listen to a recording made by Zinelli while reading the English translation on a video monitor, which gives you a fuller feeling for his inability to process language using standard grammar and vocabulary.

Untitled, Carlo Zinelli, 9/28/1972, gouache and colored pencil on paper (side 1 of 2)

Phase 4 (1968-1974) begins the year the hospital moved from Verona, which had a marked effect on Zinelli’s style.  In many ways his output is now very close to his early work, in that there are smaller images with repeated elements, all on the paper in a chaotic fashion.  Some of the images of men and women are combined into one being, and sometimes the people and animals will have other beings inside them.  In this phase Zinelli does more sketching with colored pencils.

Untitled, Carlo Zinelli, December 16, 1972, ink and gouache on paper

He still uses writing as a graphic element, but now it is reduced to almost dots. 

In addition to Zinelli’s art, you’ll also find photos taken by the photojournalist John Philips (Life magazine) in 1959 at the hospital in Verona where Zinelli was confined.  Phillips was given free rein, and shot the patients as they went about their everyday lives.  There are also a number of photographs he took of the patients who participated in the art studio. Philips respected the dignity of his subjects; far from being voyeuristic, his photos rather give us a deeper understanding of the environment in which Zinelli produced his art.

Eugen Gabritschevsky’s life took a different trajectory. Hailing from a very wealthy family in Moscow, as a child he exhibited a precocious interest in insects and mutations, as well as a love of drawing. After his studies at the University of Moscow, in 1925 Gabritschevsky continued his research at Columbia University, focusing on color changes and the transformation of forms in insects. He then moved to Paris, where his career flourished.  However, he had a mental breakdown in 1931 and was admitted to Eglfing-Haar Psychiatric facility in Germany, where he remained for five decades, during which he created over 3,000 gouaches, drawings and watercolors on paper, x-rays, administrative papers – anything he could find.  In addition to painting with brushes, he also employed sponges, as well as scratching and rubbing techniques, and worked with folded paper.

Untitled (Annotation on back: Columbia University Laboratory, N. Y./Dr. T. H. Morgan & D. C. Bridges, December 4, 1926, N. Y. C.) New York City 1927 Charcoal on paper 16 9/16 x 23 3/4″ Private collection, New York Photo by Adam Reich © American Folk Art Museum © Estate of Eugen Gabritschevsky EG_3_NYF

Gabritschevky’s early work is easy to appreciate, and the show has some fine examples of charcoals he created in the late 1920’s, like the one above.  The pictures from that era have a strong architectural component, which carries on through much of his later work.

Untitled, Eugen Gabritschevsky, ca 1938-39, pencil and watercolor on paper

Even though his interest was primarily directed to insects, it’s clear from this piece that Gabritschevsky had keen observational powers when it came to other species, capturing their personalities.

Untitled, Eugen Grabitschevsky, 1936, gouache and pencil on paper

There’s also a certain whimsy in his work, and the feeling that he’s letting you in on a secret.

Gabritschevsky’s art goes in many directions – he was always experimenting, so it’s hard to pin him down stylistically. 

Untitled, Eugen Gabritschevsky, no date, gouache on tracing paper

Against one wall is a lovely series of birds which he created using gouache on tracing paper.

Untitled, Eugen Gabritschevsky, 1957, gouache and watercolor on paper

The scientific and fantastic often combine, as in this evolution of microorganisms depicted like men.

Untitled, Eugen Gabritschevsky, ca 1947-48, gouache on paper

I confess I struggled with Gabritschevsky’s later work, especially paintings with spectral figures who seemed to resemble some cellular disorder.  But he often takes pains to stage them, sometimes in dreamlike opera settings, like the one above. 

Untitled (Dream NII-Glass Floor), November 1945, Gouache on paper

I like his use of color, and his sense of composition. You often have the feeling that you’re looking at organisms as they swirl under a microscope or in a petri dish, in their own private  carnival.  Sometimes you have the sensation of chaos trying to cohere into some kind of order…

detail, Untitled (The Last Judgement #84), Eugen Gabritschevsky, no date, gouache on paper, mounted on cardboard

It seems as if Gabritschevsky’s scientific training influenced everything he did – the above painting seems to be looking at the judgement day on a cellular level…

I found that I needed to spend a fair amount of time with both these artists, as it wasn’t immediately clear to me what they’re trying to say.  So I took a tour with Valery Rousseau, the show’s curator, which I found very helpful in understanding the work of these two artists.  I can also recommend taking a  free drop-in tours led by museum guides, which are held on Thursdays, from 1:00 to 2:00.  There’s  also one on Saturday, April 29th

On April 25th, the Museum will be hosting Dialogue + Studio: Science Illustration, a workshop led by professional illustrator Patricia Wynne, in which participants will learn the fundamentals of science illustration and how to draw from bones.

The American Folk Art Museum is located at 66th Street and Columbus Avenue.  I recommend you see the show before it closes on August 20th.  In addition to great exhibits, the Museum is free!

Austrian Cultural Forum Celebrates 15 Years in NYC!

Austrian Cultural Forum on 52nd Street. Photo by David Plakke davidplakke.com. Courtesy of Austrian Cultural Forum New York

Talk about time flying!  I used to work at 52nd Street and Madison Avenue in the late 90’s, and I remember when the site of the Austrian Cultural Forum was an empty lot.  The building (only 25 feet wide) is a testament to the ingenuity of Austrian architect Raimund Abraham, as well as to the creativity of the staff who program its space.  The ACF is celebrating its15th Anniversary with a special sound exhibit Homages, featuring 15 newly composed or arranged recorded pieces by contemporary Austrian musicians, each paying tribute to one particular pivotal artist whose work was influenced by New York. The 15 commissions (each 3 to 5 minutes) are spread throughout the public spaces of the building, embedded in LED light boxes.  You’re given headphones and an audio device – as you get near each light box, the music begins. Many pieces are experimental and almost all have some electronic music component. I especially liked the homages to Charlie Mingus (Peter Herbert),  Philip Glass (Patrick Pulsinger) and John Zorn (Max Nagl).  On opening night, there was also a fabulous performance by the Talea Ensemble of works by Steve Reich, John Zorn and Olga Neuwirth.   Homages is running only through Monday, April 24th.

The Austrian Cultural Forum has a robust program of performances, exhibitions and lectures throughout the year.  Take a look at their calendar – they host over 100 free events a year.  The ACF also has a library of more than 11,000 volumes of contemporary Austrian literary, artistic, historical, and political works.

Congratulations to Christine Moser and her staff for a great celebration!  And to everyone who made these 15 years happen!