Wednesday, September 10, 2003

  "Beauty is just an accident. Beauty is just a happenstance. Beauty is the remainders of being a painter. The work become pretty because I wouldn't be able to look at a work about something as grotesque as what I'm thinking about and as grotesque as projecting one's ugly soul onto another's pretty body, and representing that in an ugly way. I have always been attracted to the lure. Work which draws a viewer in through a kind of seductive offering. Here's something to look at, stay a while."
-- Kara Walker

When the next installment of ART:21 - Art in the Twenty-First Century rolls onto air of your local PBS station, be sure to treat yourself to it. Thanks primarily to persistent reminders at Modern Art Notes, last night I tuned in to Parts 5 & 6 (Season 2) of the program. Few pursuits rival the time spent watching this series. It is absorbing, tingling, and simply smashing. Seek it out and see for yourself.

All seven episodes featured in yesterday's 2-hour program are vivid, memorable, superbly produced. Almost all of the artists articulate their visions, working methods, aspirations and insecurities with enviable skill and eloquence. I'm tempted to say that some speak, perhaps, too well, or of things not exactly channeled in the art they make. Still, the people and works highlighted by PBS are fascinating to watch and discover. The website for the series is also a mighty resource, full of interviews, clips, and links.

For her visual narratives that span multiple gallery walls, Kara Walker chisels large-scale, highly detailed and pronounced silhouettes out of black paper. The stilled theatricality of her puppet-like cutouts is dynamic and flamboyant. Walker revisits the antagonism that plagues the American South, using literary and oral mythology of slavery as her springboard. The physical expressiveness of her characters, the contextual grotesqueness and anguish have the power to entice and repel. Walker speaks of her art with great sophistication.

"Camptown Ladies", detail. Kara Walker, 1998.

Kiki Smith is terribly prolific; her output impossible to encompass. Transmogrifications of the body, the animal world, female icons and sorceresses figure prominently in her sculptures, prints, and installations. Looking a bit like Mother Earth, she seems very down-to-earth and candid.

"Untitled", 1992. Bronze with patina. Kiki Smith. "Wolf Girl", 1999. Etching. Kiki Smith.

Many of Do-Ho Suh's sculptures are tremendous, novel, and ethereal, regardless of their weight. He excels at conceptual art that is mesmerizing in its elegance and absolutely accessible -- a rare constellation. He is positively obsessed with the tension between the notion of multitude, crowds, masses and the idea of individuality. There's also an odd blending of the gentle and the stern in Suh's work. He transitions effortlessly from constructing a jade-colored canopy in size and likeness of a traditional Korean house to filling a room with a gigantic glistening armored suit, crafted from thousands of dog tags. Soft-spoken and pensive, he is clearly one of keenest contemporary artists.

"Some/One", 2001. Do-Ho Suh. "Public Figures", 2001. Do-Ho Suh.

I found the work and the conjured up world of Trenton Doyle Hancock to be probably the most esoteric and the least fetching of the artists featured. But it's likely that I have my own indifference to science fiction and comics to blame. I also was not impressed with the visual enactment of his technique, at least as it was depicted in the program. The method of foot-pounding slabs of multicolored fabric onto canvas didn't exactly appeal to me, and neither did the resultant collage, as far as I could judge from the televised glimpse of it. Though I must say that there's something almost endearing about this TorpedoBoy.

The second hour, Program 6 of ART:21, loosely titled "Loss and Desire", showed some evidence of deceleration but was still extremely interesting, albeit at times less awe-inspiring than most of Program 5.

The photographer Collier Schorr is exceptionally silver-tongued, laying out the framework of her motivations and endeavors lucidly. Her reasoning, sentiments, and the general discourse are very convincing, sensible, profound. Most of the photographs, I fear, reflect dismally little of her rhetoric. Many of them are ...nice, but mute on the topics with which Schorr says she imbues them. I don't feel that her photographs of high school wrestlers emanate teenage confusion with identity and masculinity. Neither do I sense that the photos of contemporary German boys who don Nazi uniforms and, occasionally, brooding expressions convey anxieties of yesteryear youths coerced into service in WWII. The baggage Schorr attempts to string onto the images and the characters is left unclaimed. The photos are good on their own, and some, like the two below, are extremely good.

"Herbert. Weekend Leave (A Conscript Rated T1)", 2001. Collier Schorr. "Helmet. Kindling and Deer Feed", 2000. Collier Schorr.

Gabriel Orozco's work strikes me as rather uneven, inconclusive, disparate. One pervading element is Orozco's fondness for unexpected juxtapositions that are peculiar enough but aren't truly bizarre or even mildly remarkable. There's an abortive quality to the collection of his works as a whole. The proposition and the prelude are almost always exciting but the execution is just short of lackluster, dissipating futilely, soon after an early climax. In my view, one example of Orozco's art presented on the PBS program stands out and sails above the rest. It is the 4-pole ping-pong table, where the net is eliminated and the center consists of a small pond filled with an aquatic plant. The succession of moves where the ball bounces from the server to the adjacent player, to the one next to him, to the fourth one, thereafter bobbing quietly into the pond is simply sublime. (Update: An exhibition of Gabriel Orozco's new work is scheduled to open in mid-October at NYC's Marian Goodman Gallery. Via MAN.)

A similarly majestic and pure moment exists in a work by Janine Antoni called "Touch". In this video piece, the artist walks on a tightrope hung above a strip of beach in front of her childhood home in the Bahamas. The shooting angle and the rope's height create an illusion of Antoni's feet tickling the horizon line with each step and each dip of the rope. Experience the thrill, minute and grand, yourself. Antoni willingly features her body in other works as well, by plunging herself into a tub of lard, drawing with her hair, submerging nude into a cow-feeding vessel. The latter is documented in a couple of photographs of startling and comforting beauty.

ART:21, the series, concludes with Programs 7 (Time) and 8 (Humor), scheduled to air around the country either tonight or at a later date. Catch them if you can.

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