Review /

Kelley Walker Contemporary Art Museum St. Louis

The outrage felt by St. Louis’s black community over white artist Kelley Walker’s use of images of African American bodies in “Direct Drive,” the artist’s first monographic survey, comes as no surprise to those of us who have witnessed the efforts of the Black Lives Matter movement to increase awareness of police violence against black people, following the fatal shooting of Mike Brown in St. Louis’s North County just two years ago. Curator Jeffrey Uslip should have expected the reaction generated by the show.

The largest gallery in the exhibition is devoted exclusively to work from two previously criticized series: Black Star Press (2007) and Schema (2006). These consist of large prints of digitally scanned, chocolate- and toothpaste-smeared photographs depicting, respectively, civil-rights protesters being brutalized by the police and KING magazine covers featuring hyper-sexualized black female celebrities.

Uslip trains his focus on Walker’s appropriative techniques and digitization, on his layering of different reproductive processes to critique a postmodern audience. By this highly formal logic, Walker empties his chosen subjects of meaning in order to distance the viewer, not as a means of emphasizing the remoteness of the images from their original context, but to call attention to the disembodying potential of digital imagery and its will to cultural commodification.

Yet the disembodiment in “Direct Drive” is self-evidently political and not simply formal or digital, and it exposes the privileged disengagement of a moneyed art world that has long failed to adequately censure Walker’s consistent appropriation of images from black history and culture. Apologies from the artist, the curator and the museum do not suffice to redress the problem exposed here, which goes beyond a purely aesthetic dispute. It embodies the continuation of the historic, white, institutional subjugation of African Americans.

by Jessica Baran

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Faux Oedipus Complex / Omer Fast

The only thing in life that one can be certain of is death — or at least that’s the current status of the human life cycle. Omer Fast’s immersive seven-film installation, part of a retrospective organized by the Berliner Festspiele and Martin-Gropius-Bau in Berlin, however, asks us how certain can we really be of authentic life and death.

Tripping through 231 minutes of film imagery in various locations, several of them physically restaged in the museum or on screen, the viewer moves through airport departure lounges; hot, acrid war zones in Afghanistan; family-run funeral parlors; and the unglamorous, stiffly staged Los Angeles porn industry. Fast takes us on a journey that transcends our own narratives on and off camera as we dissect the terrain of his multidimensional screened works.

The artist’s direction is reminiscent of both a LARP (live-action role play) and a glitch in the system — think of David Cronenberg’s cult gaming platform as depicted in the sci-fi film Existenz (1999). Within his immersive viewing spaces, Fast uses replay and reenactment as tools to flood the viewer with familiarity. Looking Pretty for God (After G. W.) (2008) is set in a replica waiting room in the museum, and his companion films Spring (2016) and Continuity (2012) deal with replay through plot devices. In the latter, a desperate couple pays a young boy and then several men to impersonate their deceased or imaginary son. But they have to hire new surrogates as the years go by; there are inconsistences in the men, passionate moments of tenderness, confusion and painful needs. This spews over into sexual proclivities of failure and discomfort resulting in an unsettling faux Oedipus complex.

Most of Fast’s works delve into the psychology of contemporary trauma, often relying on the blurring of memory and the re-telling of actual events via moving image. His work renders the formalities of the cinematic genre at once useless to the audience. Playing with absurd, looped plots and surreal contexts, he pushing us into a space where we must confront our most erratic phobias and values — including incest, homophobia and the fear of death or loneliness. He is a modern-day Georges Bataille, relentless in trawling through our waking lives, uprooting the unthinkable and leaving us stranded in our own minds.

by Penny Rafferty

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Review /

Anna Maria Maiolino Hauser & Wirth / Zurich

The history of culture runs through the work of Anna Maria Maiolino; her marks are an exploration of the basis of being human. In her first exhibition in Switzerland, the rooms are filled with drawings, sculptures and videos, and yet lightness is the feeling that dominates.

Maiolino is an artist who basks in neutral colors, at times seeming to hide behind their associations with Conceptual art and Minimalism to gain meaning. In two series of works on paper, the sparse use of deep color is remarkable. In the “Aguadas” (Watery, 2016) and “Filogenéticos” (Phylogenetics, 2015–16) series, the acrylics and inks float with their loose handling, appearing to hover between paper and glass. A harsh cadmium is perhaps the most striking I’ve ever seen. Like freshly spilled blood, it gives life force and vitality to an entire room. Its memory lingers throughout the exhibition.

The four drawings from “In-Moto II” (In Motion II, 2014) are rigid compositions formed from hard lines in permanent marker. They look stitched together rather than drawn, and recall aggressive barbed wire or passive embroidery depending on the distance from which they are viewed. This ability to shift one’s way of seeing her work is constant. The series of “Hilomorfos” (Hylomorphs, 2016) are gourd-like bronze masses attached to poles connecting to circular bases. They visually relate to classical busts, and their human height allows their floating visages to be confrontational. Named after the Greek philosophical idea that matter and form create the physical, they appear in the process of becoming.

Seven videos play in the final room, a forty-year survey of Maiolino’s time-based work. The most recent entry, Sotto Voce (2016), is a key to the exhibition. Here white text against a black background scrolls like screen credits, slowly charting a first-person narrative that mixes the universal with the personal and fantastic. With a slow voice-over translation from Portuguese, the sound becomes one inside your head. Here the artist considers her place as a goddess, a woman and an artist. As an explorer of identity in physical and conceptual terms, Maiolino reveals an ability to abstract culture and image toward the prehistoric. It feels very relevant.

by Mitchell Anderson

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LA Talks /

Shearing away the Railings / Erika Vogt

In his memoir Close to the Knives, David Wojnarowicz recalls the despair and bliss of his dying — his thick, material immersion in the shimmering of the world. To call it beautiful would be belittling.

Under the ticking of the disease, his imminent departure had the effect of transforming a previously violent world into an Other World in which whatever had been imposed on the self — processes of subjectification, rigid modes of perception, social conventions, historical violence — dissolved as he stepped through an open door beyond which there were no railings. Time was compressed, he said, and so he urged: “Cut straight to the heart of the senses and map it out as clearly as tools and growth allow.”

For our own compressed present, Erika Vogt provides tools — an array of knives and shields — for the fostering of desire on what she calls “Eros Island.” Eros, because what we need now is drive and power, and Eros provides the inkling of the unknown that drives our hunger for knowledge. Island, because we are on Turtle Island, and any utopian dream must consider how we are tied both to history and to all of our relations, be they things, people, animals.

As we are living in the tragedy of democracy, amid the violent resurgence of racism, sexism and xenophobia, as a massive influx of refugees from Syria clamber for shelter (on Lesbos, among other places) and Hollywood spectacle is overwhelmed by global warming’s four-year-long thirst, Vogt’s tools offer to sheer our senses from their subjection to the dead present, the dead past, and the future that looms ahead — equally dead if we maintain our entrenched habits. She shows us that we need to keep the knives close. One way is to blow them up in size, make them palpable, visible, arresting. If our bodies are knives, our senses knives, they can cut to the shimmering reality of the changing world.

Vogt has been refining her cast of actants for a number of years, articulating new plastic and collective forms for subjectivity in objects, installations, videos and artist’s theater productions. She considers the latter a work of community building, the layering of a variety of media together and the composing of different artists’ works and bodies. Her trajectory began with experimental film, but she came to refuse what she felt was the single-mindedness of filmmaking, the specificity of the meanings that were attributed to images. If images and things can be treated as humans, we can do away with the rigidity of attributions and definitions, and this goes for ideas of identity. Perhaps this is simply a metaphor, but it might be a metaphor for good politics.

For her recent exhibition “Eros Island: Knives Please Rise” at Overduin & Co, Vogt compiled a book of research, an artist’s book, which was laid out on a table in the gallery. It provided a history and context for the objects displayed. Perhaps compiled via random searches on the Internet, by the stuff accumulated from life, the book presented an iconography of the knives and a timeline extending forward or backward from prehistory to today. There were knives used in sacrifices from the Peruvian Moche culture, ceremonial knives from Egypt’s Middle Kingdom, and from Late Minoan Crete. Some had been knife-shaped money in the Han Dynasty. There were butcher’s knives ; from the early twentieth century and contemporary surgical knives from the West. There were also objects called knives that were perhaps armor, dresses, pleat forms, and even an image of a woman dancing holding a knife. Not attempting historical comprehensiveness, the examples spoke to the effects of globalization, the confusion of expanded possibilities for knowledge, the production of subjectivity, and the threat of homogenization, exploitation and disaster. But also transcendence and sharpened resistance. The book reproduced a series of newspapers from 2013–16, highlighting the farce of the US election, the war in Syria, the so-called war against terror, the refugee crisis, domestic social unrest, pollution in China; there was also a series of images of stabbings, historical paintings, photographs and screenshots. Clearly, the production of culture is not a sphere apart.

The book opened with a play, Eros Island. Its four scenes comprise: (one) a distribution of knives to the audience; (two) what is called a “cascade” or live layering of players holding knives, who then enact (three); a litany of deaths, some repeated, some known, some willed: “Now is dead. The free market is dead. God is dead. The union is dead. Bill Gates is dead. Privacy is dead. Sex is dead. Now is dead.” In the final scene, the island players are on a couch, listing the day’s events, as well as past and future events. They better not be dead; otherwise, all we’ll see are the railings.

by Noura Wedell

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Review /

Arthur Jafa Gavin Brown’s enterprise / New York

There is no such thing as a silent majority. The expression became a popular euphemism for Middle America when Richard Nixon used it to justify the US’s continued military action in Vietnam. Since then, the silent majority has served a heinous political realism—power, as such—but, in the nineteenth century, it conjured an afterlife among the dead.

Against the false universalism of the former, Arthur Jafa’s video Love Is the Message, the Message Is Death (2016) emerges from the latter definition, though it offers a more ecstatic, vital and apocalyptic vision, that of the children of men.

The brief work condenses an incantatory pastiche of black culture in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries. And Kanye West’s gospel-like “Ultralight Beam” scores the video, though Jafa affectingly edited the appropriated footage slightly off-tempo from the song. A football player outruns his opponents and James Brown catches his breath; a young woman smiles to the camera and Malcolm X raises his hand. The video collects gestures, intense for their vulnerability. In one segment, a woman staggers in front of an audience, only to play it off as heart-melting poise and swagger. Jafa suspends resolution, developing a cinematic grammar of black identity honed to the bittersweet.

A fine line separates visibility and exposure, and the range of footage heightens the tension between black bodies and our cultural gaze. The video is also a spiritual, and Jafa reinforces a desire for deliverance through kids. Startlingly, a young boy slaps his mother in the face, yelling, “Mommy wake up!” His voice, like his innocence, buckles under his furious entreaty. Throughout the video, Jafa concentrates on the moment of impact, which is profoundly chilling in scenes of police violence. There is no time to prepare for a cop’s running tackle of a woman, and no time to reflect after. The quick editing renders the collision’s brutality visceral.

For Jafa, the task of visibility involves making black identity felt — a theme shared by “Ultralight Beam,” which refers to a divine and redemptive light and, seemingly, ultraviolet light, an invisible frequency that nonetheless penetrates the skin. A blazing sun punctuates the video, at times possessing a placid splendor, at others bursting forth. The video’s abrupt ending is deliberately disenchanting. Suddenly woken from a dream, the threat of the forthcoming administration is utterly pressing, though the black community has already been more intensely burning.

by Sam Korman

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Against Mediocrity / Donald Judd Writings

Donald Judd engaged a lifelong struggle against mediocrity and its hazards. “Mediocrity is lazy thinking,” the artist’s son and Judd Foundation co-president Flavin Judd told Flash Art. “Don was very curious, and this innocent idea — that you can’t know enough, that you have to dig deeper and look wider — is what he thought everybody should do.”

A new book of Judd’s essays, published this fall by the Foundation with David Zwirner Books, expounds on this notion. Its modest orange, cloth-laminated cover and minimalist typeface, reading simply Donald Judd Writings, belies its weighty contents: one-thousand-or-so pages worth of the late Judd’s musings on his vast body of interests, written between 1958 and 1993. Many of his essays, both the well-known and the previously unpublished, with some of the later hailing from his college days, are pedantic, incisively critical evaluations of the art world. Topics include the virtues of Lee Bontecou’s reliefs (“primitive, oppressive, and unmitigated individuality”); the decline of new art over the fifteen years leading up to 1983; navigating New York, the “world’s leading art center”; and why a young Yayoi Kusama should receive a US visa. Other essays, alongside scattered notes — wry one-off epiphanies that the Foundation has painstakingly deciphered and organized — explore other topics: architecture, design, politics, consumerism. “Some TV sets are not so bad,” he wrote in 1982, “and some are awful, like Zenith and Johnson and Burgee.”

“Just as the language cannot have the physical, visceral effect of the art, the art cannot tell you where it came from and why it matters,” writes Flavin Judd in the book’s foreword. The artist’s writings give a deeper context to his artwork by constructing a portrait of his understanding of the world, his curiosity and his piercing wit. But the foreword ends in disclaimer: “It would be a mistake to think that after reading nearly nine hundred pages of Don’s writings you will know him, but that shouldn’t be the goal. The goal should be to find something within the writings that is useful, something that can be a tool for future use… Ideas are tools and this is a toolbox.”

by Janelle Zara

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