Sunday, April 25, 2010

Looking At Animals

Henry Horenstein - Giant Pacific Octopus
Giant Pacific Octopus specimen and Henry Horenstein's Giant Pacific Octopus portrait

Currently on display at The Academy of Natural Sciences is Looking At Animals, which pairs specimens from the museum’s collection with photography from Henry Horenstein’s extensive series of animal portraits. I was fascinated by the hybrid character of the exhibition, a mash-up of visual art and natural history. The gallery design itself hews closer to a fine art setting, in which the creatures in jars and behind glass become almost like interlopers. Well-travelled examples of Horenstein’s photographs have been selected and the print quality is strictly utilitarian. But the photos themselves are beautiful in their unconventional portrayals of the wildlife selected.

Henry Horenstein - Harbor Seal

Horenstein frames the animals with an aesthetic usually reserved for human portraiture, especially in his use of image cropping, allowing an individual personality to emerge, rather than simply displaying them as generic representatives of their species, as the taxidermied or preserved examples in a natural history museum are wont to do. The images should be equally intriguing to the sensibilities of both adults and children, each for different reasons: for the adults, it might be because of this identification of the animals possessing a temperament with humanlike qualities or it might be an appreciation of Horenstein’s photographic eye; for the children, it will likely be the newness of looking at an (often exotic) animal in an entirely novel way.

Henry Horenstein - Looking at Animals

There is something further at work in the hybridity of the exhibition. Children have an inherent attraction to natural history museums, whether it be for the dinosaurs, animals, plants, minerals, or any number of other items. However, while they may love to draw, paint, or create their own art, they may not yet have an inclination to appreciate the art of others, particularly in an institutionalized setting. With an exhibition such as this, a seamless integration of the two is forged, building a cognitive bridge toward personal valuation of the visual arts.

More examples from his body of work are here.

Henry Horenstein - Giant Pacific Octopus

Giant Pacific Octopus

Henry Horenstein - Elephant

Henry Horenstein - Bullnose Ray

Henry Horenstein - Brown Sea Nettles

Henry Horenstein - Longnose Skate

Henry Horenstein - Domestic Great Dane

Henry Horenstein - Sandhill Crane

Henry Horenstein - Komodo Dragon

Henry Horenstein - Giraffe

Giraffe Skeleton

Henry Horenstein - Looking at Animals

Henry Horenstein - Texas Map Turtle and Lookdown Fish

Henry Horenstein - Looking at Animals

Friday, April 23, 2010

Fundred Dollar Bill, Y'all

Wall of Fundreds

Sunday marked the opening of Mel Chin’s Uncommon Wealth by the People of Philadelphia at The Fabric Workshop and Museum. Confused by the overly earnest and clunky title? Allow me to explain… Much of Mel Chin’s work has a component of social activism. Uncommon Wealth is part of a much larger initiative, the Fundred Dollar Bill Project, itself a spin-off of the project Operation Paydirt. Motivated by unsafe levels of lead contamination in soil within the city of New Orleans (even pre-Hurricane Katrina), Chin wanted to find out what it would take to neutralize the threat. The estimated cost, $300,000,000, would not be raised; rather, it would be made, drawn by the hands of children, those at the greatest risk of health problems related to lead poisoning.

A Fundred Dollar Bill, a blanked-out template of a United States One Hundred Dollar Bill, can be drawn by anyone young or old. In cities across the nation, Fundreds are being drawn in classrooms as well as at museums and art centers. The bills are already in the process of being gathered by a custom armored car and pooled with all of the other Fundreds. The goal is to collect three million Fundreds—the equivalent of the cash needed to clean all dangerous soil in New Orleans—which will then be presented to Congress to prove the broad public support behind the issue and to leverage real federal funding for the project in an equal amount. It is a model that is applicable to other locations and very relevant to Philadelphia, a city with its own troubles of lead contaminated soil.

The New Temporary Contemporary at FWM houses a minting station where visitors can draw their Fundreds and then display them on the gallery walls. For the opening, artist Mel Chin was joined by Gary Steuer, Chief Cultural Officer for the City of Philadelphia, and Peter Palermo, Director of the City of Philadelphia Lead Poisoning Prevention Program, to open the gallery to the public. Do your share! Bring everyone you know to draw a Fundred Dollar Bill. Templates can also be printed from the Fundred website and sent in the mail. Think that art as a vehicle for social change is a self-mythologizing cliché? This is a real and true example of how altruistic it can be.

Bank Vault Door at 1222 Arch Street

Ribbon cutting at The New Temporary Contemporary

Mel Chin, Gary Steuer, Christina Roberts

Mel Chin, Gary Steuer, Christina Roberts, Peter Palermo
L to R: Mel Chin, Gary Steuer, Christina Roberts, young participant, and Peter Palermo

Mel Chin

Mel Chin with Armored Car driver

Fundreds in the Armored Car

Sous Terre Armored Car at The New Temporary Contemporary

Fundred Minting Station

Fundred Minting Station and wall of Fundreds

Fundred Minting Station

Wall of Fundreds

My Fundred (front)
My Fundred (front)

My Fundred (reverse)
My Fundred (back)

My Fundred on the wall

Chuck Norris Fundred
In Chuck Norris We Trust?

Thursday, April 15, 2010

Jeff Koons wants to mace you in the face

Jeff Koons advert for Kiehl's

Just kitty-corner off of Rittenhouse Square I was stopped dead in my tracks by this poster of Jeff Koons devilishly spraying some cosmetic açai concoction. He, along with three other celebrities, has designed “limited edition” packaging for toning mists by Kiehl’s. Question: is Koons some sort of Dorian Gray? His hairline might be a bit higher, but otherwise he still sports that cherub-fresh visage which hints at an underlying playful wickedness. Here, he comes off like a present day version of Shakespeare’s great trickster Puck, gallivanting through the forest on faun hooves and indiscriminately squirting a magical formula that will cause romantic havoc.

Jeff Koons advert for Kiehl's
Koons and his homeboy Pharrell shilling for Kiehl's

Wednesday, April 14, 2010

Dirty, Sexy Clay

Annabeth Rosen’s Contingency at Fleisher/Ollman Gallery is one of the many offerings that were coordinated for the NCECA conference. Her work blends ceramic with assemblage, lashing together towers out of individually fired parts. And, oh, those parts… a balance of penetrators and penetrables, they evoke genitalia (and guts) stacked into ebullient, yet controlled clusterfucks. Please trust me: I mean this in the kindest way possible. The repetition of specific forms, dismembered from a body, suggested spare parts sitting around to be interchanged, replacing those worn out with use.

I immediately thought back to my Classical education and the Ancient Greek sculptures of Artemis of Ephesus, bearing dozens of ovoid breasts.

Take for example the piece above: a chicken wire sack of breasts and vulvas, anyone?

Bulbous, red-tipped oblong forms sprouting upward? A penis plant? Am I totally missing the mark here? There is that venerable question of whether the sex is in the work, or whether it is in the mind of the viewer.

The inclusion of this work was a distracting peculiarity—its use of video very much at odds with the rest of the installation.

While I liked her sculptural work, I did find it monotonous, because I fixated so heavily on this element of sex, or at least of the physical human body. Thinking back on much of the clay that I have viewed within the past month, her work is unexceptional in this regard. Whereas many of the pieces I saw across several galleries were figuratively literal, and often dealt with gender identity rather than just sex, Rosen’s are more oblique in their depiction, though not sufficiently abstracted to prevent me from deeming this a sex organ farm.

Monday, April 5, 2010

Self-Perpetuated Media Ghettoization?

The rapid-fire succession of having SGC International and NCECA in Philadelphia got me thinking about how the art exhibited in the city of late has really played to these particular audiences. The thought process in trotting out the work of ceramic artists or print artists specifically when their professional associations have come to town feels like a knee-jerk reaction to me. It is a gambit that lures the out-of-town conference attendees to one’s gallery space, estimating that they only have limited time to spend and will probably want to see work by artists within the same discipline. But the question that I want to ask is such: does this trend perpetuate the ghettoization of an artistic medium?

In some way I would liken this behavior to the quibbles that are often raised with heritage history months, such as Black History Month or Women’s History Month. It is important to set aside time for the examination and celebration of individual achievements within all communities, especially minority groups whose narratives may have been chronically treated short-shrift. But confining them to such a brief and finite time span can send the message that for the one month, the subject at hand is all that matters, and after that month is over, it is no longer of consequence until next year rolls around, keeping it neatly in its own little isolating cubicle.

For ceramics, a medium whose practitioners have historically been hyper self-conscious of the perceived lack of respect from critics and other artists, as well as persistently vigilant about their struggle to be seen as deeper than just decorative, I find this conundrum especially relevant. The fact that dozens of galleries within Philadelphia concentrate on ceramic artists only when NCECA is present, I fear, sends the message that ceramic art only matters to ceramic artists. Moreover, I would ask, is it really true that artists of a certain medium are single-mindedly focused on viewing art of this selfsame kind when they visit somewhere new?

I do not have answers to these questions, but I would love to hear commentary from anyone with perspective on the matter.

Sunday, April 4, 2010

Ceramic Babylon

With the NCECA Conference in town, all of the galleries turned the spotlight to their ceramic superstars for First Friday (more about this phenomenon in my next post). I concentrated my expedition around Washington Square, Old City, and Northern Liberties/Fishtown. If asked whether any thematic thread permeated much of the work I saw, carnality comes first to mind.

Bridgette Mayer Gallery was host to Steve Tobin, whose work had a decidedly aquatic tinge. From his wall of Single Bang Pots, one could buy individual pieces. I liked the way all of the pots worked as a singular installation, but I was not sure about taking them out of this context. Some of the pots were gorgeous, resembling delicate sea urchin or murex shells, but others were particularly generic and weak as standalone pieces. In Tobin’s Exploded Earth Series, crater-like vessels held pools of vividly colored glass, akin to petite geyser basins.

Steve Tobin - Single Bang Pots

Steve Tobin - Single Bang Pots

Steve Tobin - Exploded Earth Series

Locks Gallery devoted their entire second floor gallery to Betty Woodman. I have to be honest—I feel a pinch of guilt in admitting this—her work looks and feels anachronistic, frozen in time as though it just touched down from 1980 or so. I am not a huge fan of P&D (Pattern and Decoration), mostly because I do not consider that the works have aged very well. It was a movement and an aesthetic that served its purpose in the history of 20th Century art, mostly as an exercise in validation for the decorative arts, but one that was more of a means than an end. We all know that in art, process is paramount, but the product should stand on its own merits too. Regardless of my opinion, Woodman is a hero of the medium, whose esteem and reputation are a settled matter, and I respect her achievements.

Betty Woodman installation view

Locks also presented some lovely Kathy Butterly and Jill Bonovitz vessels on the third floor.

Kathy Butterly piece at Locks Gallery

At 22 Gallery in Old City (is this a new space or a pop-up gallery?) there was a small mash-up of artwork in varied media by the Cohoquinoque Crew. I loved this gem by Jo Watko. It may be difficult to tell from the photo, but it is a lectern infested and ostensibly being torn to shreds by locusts.

Jo Watko - A Genuine Orator's Podium, 2010

Snyderman-Works Gallery was mobbed, and something of a misfire in its offerings. Visitors are first greeted by Alex Irvine’s Ugly Jugs (his title, not mine), an array of excessively vulgar attention-grabbers that have been installed in the storefront windows. My problem with these pieces is that they feel too much like movie props or waxwork busts.

Alex Irvine - Ugly Jugs

Snyderman-Works Gallery

I had no idea that CerealArt was shuttering its brick-and-mortar gallery to focus on its online sales.

Wexler Gallery held my favorite exhibition of the evening, Hermaphrodites: Living In Two Worlds curated by Leslie Ferrin. The works chosen are either literally or conceptually about hermaphroditism, which is to say, they may feature actual intersex protagonists, or they may be hybrids which play with notions of fine art versus decorative art, simultaneously embodying both. I guarantee that you will not be able to shake Tip Toland’s Tender Flood from your mind for its unsettling lifelike quality, as well as the diminutive erection he/she unabashedly sports; it struck me as perhaps an aging spin on the ancient Greek mythological figure Hermaphroditus (the antecedent of our modern terminology), whose youth and beauty have since fallen.

Tip Toland - Tender Flood, 2010

Chris Antemann - Wardrobe, 2009

Cynthia Consentino - Undivided, 2010

Kelly Garrett Rathbone - Crocuta Crocuta Marionetta, 2010

Dana Major Kanovitz - Infiltrator, 2009

Dirk Staschke - Premonition, 2008

At Projects Gallery the exhibition title To Die For should give some idea as to the curatorial vision. Do not miss the basement level gallery, which contains Todd Leech’s Drowning. The air is dank, most likely owing to the moisture involved in the work, which adds to the overall milieu of decay. IV drips flow into a tray placed on a hospital gurney, gradually eating away at the unfired clay figurines. I also enjoyed Kathy Ruttenberg’s Grounded, which gave me drowned-Ophelia vibes.

Todd Leech - Drowning

Kathy Ruttenberg - Grounded

David Furman - The Death of Dessert and the Birth of McDonald's

Richard Cleaver - Cult of the Tzar III

I ended my trek at Bambi Gallery, where Paul Swenbeck and Nick Lenker presented the collaborative effort Man, Myth and Magic. The two oil lamp sculptures are noteworthy highlights. When lit, the flickering flames bolster the dream state ethereality that the selection of works seems to probe.

Paul Swenbeck & Nick Lenker - Sacrifice

Paul Swenbeck & Nick Lenker - Lucifer

Paul Swenbeck & Nick Lenker - Familiars