In: American art
Located at PIER 90 on Manhattan’s Westside, the 10th anniversary of VOLTA NY, the signature solo-focus artist show of the Armory Arts Week, featured a plethora of beautiful and thought-provoking works by artists from 39 nations that collectors and art enthusiasts alike were able to enjoy. Yet, of the 96 Galleries and artist-run spaces presenting this year, perhaps the most poignant, politically-oriented works were found in the show’s thematic Curated Section.
The timeliness of the artworks presented was undeniable, with their subject matter feeling ripped from today’s newspaper headlines. Beginning with a video wall at the entrance of Volta, the Curated Section, titled Your Body Is a Battleground, was aptly found at the heart of the show. Its deviser, New York-based writer and independent curator Wendy Vogel, drew inspiration from Barbara Kruger’s photomontage Untitled (Your Body Is a Battleground), produced for the 1989 Women’s March on Washington. “After the enormous turnout for the recent international Women’s Marches, Kruger’s work reads as a vital precedent for art that protests the erosion of civil rights,” said Vogel. “Though these artists’ works are a generation removed from Kruger’s, they continue her legacy of examining media and representation.”
Taking an intersectional feminist approach, Vogel selected eight artists from across North America and the Caribbean whose works explore, through various corporal representations, the treatment and controversy around Queer Bodies, Black Bodies, Latinx Bodies, and Women’s Bodies. “I was thinking about all the types of bodies that are in danger under the current political circumstances that we are living through”, stated the curator.
This is unsurprising as Vogel conceived the show last November shortly after the U.S. Presidential election. However, in a refreshing twist, not a single image of President Trump was presented —an intentional choice—, because “all of this work has staying power, and it’s political without feeling so tied to one particular moment in time.”
With that said, much of the artwork showcased was created specifically for Volta. With most of her work out of the country, Melissa Vandenberg’s burn drawings, presented by Maus Contemporary | beta pictoris gallery, were made just eight weeks before the exhibition. Integrating text into the images created with matches, an outline of America with the phrase “Wish You Were Here” has an intentionally camp sensibility, while the use of matches add greater symbolic meaning, linking the work to Wiccan cleansing rituals and cremation. Vandenberg said:“A lot of the work has to do with mortality and loss, whether it is our innocence as a nation or personal, intimate loss.”
In contrast to these typographic images, Nona Faustine’s striking photography was perhaps the most literally corporeal of the Section. Presented by Baxter St Camera Club of New York, many of the photographs depicted the artist partially or fully nude at historical sites where slaves lived, died, or were buried. In the photograph “Lobbying the Gods for A Miracle,” part of a Triptych from 2016, she embodies an escaping slave from the Lefferts House. Smoking gun in hand, children’s shoes around her waist, she presses her back against a tree in the woods anticipating her captors. The woods where she hides are the same that Americans fought in during the Revolutionary War, reflecting the complex relationship of being black in America. “My work is autobiographical; it’s more about how I feel in relationship to the history as a native New Yorker and as an African American,” said Faustine.
With the Trans Rights Movement and the Dakota Access Pipeline in the background, Kent Monkman’s work takes on an additional level of intensity; Monkman is of Cree and Irish ancestry and identifies as both queer and two-spirit. His paintings, presented by Peters Projects, re-appropriate the narratives around indigenous people by utilizing the Western European tradition of historical paintings to poke subversive fun at romanticized depictions of Native Americans and colonialism. Miss Chief Eagle Testickle, Monkman’s drag alter ego, also made an appearance at Volta in the collage series “Fate is a Cruel Mistress” (2017), in which she transforms into Biblical temptresses. In the portrait Judith you see Miss Chief in a headdress looking out determinedly before she beheads an inebriated Holofernes, depicted as a white colonial man —a clear victory.
The idea of temptresses and fantasy women was also taken on by Joiri Minaya, presented by Casa Quien. Her work #dominicanwomengooglesearch (2016) features pixelated depictions of dismembered female limbs floating in space, a commentary on the exoticized representations of Dominican women. The piece alone is intriguing, but its message is strengthened by Siboney, a performance in two parts, displayed on the video wall. In her latter work, Minaya documents the painstaking process of copying a found tropical pattern into a mural (around a month of work). She then lies seductively before the floral wall and pours water over her form before rubbing herself against the mural, effacing and transforming the piece simultaneously. Intercut with words like “Islander,” the performance challenges the viewer’s vision of an idealized land and people.
Through thoughtful analysis and exploration of the human form, Your Body Is a Battleground offered an introduction into several hot-topic issues without sacrificing aesthetics or relying exclusively on shock value. Yet, even though subject matter varies, when combined the artworks revealed a unified front against oppressors.
Other artists included in Your Body Is a Battleground were Zachary Fabri (ROCKELMANN & in collaboration with Aljira, A Center for Contemporary Art), Deborah Roberts (Art Palace), Sable Elyse Smith (The Museum of Contemporary African Diaspora Arts), Carmen Winant (Fortnight Institute), Chelsea Knight and Autumn Knight.
Volta NY 2017 took place at Pier 90 (W 50th Street at Twelfth Avenue, Manhattan) from march 1st through March 5th, 2017.
August 16, 2016
“Danny Lyon: Message to the Future,” the photographer’s most comprehensive retrospective is currently on view at The Whitney Museum of American Art. The show boasts an impressive 175 photographs and films as well as rarely exhibited archives and personal documents. It is divided thematically exhibiting Lyon’s most well known bodies of work, and roughly chronologically traces the start of his career in 1962 all the way to Lyon’s work in the present day. The exhibition is divided into seven sections: Civil Rights, The Bikeriders, The Destruction of Lower Manhattan, Prisons, New Mexico and the West, Films and Montages, and Ongoing Activism. From the titles alone Lyon’s broad range of interest in social issues and concern for the marginalized and disenfranchised is made apparent. His work represents a nonconventional and intimate approach where Lyon immerses himself in his subject’s world, gaining an insider perspective that moves beyond mere observation and into a wholehearted and genuine interest.
“You put a camera in my hand, I want to get close to people. Not just physically close, emotionally close, all of it.” –Danny Lyon, The Whitney Museum of American Art
Lyon began his career in 1962 when he began working with the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) as their first official photographer, documenting the civil rights movement in the South. He captured sit-ins, demonstrations, marches, funerals, and the general turbulent and violent atmosphere of the period. His photographs were used in brochures, posters, and fundraising campaigns, many of which portrayed the brutal force of the police academy, questioning their position and responsibilities to civilians. One 1962 SNCC poster of a [white] officer, arms crossed, reads “Is He Protecting You?” It is highly unsettling to see just how many of these images seem so familiar and resonate in American culture today.
Turning the corner we are met with cool, hard faced bikers in leather jackets with matching “Chicago Outlaws” insignia. This selection is based off of Lyon’s time spent riding with the Chicago Outlaws Motorcycle Club in the late 1960s. Romanticized shots of the Outlaws on the road, such as Crossing the Ohio River, Louisville (1966) and Route 12, Wisconsin (1963) indulge us in the liberating freedom such groups enjoyed, while in several close up portraits we have a rarely seen, tamer version of the bikers—surrounded by their families, girlfriends, and wives. The rebellious nature of the bikers, matched with their unapologetic pursuit of freedom attracted the photographer to the group. After spending more time with them and gaining their confidence, Lyon began recording the group speaking candidly and conducted informal yet highly personal interviews. The photographic documentation and edited transcripts would become his famous book, “The Bikers,” published in 1967.
In his extensive body of work, Prisons, encompassing photographs, interviews, recordings, and film, Lyon chronicled life behind bars. With the help of Dr. George Beto, then director of prisons within the Texas Department of Corrections, Lyon gained access over a fourteen-month period to move freely inside prison complexes and to follow prisoners around on their daily activities. We see personal belongings like photographs and calendars, games of checkers, labor time on the fields, shakedowns, security pat-downs, and officers on guard. These images are as serious and somber as they are filled with humanity and understanding of these men and their situations. The resulting photographs, film footage, and other archival documents would become the book “Conversations with the Dead” published in 1971.
“[I wanted to] make a picture of imprisonment as distressing as I knew it to be in reality.” –Danny Lyon, The Whitney Museum of American Art
Documentation, and truthful documentation, is the end goal throughout Lyon’s photographic practice. His images are transparent, direct, and charged with meaning and message. Each one serves a to bring injustice to the surface with the hope to promote social change. With this approach he has challenged the conventional “sanitized” vision of American life as presented in media, offering up an alternative that portrays the various social histories of America.
From the 1970s and onward he shifted focus as a self-proclaimed “advocacy journalist.” His activist drive took him to various Latin American countries where he captured laborers and street children, undocumented workers crossing the US-Mexico border, and the violent revolution in Haiti. More recently, between 2005-09, he traveled to China to documented communities living in polluted regions.
Regardless of subject matter, geographic location, or time period, all of Lyon’s images are linked through a common spirit: the photographer’s compassionate character and relentless ambition to be a truth teller. The result is his inherent ability to humanize his subjects while returning the dignity and character that social prejudices and ignorance have stolen from them. These are human beings worthy of a second chance and worthy of a second glance.
A single look at these photographs and we are filled with more understanding and compassion than when we entered, a comprehension that seems as relevant today as it did decades ago. If that’s not the point of art, then I don’t know what is.
Danny Lyon: Message to the Future is on display June 17-September 25, 2016 at The Whitney Museum of American Art.
Usually exhibited in a corner, near a large painting by Francis Bacon, Andrew Wyeth’s My Young Friend (1970) is often overlooked by visitors at the Thyssen-Bornemisza Museum in Madrid. Looking a bit too sober among its neighbours, and being the only work by Wyeth in the collection, this austere portrait has always had a certain alien quality. This is perhaps due to the public’s lack of acquaintance with the work of the legendary American artist, a situation that the exhibition Wyeth: Andrew and Jamie in the Studio, organised by the Thyssen-Bornemisza in collaboration with the Denver Art Museum, seeks to end.
More than sixty works by Andrew Wyeth (1917-2009) and his son Jamie (1946), some never previously exhibited in public, shape this first retrospective of the Wyeths in Europe. It is, therefore, a unique opportunity to discover the multiple points of connection between the lives and work of two of the main representatives of twentieth-century American Realism.
The exhibition was conceived by curator Timothy J. Standring as an intimate artistic conversation around shared subjects and interests, such as friends, neighbours, animals, familiar settings in Pennsylvania and Maine, and the nude figure.
The strength of the display lies precisely in this decision of grouping the works thematically, juxtaposing both artists’ perspectives and thus allowing visitors to question the commonplace notion of Realism being an objective and detached image of reality. The continuous dialogue between father and son highlights not only their joint sensibilities, but also the originality of their individual visions. While Andrew’s images show his interest in everyday themes, Jamie’s gaze seeks the bizarre and the unexpected. They are both deeply engaged with their immediate surroundings, but retain their own personal points of view and approach the blank surface in radically different ways.
This becomes particularly evident when comparing Andrew’s solid, more naturalistic depictions of his neighbours-turned-models with Jamie’s expressive use of white to create his ghost-like portraits of celebrities such as Rudolf Nureyev and Andy Warhol. The latter is perhaps one of the most beautiful and poignant depictions of the late artist, a haunting image that stays with you long after you leave the museum.
This journey through the Wyeths’ lives, interests and places that inspired them is complemented by The Secret Sits (Wyeth Wonderland), a display of photographs by Joséphine Douet, who followed Andrew Wyeth’s steps in his native city of Chadds Ford (Pennsylvania, USA) and captured her own vision of the artist’s reality.
This comprehensive retrospective, which risks being overlooked like the portrait of Andrew Wyeth’s young friend, is not only a rare chance to see the works of these two artists in Europe, but also an unmissable event for those who regularly visit the Thyssen. By contextualising this delicate female portrait, the Spanish museum has successfully illuminated an obscure corner of its collection, enabling future visitors to evoke the whole universe that the Wyeths wanted to express through their art when they see the painting.
April 10, 2016
During my last year of university, my Contemporary Art professor completely changed my views on art history. On the first day of class, she asked us to think about the artists we had studied in depth during the previous three years. How many women could we remember? The answer was simple: not a single one. A few had been mentioned briefly, often as this or that artist’s wife. The next question seemed to follow naturally: Why have there been no great women artists? This was precisely the title of a 1971 ground-breaking essay by Linda Nochlin, then a Professor at Vassar College, where she questioned the whole intellectual structure upon which this inquiry is based.
Yoko Ono’s 1965 performance Cut Piece examined in a very simple way the role that the female body has played in art throughout the ages: that of a passive object. In art history, women appear mainly as models or muses. For centuries, the work of those few women that had access to artistic training has been considered to be inferior and secondary compared to that of their masters, fathers, brothers, husbands or lovers. Misleading categories such as “Genius” and “Great Artist”, reserved only for men, have been intrinsic to the discipline of art history for a long time and were not really challenged until the 1960s and 1970s by scholars like Nochlin, who stated that doing so “would reveal the entire romantic, elitist, individual-glorifying, and monograph-producing substructure upon which the profession of art history is based”.
The immediate effect of Nochlin’s essay was to increase the interest of scholars in recovering the work of those women that had been forgotten by history. This idea crystallised in the exhibition Women Artists: 1550-1950 organised by the Los Angeles County Museum of Art in 1976, which included works by more than thirty artists from different periods, such as Artemisia Gentileschi, Rosa Bonheur, Gwen John and Lee Krasner.
The flourishing of the feminist movement in the 1960s and 1970s prompted not only art theorists but also artists to re-discover lost role models for women and attack the male-centred version of history that had always passed as legitimate. Perhaps the most important work in this sense was Judy Chicago’s The Dinner Party (1979), an installation where the names of thirty-nine notable women from history (most of which still do not appear in any history textbook) were represented by embroidered textiles and porcelain plates, artistic expressions that have traditionally been considered “women’s work” and have therefore been excluded from the category of “high art”.
It is important to remember, however, that not all art produced by women is necessarily feminist or aimed against patriarchy. In opposition to the initiatives that simply sook to lessen the effects of discrimination, such as women-only exhibitions, important voices like that of feminist scholar Griselda Pollock urged for a more political model of feminist interventions. Rescuing the work of women who have been excluded from art history is not enough; in order to undermine patriarchal society, it is necessary to explore and deeply question the social structures that have led to this process of exclusion.
Many female artists have brought awareness to the oppression, marginalization and violence that women have suffered for centuries through their art, particularly after the 1960s. One of the most iconic pieces in this regard is Martha Rosler’s Semiotics of the Kitchen (1975), a video performance in which the artist not only criticised women’s roles within the home, but also the culture of frenetic consumption fostered by capitalism.
The female body, very often the artist’s own body, became a key tool for visually expressing a multiplicity of issues that directly affect the lives of women, such as menstruation, maternity, sexual violence, gender roles, and body image. For me, one of the most interesting examples of this is Frida Kahlo, who in the 1930s depicted her own birth in a way that finds no parallel in the history of art. This unusual image is still shocking today, as is any that deals frankly with female genitalia, often erased by male painters in their idealised depictions of the female body. In the 1970s, artists like Chicago, who insisted on the existence of a distinct “female sensibility”, scandalised audiences and generated controversy in feminist circles with their use of vaginal imagery.
Sexual violence against women was (and still is) a very prominent subject in feminist art. One of the projects that first prompted a social dialogue around this important issue was Suzanne Lacy’s Three Weeks in May (1977), a three-week performance that took place in a shopping centre and exposed the amount of rapes reported in Los Angeles during that period of time.
A few years before, Ana Mendieta had addressed sexual violence in a very powerful manner, presenting her own body as that of a rape victim in a performance that took place in the artist’s apartment.
Finally, I want to mention the work of Cindy Sherman. From the beginning of her career she has photographed herself in many different roles and scenarios, reminding the viewer about the important role of stereotypes in modern society. I find her striking images fascinating because they seem to highlight what Judith Butler has called the “performative” character of gender and the instability of identities.
Just as there is not just one way of being a woman, there is not only one feminist approach to art. The introduction of feminist perspectives in art history is important because it puts into question the discourse centred on the white, Western, heterosexual male gaze, opening up the discipline to criticism and new points of view.
The development of what has been termed the Feminist Art Movement is greatly indebted to the work of the aforementioned artists. Although most of my examples come from the United States, similar expressions simultaneously appeared in the rest of the world. Still, the question that the feminist collective Guerrilla Girls posed in the 1980s, Do Women Have to be Naked to Get Into the Met. Museum?, is, as their ongoing project shows, still relevant today.
I highly recommend reading Pollock’s recent article “The National Gallery is Erasing Women from the History of Art”. Sadly, in 2016 many museums and cultural institutions are still way behind art theory and practice when it comes to ending discrimination and promoting inclusiveness and diversity.