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.