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2.14.22 — Engineering Photography

When a photographer is the son of a stonecutter and the uncle of a carver, expect a belief in industry and in craft. Richard Benson might hardly distinguish one from another, and it makes for a challenging view of photography and modern America. Last time I caught up with Jasper Johns in retrospective. Let me tell you about something else I saw that day in Philadelphia as well.

A visitor to Benson’s retrospective could easily pick out two distinct bodies of work and wonder at the contradictions between them, but just how different are they? As the Philadelphia Museum of Art has it, through January 23, “2010 Diamondbacks vs Reds Ticket: Paul Janish Kelly Johnson HR,” and no doubt so is he. He could outsmart even himself. And I work this together with a recent report on another side of modern photography’s elegance, Foto-Cine Clube Bandeirante in Brazil, as a longer review and my latest upload.

Start here, though, with Benson’s changing subjects. They took him everywhere—from the Brooklyn Bridge in hazy sunlight to the underside of a bridge in Memphis, from row houses to the riches of Rome, and from apples laid out across a trellis to a Scottish engine that might have been long since left to its own devices. Who is to say which is more beautiful or a greater feat of engineering? But then Benson sees a Ferris wheel in New Jersey as engineering, too. He also prefers the long span of a bridge to a close-up that might bring it closer to FCCB in Brazil and abstraction.

He approached photography with a sense of beauty and the mind of an engineer as well. You may identify the medium with the camera’s lens and the perfect eye, and self-portraits in a recent show of women in photography at the Met featured both. Benson looked instead to the darkroom for all that it could yield. In an interview, he called himself the finest printer alive, at once boasting and accepting his limits. Born in 1943, he took up platinum prints for its subtlety and crispness. What else could give such weight to an engine and preserve its hard edges while bathing them in sunlight? When he took up color, he found the same contrasting perfections in a small boat in Newfoundland, its interior a bright green, and the light off distant clouds, rocks, and sea.

There, too, he leaves open whether his subject is commerce or pleasure, and again they are inseparable from his own industry and craft. William Eggleston or Stephen Shore might have let that green overpower the picture. He would rather put it in its place while etching it in memory. He brought that skill to others as well, with new prints of past work. The museum has display cases for prints after Robert Frank and the face of Abraham Lincoln, but his theme extends to Irving Penn, Lee Friedlander, and Helen Levitt as well. He took on the archives of Gilman Paper Company in 1985.

Now natural for him to devote his most massive project to a paper company. It also became bound books, because prints for Benson are means to education. How natural, too, then for the former Brown dropout to serve as dean of Yale School of Art—and to publish a history of photographic printing. Still, he pursued its potential in the present. He went from traditional prints to offset printing to digital, taking himself more and more out of the picture, and he tried his hand at digital overprinting as well. The pursuit of perfection has its contradictions after all.

Not that Benson distances himself from mere appearances, like Postmodernism and the “Picture generation.” He is just not interested in politics or trickery. Still, he recognizes his distance from his subject. Late work in color finds him face to face with fences and siding. He is crossing the continent much like Friedlander by car or Frank in The Americans, but Americans are all but absent. When an American flag hangs from someone’s home, it seems to exclude others as well.

Early work in black and white includes portraits, where he lets his guard down and shows his love. He shoots his wife in bed and standing, Young, Skinny, and Pissed Off. A woman in Puerto Rico cannot quite fill her bed, and (by the way) those apples are For John. Yet he reprints Barbara standing after many years, and the contrasts and contradictions vanish the more one looks. Benson is still the guy who built his own clocks and engines, right up to his death in 2017. He is still at once tourist and professional, still hard at work on the work of others.

Read more, now in a feature-length article on this site.

2.11.22 — Targeting Modern Art

Jasper Johns in retrospective is overwhelming. This museum blockbuster extends far more than a block. It crosses state lines, and it is the subject of a longer and fuller review in my latest upload.

The Whitney Museum gives it every nook and cranny of its largest floor, for more than two hundred works, through February 13. An opening wall of prints, hung salon style, brings home how many of them have become central images of late modern art—and then the career survey starts all over again at the Philadelphia Museum of Art, on much the same scale. It is overwhelming for another reason, too: it sums up an artist’s life, from youthful exuberance to anticipations of death. If you have lived through those years, it may sum up your first encounters with art as well. Nearly sixty years after his first target paintings, he is still targeting modern art.

How can all that be true? What can maps, flags, numbers, and targets conceivably say about Johns himself? What can they say about modern art or, for that matter, the United States? The show’s title, “Mind Mirror,” speaks to the inner world of an artist’s mind and the outer world that art can hope to reflect. It speaks to the motif of doubling in some of his best-known works and the mind games that they play. Oh, and it speaks of the show’s wild layout over two museums, comparable but never quite the same—and its overwhelming challenge for you.

These are flags and targets, but not where you expect them—up a flagpole or on a distant tree. They are literally in your face. Johns is not waving his white flag in surrender, and the boldness of Three Flags, one in front of the other, still pops right off the wall. It makes them all the plainer and all the more unfamiliar. Things are what they are and are not. With Johns, so is art.

His turn in the 1950s to familiar images inspired the next big thing, Pop Art—but just what do they have in common other than an alternative to abstraction and academic realism alike? He has no interest in keeping up with fashion like Andy Warhol or the comics like Roy Lichtenstein. Neither, no doubt, did Rauschenberg, long his friend and lover, whose combine paintings inspired Pop Art as well. Like him, Johns preferred the experimental scene to art’s bar crowd or popular culture. Rauschenberg, though, was by nature a collaborator, as Johns was not. At the very center of a movement, he kept to himself and apart, like Michelangelo to Rauschenberg’s Jacquard Cochineal 4 Oz Jar.

The black of his abstractions and the stripes of his white flags lead directly to the black paintings by Frank Stella. And Johns had his museum breakthrough at the Whitney in 1959, the very year that Stella appeared in a group show at the Jewish Museum. (That museum gave Johns a solo show in 1964, a reminder of how much it meant back then to contemporary art.) Still, he was not giving up on imagery any time soon, and then he did give it up for crosshatch painting, just as Minimalism was losing steam. Even then, though, he claimed an inspiration in a painting by Edward Munch, in the appearance of a passing car, and in dance. He named one in honor of Merce Cunningham, as Dancer in a Plane—and then, against all odds, he began to look back.

Can you see things for what they are? That could be art’s most pressing question, and Johns never stops asking. To a degree, it is up to you. I have a poster of a Johns map, and I check it all the time for help with geography. You can, should you see fit, salute his flags or shoot at his targets, if at a cost. And that cost is part of the work’s logic as well.

In both museums, things are what they are and are not, including the face of the artist. Johns could be the most reticent of painters, even as he inhabits so much of his work. He could be the most truthful as well, while lying every step of the way. Is he no more than Philip Guston, with all the self-pity but without the Ku Klux Klan hood? He is not so much wallowing as sticking to his guns. For nearly sixty years, he has been lying in plain sight.

Read more, now in a feature-length article on this site.

2.9.22 — The Prison House of Paint

If I were Brenda Goodman, I would have feared at the very least for the studio floor. As it is, I feared for both myself and her.

In a painting from 2004, she stands facing the viewer, arms to her sides, in what fans of a comic-book superhero would call a woman’s power pose—and there is no doubt where her power lay. In place of Wonder Woman’s ropes and shield, she holds three or four brushes in each hand, more than enough for each and every primary color. These brushes are loaded, and so is the image. But then her naked body, her chest itself thick with paint, is a provocation, too, at Sikkema Jenkins through February 19.

For all that, there are limits to a painter’s power. Her arms hang down, relaxed but by no means ready for action, and the multiple brushes stand for her craft, but not with a halfway practical way of wielding it. Then, too, she has barely done so. Some red, yellow, and brown have gone into her crotch and wrists, like bad bruises. Some more stains the walls and traces the lines between walls and floor, although not at all completely, in a perspective that makes their bare presence all the more real. If this is a studio, it lacks for art, paint, other tools, a worktable, or a drop cloth. I really did worry for the floor.

If anything, it resembles a prison cell, at once too large and too small for comfort. Goodman is in isolation, maybe abused, long past a hero’s toned body if she ever had one. Painting, it suggests, could be her empowerment or her prison. The sole other departure from bare off-white, covering her face, could be a hood or a mask. She could be keeping her identity to herself or awaiting execution. But then she will be her own judge, jury, and executioner.

Goodman is entitled by now to determine her fate. She began her career in her birthplace, Detroit, before moving east in 1976, two years after her first self-portrait. A small show has room for it—and for all those years of refusing undue anxiety or special powers. She has the back room, past Maria Nepomuceno from Rio. For her “Roda das Encantadas,” or wheel of enchantment, Nepomuceno assembles tubes, fabric, and glistening spheres like ripe fruit into colorful installations. They might be stage sets for sock puppets made from actual striped socks.

Just what is the script, and what is the next act? Are the fruits temptations, with Nepomuceno on the way to your fall from paradise and her own? Where are the wheels, and where are they turning? I have my doubts, but the temptations are real. Goodman, though, refuses enchantment. Her nudity claims neither innocence nor a fig leaf. She has one subject—a refusal of painterly tradition when it comes to a woman’s body, from Titian or Peter Paul Rubens to today, an embrace of paint, and a place between a woman’s interior life and her exterior form.

It is particularly thick in work from the 1990s. In one, she holds another body in her arms in white, perhaps a child. Paint her also sticks out like shelves for still more clotted paint, like that of Leon Kossoff and other Brits without all that tempting and ugly self-expression. More recently, as in the cell, Goodman foregoes the drips and shards of paint in favor of a more independent, decipherable image. She can also turn aside or turn her back on the viewer—in one case surrounded by paintings. She was up to something in her studio after all, all along.

Read more, now in a feature-length article on this site.

2.7.22 — Set and Drift

Mary Lum may not make you fall in love with New York. She might, though, make you fall in love all over again with photography and painting, and that should be more than enough, at Yancey Richardson through February 19.

Lum’s visions are, deliberately, too flat and opaque for the unreal city of your dreams. Her acrylics are at once packed, colorful, crystal clear, and all but indecipherable, which will not make anyone give up looking for clues. If that sounds like a pretty good description of an actual city as well, they should. They derive from her long walks, close attention, and ambivalence about what she saw. They look back, too, to Modernism’s long history of encounters with the city, in photographs and prints—and their demand to reconsider and to remake the world. You know, you could reconnect to the city after all and maybe even help bring it to life.

As a Chinese American, Lum may feel like both an insider and outsider in New York, London, and Paris, and she knows them inside and out. Her walks through all three sound like my own ideal vacation and my weekends at home. If you really do love New York, they could be yours as well, and you will know her motifs by heart. They include grills, walls, and the letters they bear—or what really should be letters, if only you could puzzle them out. I could make out fully only Do the Right Thing, a bit fragmented and staggered, but then that movie takes place in New York, too, conflicted but with affection and hope. They also include an industrial landscape of wheels, shafts, a numbered cube, and toothed gears.

That imagery also belongs to past glorifications of industry in the West and, especially, early Soviet art. MoMA has stressed their optimism and drive in recent shows of “Abstraction and Utopia” and “Engineer, Agitator, Constructor,” but it is not alone. Lum looks back, too, with her palette of primary colors, black, and white. Still, bright reds, yellows, and blues rest alongside maroons, burnt yellows, and olive blue-grays, and the starkness of prints past has given way to more fluid shapes and busy overlays. The old look, which all but shouted its origins in etchings and lithographs, has given way as well to the sheen of color photography as rendered in paint. If her subjects could well belong to practically any city ever, her style sets the work firmly in the present.

Lum’s gallery specializes in photography and photocollage, like that of Paul Mpagi Sepuya, David Alekhuogie, and Matthew Jensen. And she did take photos as she walked and experimented with photocollage on her return, as steps toward large acrylic on paper. Her work seems to have one foot in each of two media, just as it rests in two moments in time. That makes it more lively and comprehensive, but also ambivalent. Lum may know real cities, but she speaks of the results as “imaginary worlds.” That leaves wide open if she can ever be at home and what this world should be.

Lum cites Guy Debord, the philosopher and social critic. Her imaginary worlds connect to what he called psychogeography and her unplanned journeys to his dérive—after a nautical term for set adrift. She could still be at sea. Could her suspicion be as much of art as of the city? Debord made his mark decrying the “society of the spectacle.” If she also nurtures the look of printed and disjointed letters, he began as a Letterist, in a movement that could trace its roots to the anti-art of Tristan Tzara and Dada.

Still, his dissident sect of the Letterists gave way to the Situationist International, founded with a painter, Asger Jorn. And, like him, she cannot escape the need to manage the spectacle. Art for her is never far from the heart of the city. When she eyes an import-export business in Paris, its letters assemble neatly into DIA—like the Dia arts center in Beacon and now New York. Painting for her can still take flight, much like that of early Soviets like Marc Chagall. In a show called “When the Sky Is a Shape,” the most banal of geometries can, too.

2.4.22 — A Clean Escape

Jessie Edelman calls her show “Getaway,” but she need not go all that far in search of the perfect vacation or a clean escape. All she has to do is to look out the window.

She may not even have to look that far, not when she can count on fruit or flowers in front of the window, on a living room or kitchen table—or to all sides, against a plainer background like wallpaper within the gallery itself. Since Impressionism, flowers may appear in an ideal landscape or as markers of domesticity, and Edelman looks to both. The painted frame links her to other visionaries as well, like Henri Matisse, while a dappled sky quotes Vincent van Gogh and Starry Night. A getaway may presume a crime scene, but her only crime is looking back, at Denny Dimin through February 26.

Just what is imagined, and what is quotation? What is indoors, and what is out? Things get messier still with Chris Hood, who would hate to ruin the cavern of the minds with sunlight. Edelman anchors her work in the central still-life and the frame. One can always count on clean colors rooted in realism and larger, flatter framing elements rooted in Matisse and the decorative arts. Hood looks everywhere and nowhere, and he finds something larger than life everywhere he looks, at Lyles & King through February 5.

His gallery has a fondness for realism teeming with incident and anecdote—like that of Ethan Greenbaum, Pre Owned Dori Creations Black Blue Girls Leggings Size 8/10, Farley Aguilar, and Rosa Loy. Yet for once it, too, struggles for words. Hood’s details could be “vignettes,” “portals,” “cave-like formations,” or “sparks.” When he calls the show “Falling Through Flatland,” he recalls Matisse and flatness, but he is still in free-fall. Flatland is also the title of a popular account of Einstein’s relativity, and he might have fallen right through a hole or two in space and time. When he calls a painting Supercollider, atoms may have smashed, and almost anything might have emerged from the collision, but the only certainty is the super.

Hood’s drawing is more impulsive than Edelman’s, with fewer hard edges, but his most recognizable and colorful images, too, are flowers. Most often, they fall within rough ovals, his portals. He overlays more of the same, but also large eyes. As with his last show, people and body parts (mostly male) appear, too. Someone is looking into those portals or at you. Just what, though, are they seeing?

With both artists, mostly pleasure. Not all that long ago, critics were comparing painting now to Mannerism in the sixteenth century, with its arch quotations and distortions—and its skilled but often derivative art. Early Mannerism was far more poignant and intelligent than that take suggests, and it might not have all that many lessons for the present, but it does help to see it in light of Postmodernism. (I liked to call it the Post-Renaissance.) Yet all the stress on pleasure may bring art today closer to something else again, the ✦Surf Sticker. All those flowers and people in flight might come right out of period rooms for royalty.

Just last year brought crisp views of home by Lois Dodd and Anne Buckwalter—they, too, with portals onto a larger world as much as the artist’s psyche. Edelman and Hood are more teeming but also less specific and with less room for doubt. Step back, and you may admire the abundance more than the composition. Another of Hood’s titles, Sisyphus Smiling, comes from Albert Camus, who took the man condemned to roll a stone up a hill for eternity as an emblem of modern life. “One must imagine Sisyphus happy,” he concluded. After rolling my own share of stones, I have my doubts, but one really can imagine these artists happy, and who am I to deny them their rewards?

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2.2.22 — The Benefits of Hindsight

Sherrill Roland is guilty of hindsight bias, and he knows it. It could be the only way to look back on three years in prison for a crime that he did not commit.

It could be the only way to turn those years into art, where “Hindsight Bias” is both the exhibition title and a guide to the crushing weight of experience. It could be his way to navigate the confusion of art now, including Post-Minimalism, political art, and confession. It could be his guide for the viewer who might otherwise never know how well he combines all three. If that art is also a lie, that is how it gets at the truth, at Tanya Bonakdar through February 5. Along with earlier reviews of black artists building on Modernism and abstraction to express the political and the personal, it is also the subject of a longer and fuller review in my latest upload.

The gallery’s main room has three distinct works, although keeping count is part of the challenge, too. They clamor for attention, at the risk of derisively shouting each other down. They illuminate one another and blend into a single installation as well. I started with the most modest sculpture, because it seemed easy to get a handle on it. Was I wrong? It consists of right-angled rods of square cross-section, outlining two small spaces. They come in white and bright colors, and they rest comfortably on pedestals, but creature comforts are still in doubt.

Their modular form and placement recall the high Minimalism of Donald Judd and Carl Andre, and their aspiration to architecture reaches there as well. One can see each version as a room, wide open but also a measured construction. They seem all the airier for looping around base corners, although one might have to poke a finger through the top (mentally, of course) to verify that they do not have confining acrylic or glass. And they really were once confining, for Roland, who performed in prison orange for “Fictions” at the Studio Museum in Harlem, bases them on his prison cell. And then confinement takes physical shape in the show’s largest work, two cubes that meet at a corner as entire closed rooms to themselves. Here the right-angled shapes are steel plates and screws that hold it all together and, it seems, ensure that no one can enter or leave.

One room has a basketball and net, because Roland helped himself and others through those long days by organizing games, only the net is uncomfortably close to the ground. The other has transparent plastic bags for discarded cookie wrappers and the like, because winning (and maybe losing, too) had its rewards. The packaging comes with logos in cheerful colors, akin to Pop Art, but they are still trash. Last, as if to comment on their limit, clear surfaces hanging from the ceiling have harsh but slightly blurry type akin to the black text of Glenn Ligon, only in blaring red. It alternates messages,

Still, they are also funny, not to mention heartfelt, like more text in the back room. There four layers of red text fill shallow boxes, vibrating with lost meanings. Roland swears that he is quoting letters to the mother of a daughter whom, in all those days in prison, he had never seen. They are sincere enough but totally illegible, adding to his combination of humanity and an icy chill. Maybe they have taken on new meanings with hindsight bias, but for him and not for others. He works with private matters on a public scale while playing his cards close to his chest, just as he never gets around to stating the alleged crime.

Minimalism and three years of pent-up anger call for no less. Still, their stories display hindsight bias, much like ever so many tales of redemption. You know, in retrospect someone has made it through painful times through endurance and love, and the most bitter memories are grounds for a new beginning—and, for Roland, grounds for art. People tell that story because they, too, want to hear it, and journalism (including arts journalism) eats it up. If it is a lie or a fable, art is, too, by definition. In real life, there are no beginnings out of nowhere, but art depends on continuity and open endings as well.

Read more, now in a feature-length article on this site.

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