Joan Mitchell Foundation 2007 MFA Grant Recipients
The CUE Art Foundation is pleased to once again host an exhilarating exhibition of the Joan Mitchell Foundation's MFA Grant Recipients. The partnership of these two foundations began as a simple offer from CUE to JMF to utilize our brand new quarters in Chelsea to showcase the underrecognized or deserving talents of their artist recipients.
In the spring of 2003 CUE's space was all dressed up with nowhere to go. Our own programming was not to begin in earnest until that September so it was altogether fitting that a sister foundation with an overlapping mission move in and render visible the support they had been giving for years to promising MFA graduates. Now with the installation of the sixth show in the series we cannot imagine June without the energy, the surprises and, most of all, the clear display of quality these exhibitions bring to both our space and to the larger art community. As I have written every single year in this catalog, artists and others who spend their time writing about art, thinking about art and administering art programs should stop every now and then to remember those artists, Joan Mitchell pre-eminent among them, who saw beyond their own career and life to create a legacy designed to support creative activity at all levels of an artist's career. Now it's time to take a good look at this group of artists who have had their professional lives jump-started quite directly by the vision of Joan Mitchell and her proactive Foundation.
Aggregate: ...the conjunction or collection of particulars into a whole mass or sum.
Certainly, all art objects are made of particulars and with any luck (or vision) those particulars come together to form the sense of "wholeness" we expect from art. However, some artists first highlight the discreet elements in their work before they posit the whole. In fact it is often left to the viewer to assemble that complete work from those composite parts. A number of the fifteen artists in this exhibition employ a modular form, a mark, a notational scribble and other diverse visual vocabularies in their studio practice. Each of these distinct elements when isolated is rather empty, but when seen in the aggregate, meaning erupts and connections are made.
Let's start with Lydia Jenkins Musco and her piece "Stack E." She writes, "I'm thinking about the forms inherent in the accumulation and passage of time...focusing on layers and the building up of a larger form...." Musco builds sculptures that both retain, and in fact depend on, the integrity of each concrete "plate" to define the form as it both gracefully and precariously grows to its aggregate height. The viewer is asked to slow down and notice each corner, each variation and each thickness and how those particulars contribute to the whole. Make no mistake, however, these works owe less to Carl Andre than they do to archeology and geology. Like the invisible layers of civilization beneath the city of Jerusalem, or the sediment of a riverbed or even the levels of psychological residue in a long running relationship, these sculptures speak to time passing and the incremental mutation of things over that passage. Yes, to be sure Musco's works are singular pieces of sculpture but the devil, strike that, the angel, is in the details.
Stephanie Beck also creates wholeness from bunches of small particulars---she has flattened the world into cartographic webs, patterns and diagrams. Cities are the inspiration in Beck's work and we can see in a piece like "Pattern of Place" a sort of Platonic ideal at play. Beck offers us an endless variation of geometric mutations that behave obediently in this laser-cut grid, suggesting a continuous sprawl across an undifferentiated and flat world. We are given urban temples of commerce, information and perhaps even learning as far as the eye can see but... nary a cow... that I can promise you. On the other hand Beck also has created "Dencity", an apt title for a piece which unlike its classical counterpart described above, is a mass of woven chaos pulsing with all the randomness of an actual city. Its (synonyms: collective, composite, amassed, conglomerate) form parallels its smallest component. Here borders are created, violated and re-defined. Somewhere, out there, beyond the limits of this wall piece is a meadow, but not for long, as the monstrous and voracious urban grid is soon to come.
Natasha Bowdoin builds her worlds out of cut paper. Filigree loops of color, pattern and words/letters wrap around and through each other. Gone are the modular or gridded elements of Musco and Beck and in their place are bits of ornamental and organic design. In "Hare," words and letters cover paper strips that loop around like an endless story spun out over many years until continuity is almost lost...story and storyteller become blurred, leaving the primary voice of the artist as the source of visual revelation. Bowdoin writes that physical boundaries are illusory as things remain in flux with their environment. Her (consider synonyms, see above, i.e. composite?) whole is not fixed after all but is permeable. The paper strips have their own logic, neither limited by their ability to form readable images nor prevented from doing so. To my eye her works function as prayers, chants, even mutterings moving in circular and rhythmic paths towards singularity but never quite achieving that state. Perhaps Bowdoin's work is to subvert that very expectation. Bravo!
Issues of reliability and legibility are at the core of Peter Gregorio's work. The world is first imaged as a recognizable one---buildings and other 3-D physical spaces are represented through photography. Gregorio then begins a chain of manipulations and re-representations of those recorded spaces finally giving us what remains, in full form, as large paintings. What are we left with? Those particulars recorded by the camera are gone. Only ghostly silhouettes remain and those are further compromised by the subjective meanderings of the hand on the painting. Some forms are drawn, some feel "filled in," while others seem collaged. The result of this process is an object that honors uncertainty and the fragmentary over reliability and legibility. As in Bowdoin's work, these pieces leave us with an unrequited desire to realize a primary state of wholeness, but as the rural Maine adage goes, "Sorry friend, you can't get there from here."
So what about our collective history? Are we able to construct a sense of wholeness from the thousands of particulars that make up what we call "history"? Stupid question! There was a time in which elements of our dominant culture naively agreed as to how we got where we are and why. And, if the last fifty years has taught us anything, it is that we only know, and are inclined to believe, the collective histories that we are comfortable with. Yet comfortable histories are never complex enough to engage the many less dominant histories that have been simultaneously lived.
Lauren Adams is more than aware of these conflicts and the impossibility of believing in the visions of utopia often passed off as history. Using the trappings of a bourgeois home replete with lamps, wainscoting and a display of "decorative" plates, Adams sets out to demolish our sense of knowingness by injecting those familiar images (and others) with humor, sexuality and politics. The plates memorialize the cold war dialectic of communism vs. capitalism. The slogans of the "workers" are painted lovingly on one set of plates and another set celebrates the mottos of western economics. The lampshades are stacked to form a parody of Brancusi's "Endless Column' while other elements of this installation use talk show host Rush Limbaugh's voice in mock conversation with phone sex workers. Adams knocks us wittily off balance, and while we are dizzy, reminds us that what we see tells us little and, perhaps, what we think tells us even less. We are caught trying to return order and sense to the world but it doesn't take too long to realize that we are trying to remember and support a past that wasn't there in the first place. We are, like the upside-down lampshade mash up of Brancusi, unable to right ourselves.
Now back to history--- those that define it and those that actually lived it. Vitus Shell engages posters, pamphlets, advertisements and newspapers, most of which deal with African-American subjects as the ground for his paintings. All the beauty and sadness of that past are embodied in these surfaces. Shell sets these images back even more deeply into history by yellowing their already aged surfaces. Then portraits of contemporary African-American figures are painted on these historicized surfaces. The figures in Shell's paintings look back at us with power, no small amount of irony and, most of all, self-awareness. While they are painted with attention to space, flesh and dimension, these figures are pinioned against a two-dimensional record of their ancestors---the world from which they spring metaphorically and in this case are literally emerging from. The ambivalence on their faces is palpable. These figures are framed in every sense of the word and seem to gain strength from that fact. They,after all, are clear about where they stand. Truth to power.
There is yet one more artist in this exhibition that I choose to discuss in terms of how differing forms of visual art approach the notion of "wholeness." On the face of it, Rosemary Taylor has little in common with the previous artists I have contained within this loose rubric, but I would argue that the diaristic and notational form she employs has much in common with the other approaches chronicled here. Taylor states, "I seek to create a multi-layered record of visual and physical space made up of text, color, texture and personal iconography." These are quite precise terms of particularity; it is clear from the work that Taylor has every intention to create a sense of unity splayed across the landscape of the canvas. But this is not the unity of Titian or even of Philip Guston. This is the unity that comes from working from the inside out. The picture makes itself as mark builds on mark and is in turn erased and re-established. A space is created which moves shakily towards an aggregate (consider synonym?) sum. A sum riddled with questions, uncertainty and a deliberate confusion...but a sum nonetheless. To refer to these richly felt paintings as "personal" is to miss the fact that these bits of paint, gesture and color are tactile as well as visual.The viewer is able to negotiate across this sea of painted incident and through the many large and small epiphanies to find themselves in the midst of a rich and satisfying painting. Taylor risks it all and gets a great deal back.
Now we come to another realm altogether. Artists who imagine the world in another way---not just like a dream (that comes later) but who actually work to alter the terms of life, and in these three instances, our lives as well. All are sculptors.
Asuka Goto by her own account is, simply put, short. Her stature has inspired an attempt to re-make the world in her own image. Most of us wish we could get the world to agree with us, have things go the way we want them to and generally to prevail. We live in a time when even physical attributes are easily altered through drugs or surgery. In "Tal's Dress," Goto has found a low-tech sculptural solution to her problem: not to bring her up to average height but rather to bring everyone else down to hers. Impossible? No, not really. Since all height is relative to a surface then why not alter the level of a surface? Platforms were made to create false floors to be worn hovering around ankles and knees. When worn, these "floors" act as a leveling agent, bringing everyone, relatively speaking, to Goto's height. This piece speaks with charm and wit to the human penchant for fairness and democracy. Mostly though, this is classic Dada, and somewhere in the graveyards of the Russian Dadaist poets and artists there is a rustle of leaves at the absurd and beautiful logic of this piece.
Mayumi Komuro displaces space in the more classically sculptural sense but there is nothing classical about her project called "Soft Spot." Komuro has fashioned cocoonlike pieces and put them in various homes and environments. The fiction surrounding this project is that they spontaneously appear here and there in private or isolated spaces where individuals who need them live. These objects are suspended in a state of limbo---caught in a permanent anticipatory moment. This fiction has an actual effect as Komuro reports that her pods "filled their (those targeted individuals) needs and that they felt strongly attached to it (them)." Is it the sense of possibility implicit in these sculptures that gives those in proximity hope? Is it the clarity of the form...the formal elegance and beauty of the light on the "threads" and the cocoon that gives satisfaction? Or is it plain and simple the sense of company these objects offer? I love the play between the imaginary occurrences of the cocoons with the actual effect they have in the real world. Maybe that is the model all art should follow in creating fictions that change the world.
Shay Church brings the natural world into the white box. But his work is no rehashing of the glut of artists exploring the fake/real, or what I would call "faux nature" art. This is an artist who is not affecting any art world moment at all. Instead, Church creates out of clay, the most primitive and primary of all art materials, the form, the mass, and, most of all, the gravitas of creatures we think we know but perhaps don't know at all. Church's work requires a full commitment to an idea but also to an astounding amount of physical effort. He wanders through the real landscape to find the material he can commit to. First there is the mining and transport of the clay---no small feat in itself---and then the on-site construction of the sculpture. Somewhere in that process lies the real content of the piece. Church metaphorically takes the primal ooze and reshapes, names and finally, in at least a small way, animates it. The whale is an animal that lives in geological time...elegant, and most of all mythic. The creative act here is almost a pagan prayer wherein the painstaking re-forming of this most grand of creatures is a way of honoring its very existence. Church reconnects us to a level of wonder we rarely acknowledge.
I was thinking of a series of dreams
Where nothing comes up to the top
Everything stays down where it's wounded
And comes to a permanent stop
Wasn't thinking of anything specific
Like in a dream, when someone wakes up and screams
Nothing too very scientific
just thinking of a series of dreams
Bob Dylan "Series of Dreams"
There are five artists remaining that still require our attention. They are to my mind all creating work in the space between dream and memory. Dylan, quoted above, gives us disjunction...things make a sort of sense but the truth is always in the gaps. Ryan Pierce is committed to those gaps. In the painting "Lake Dal" for example, the images and the color are super clear but the space collapses into a Katrina-like wake, a heap of angles and forms. Pierce has taken liberties with our sense of balance and general orientation. We fall into the painting (check out the Raft of the Medusa...same angle of entrance into the vessel) and move across and through the formal tangle to the shore. Whether Pierce went to this legendary lake in northern India is unclear but, what is clear, is his willingness to render it as a place of intense unreality cloaked in hallucinatory color and marvelous dreamlike organization.
So what about the private spaces and rooms we inhabit where reverie can flourish, blurring the space between our surroundings and ourselves? We have all experienced a Proustian state oft triggered by prosaic wallpaper or a piece of dowdy thrift store furniture. Those things can make us happy or be the source of painful claustrophobia. In "Cat Hoarder," Dara Engler adds one more ingredient to the mix of domestic claustrophobia---cats tumbling through space amid a riot of wallpaper, carpet and furniture patterns. The cats become animators of still more patterns and the figure in the room seems to look out with the suspicion that we, the viewers, know there is nothing that can be done to fix this crazy situation. The secret is out and the figure is clearly not operating on the same terms we are. Like the two women in the Maysels' masterwork, "Grey Gardens," the woman caught in this fantastic painting has no idea of the weirdness of her own world. To us Engler's scene is at best a dream and at worst a nightmare. It's Vuillard gone batty.
Andrew Patterson-Tutschka is a talented representational painter. Through direct and emphatic brushwork things are clearly rendered and the sense of place is captured, but Patterson-Tutschka is after something else. As he puts it, he wants the place to "look back." Not exactly dreamlike, nor caught in memory, these paintings behave like an image frozen in a mirror---a mirror that reflects our own desire and fascination. These are paintings of motorcycles after all---objects of speed, defiance, anarchy, beauty and sex. Both the bikes and the paintings have shiny poly-chromed surfaces that allure and seduce us. But to no avail, for Patterson-Tutschka bars us from entry by flattening the space---leaving us on the outside---with our noses up against the painterly surfaces hoping for a way through the proverbial looking glass.
John McAllister is concerned with destruction but not necessarily a cathartic dramatic destructive moment but rather one that occurs over time. In "Burned Forest," the fire is over and these saplings are nothing but vertical embers slowly melting back to the earth. Their potential to grow to maturity and grandeur is lost, and perhaps worse, there is no hint of the renewal to come. The last throes of life are dragged through endless rows of red/orange light and ashen trees. The late evening light could, in someone else's hand, be a sign of sublimity, yet in McAllister's it is perhaps a sign of the impossibility of such northern European and American notions.
This painting and others in McAllister's oeuvre are the opposite of Casper Friedrich's allegorical paintings of the "natural church." That church is now an impossibility as hope aligned with the monumental flickers a slow goodbye.
We end this adventure with the work of Sara Pedigo. Her delicate but insistent drawings fade away even as we look at them. There is a perfect alignment of the delivery of the material---smudged charcoal on paper--- and the content...a memory recorded in the back of the brain, indelible, but also fleeting. When I look at photos of lost family members I find myself believing, if only for a few seconds, that I can slip into that glossy world and things will be whole again. Of course, the folly of that feeling slaps me harshly and I return to what satisfaction can be gleaned from the memory itself. Such is the feeling I get from "Mom on Waters Edge." The "mom" stands awkwardly on the shore, almost beckoning but never really committing to anything beyond holding a spot, a presence. As we gaze we realize we cannot bridge the expanse of water or the expanse of time. She stands forever in a world of memory and yet she still telegraphs a certain truth---the veracity of a moment and a life once lived.
Perhaps that is what artists strive for, the creation of a fictional world more compelling than the one we call "real." Art objects are edited and condensed versions of experience. They intentionally leave out the background noise, the millions of distractions and the unnecessary details that clutter our ability to understand who and where we are. To achieve mental and, dare I say, spiritual clarity some of us meditate, some walk in the woods and others look at or create art. I am in the latter camp and, judging from the quality and commitment present in the work in this exhibition, I suspect these fifteen artists are too. Congratulations to all!
Eve and Herman Gelman Professor of Visual Art, Columbia University
Curator Governor, CUE Art Foundation