Confessions to the Whitney Biennial

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On the first of what will no doubt be several visits to the 2017 Whitney Biennial I was confronted with an uneasy feeling. As I worked my way through the crowded galleries, I stood shoulder to shoulder with others pondering the works before me. It was like standing next to a stranger in a public bathroom, looking into the mirror. Are we staring at ourselves, or looking past one another wondering what the other person is thinking, while trying not to make eye contact. However innocuous the encounter, I walked away from each artwork feeling that we are all here because of a common purpose and a desire for shared experience.

The “Zeitgeist” portrayed in the Whitney’s newest survey of American art is one of seriousness and concern over the polarization in society. Significant artworks deal with themes of inequality and injustice that were at the forefront of last year’s election. Probably the most talked about piece is Dana Schutz’s homage to Emmett Till, the painting of a young black boy who was brutally killed following false accusations by a white woman in Mississippi in 1955. Controversy erupted as some black artists protested what could be perceived as profiteering on a “black death spectacle,” criticizing that – as a white female artist – Schutz has no ownership in the cultural heritage and the civil rights movement that the image of Emmett Till represents. In her defense, Schutz has made clear that she never intends to sell the painting.

I disagree with the criticism and feel strongly that it is for all Americans to own that shared cultural heritage including the shamefulness of white supremacy. It’s certainly better to confront that experience than to run away from it or deny its continued existence. Biennial’s co-curator, Christopher Lew on artnet put it this way: “It is deeply painful and traumatic—more so for some than others, in unequal terms—but it is something that we all have to deal with, and I think if we don’t confront it, if we don’t have these kind of conversations, then we’re not getting anywhere.”

That painting is also the subject of a personal confession and the source of that unsettling mirror-image I was feeling. In a moment of pictographic ambiguity, the yellow cloth surrounding the victim’s head suddenly resembled the shock of yellow-blond hair that we have all become too familiar with. Was it Emmett Till’s casket open in front of me or was I staring into a dystopian void in which Donald Trump was staring back at me? However fleeting, this weird moment of confusion was a reminder that the subject of racism is ever present in society today. Our fate as Americans – white and black – are all wrapped up in the heritage that led to the death of Emmett Till and we have a shared responsibility to deal with it. I am reminded of the song “Everyone’s a little bit racist” from the musical Avenue Q:

If we all could just admit
That we are racist a little bit,
And everyone Stopped being so P.C.,
Maybe we could Live in — harmony!

In the words of another notable white figure, controversial on matters of racial injustice, the Polish-British author Joseph Conrad  said this: “In order to move others deeply we must deliberately allow ourselves to be carried away beyond the bounds of our normal sensibility…” Whether through literature or painting, art has a way of transcending reality to engage us in new ways of thinking about ourselves and our shared experience.

Biennial co-curator Mia Locks wraps up the exhibition this way: “When people keep talking about racism, when people keep talking about inequity, when people keep talking about debt — when conversations come around without you bringing it up — you realize: These are the ideas!”

For a show bustling with the energy of an overzealous crowd in search of the next big controversy, the Whitney Biennial also offers quiet moments of reflection. The busy visitor will miss the beauty and poignancy in “Harmony of Difference”, a video and music installation by jazz musician Kamasi Washington.  As I stood and watched, I could hear hushed questions from impatient passersby asking “is anything going to happen”.

Slow images rolled by as visitors came and went. For those who patiently waited, Washington’s beguiling music evolved and the video rewarded greatly with “Desire,” “Humility,” “Knowledge,” “Perspective” and “Integrity” – the five themes beautifully woven together. My take away of the whole biennial: for true understanding, we must take the time to look (and listen) carefully and to see deeply.

Queen of the Day

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Today! Birthday! (Instagram Self-Portrait Series / Queen of the Day, January 12, 2017, ink on paper).

A post shared by Pola Dwurnik (@poladwurnik) on

 

If only we lived in Andy Warhol’s world, where everyone could be famous for 15 minutes. After enjoying our minutes of fame we could move on with the rest of our lives. In a world of fleeting moments, we could muse about what might have been before returning to the reality that life is too short to be fulfilled and too long to be remembered in every detail.

Sadly, that is not the world we live in. Our new digitally afflicted lives are laden with photos and self-declared moments of fame and (mis)fortune, all well-documented on Facebook, Instagram and twitter. We no longer have the luxury of forgetting, or moving on as the moments of our lives are incessantly regurgitated by anonymous algorithms perpetually reminding us and our friends of yesterday’s reality.

Luckily there is art as a welcome distraction – a different way of looking at ourselves and the world than through the lens of the iPhone selfie. Artists like Pola Dwurnik, who takes us on a journey of her imagined world as the Queen of Painting, are the antidote to yesteryear. By taking her typical “self-ironic vision of future” to Instagram, Pola re-interprets the selfie as more than just a memory of the past. She gives us license to reinterpret or reimagine our own reality.

Birthdays come and go, but our news feeds never seem to disappear and birthday wishes are just a click away. As we think about how to answer them (in 140 characters or less) we should learn from Pola’s example and imagine our live not as a series of selfies, but as an endless array or possibilities waiting to happen. Happy Birthday, Pola and Happy New Year to all.

Untitled (Miami V.I.P. or Miami Vice?)

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Mel Bochner, Yes!/No! Maybe (2016) at Peter Freeman, Inc

 

There was a mood of introspection at this year’s art week in Miami. Was it a pending sign of the times or a somber foreshadowing of a tragedy still unfolding? While horrific details of the Ghost Ship warehouse fire in Oakland, California were slowly emerging over the weekend, the annual art party in Miami, Florida was in full swing.

Art Basel Miami Beach 2016 stoically went through the motions this year without the usual exuberance of a spoiled art world Jetset. An airplane towing a “Miami Lock and Load” banner circled overhead (Tripadvisor’s #1 activity in the “fun and games” category) while gallery goers discussed with apparent unease the impact of the US elections, fearing perhaps that they and their investments in the art world were now in the crosshairs of bad times to come. Maybe it was a slow realization that that the collector class itself is just part of a disappearing establishment bitterly holding on to a power hierarchy in which they are at the center of the cultural universe. While some gallerists insisted that they were as busy as ever, it just didn’t feel like the posh Art Basel Hongkong or the elegant mothership in Switzerland, which preceded Miami earlier in the year.

Meanwhile, a few blocks away, beach combing fashionistas at SCOPE skirted past the sparsely populated art talks and crowded into the bling filled corridors and flashy art stalls with the helpful herding of zealous gallerists. Eager to please the crowd with “buy now” discounts and promises to undercut the competition, some gallery operators offered the same or similar artworks only a few booths away from each other. Dealers at the other fairs cringed upon hearing of such things. An art space director presenting at one of the other shows in town told me he wouldn’t accept an invitation to Scope even if they offered him a space for free. Such was his assessment of the crowd pleasing antics. That seems a bit of harsh considering that art fairs are commercial enterprises after all. Let’s not forget that Artists can’t live on bread and water alone, and the rent still has to be paid, even if your studio is in a run down warehouse.

Luckily, collector patience was rewarded with a refreshing show at Untitled. Nestled under the silent beats of the Wynwood Radio filled tent, the atmosphere at Untitled was notably more relaxed than at the other fairs. The booths were spacious and well designed and the conversation confident and relaxed. While gallery directors quietly opined about the previous years’ successes, they admitted to enjoying more time this year to engage interested collectors with backstories about the artists and their artworks in the hopes of building new client relationships which will reward them in the future. Together with Design Miami, Untitled offered perhaps the best evidence that the international art world is not just about the art parties.

The weekend ended with a mix of feelings after four days of highs and lows at the Miami art tents. Time will only tell what tide of new and evolving artists will wash up onto art shores in 2017. Despite all of the melancholy of Miami art week, though, one thing is for sure: there is no lacking of exuberance at the beach bars and block parties in Wynwood and on Ocean Drive. One can only pray that the artists living and working out of the warehouses and underground art spaces (as well as their friends and fans) in Miami and elsewhere around the world stay safe in the year ahead. Well heeled hipsters and financiers in the collector class would do well to remind themselves and their friends that it is the labor of these artists’ passion which feeds our intense interest and fascination. If we spent more time ensuring safe spaces for artists to create, we could spend more time enjoying the after party. You can find a list of reputable organizations to support the victims of the Oakland warehouse fire here.

Not for the faint-hearted.

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Since Project Art Lounge began in 2013, a majority of the artists we support have been women. Michele Schuff, Silvia Sinha, Kamila Najbrtová and Pola Dwurnik are among the artists featured in exhibitions and on www.projectartlounge.com.

The fact that these artists are women really didn’t matter in their choosing as much as the fact that they make great art. Since the 1970’s there has been a lot written about how the “western male viewpoint” in art history has largely ignored the careers of Great Women Artists. In the 1980’s, the Guerilla Girls broadened the discussion of gender bias to highlight how sexism and other forms of discrimination impact art, film and pop culture.

While female artists like Marina Abramovic, Diane Arbus, Tracey Emin and Nan Goldin have achieved considerable fame, only a handful of living women artists including Yayoi Kusama and Cindy Sherman are recognized in the top-ranks of the art world according to Artnet’s Top-100 Living Artists. Despite considerable progress, the subject of sexism and sexual exploitation portrayed by female artists through their work reflect an ongoing reality that requires continued attention.

In a political year dominated by discussions about women and power, it’s worth reflecting on the contribution women artists have made to this important debate. Unlike their male counterparts who often brand themselves as pinnacles of individual strength, many of the strongest voices among female artists have emphasized strength through collaboration and collective action. At the forefront of the movement was the Fight Censorship Group created by artist Anita Steckel, which was as much about freedom of expression as it was about putting forth a feminist agenda.

Like the Fight Censorship Group and the Guerrilla Girls, new groups are keeping the conversation going. At a time where public discourse is increasingly dominated by social media, a refreshing example of real world collaboration is The Fainting Club, an “old boys network for women” founded by L.A. based artist Zoe Crosher. The Fainting Club brings together women artists, writers, filmmakers, musicians and chefs to celebrate their contribution to creative diversity. One recent event references  the seminal 1979 artwork “The Dinner Party” by artist Judy Chicago with partygoers participating in a wikipedia edit-a-thon to add 39 new names to our collective historical record.

At the end of the day, by celebrating women – whether consciously or not – Project Art Lounge is happy to support the vision and stories these artists have to share. Their legacy, like the contribution of all women in art, politics and other realms of public life is worthy of our support. In the months ahead, Project Art Lounge, which recently relocated to the New York area, will be creating new ways to connect artists, collectors and supporting institutions. Stay tuned and join the conversation.

 

 

The Queen Sings

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Pola Dwurnik: Queen of Painting

Pola Dwurnik is not only a painter; through her paintings and drawings she is also a song-writer. Her lyrics are full of mystery and intrigue. They are about love, crime, sex and prayer – all the elements that make up a good song or story. In society and the media, these stories are often told from the man’s point of view. It is time to listen to a woman’s voice, to a Queen of Painting.

As the world around us is changing and some voices – including in Pola’s native Poland – cling desperately to tradition, Pola’s work represents a break with the past and a challenge to conventional wisdom. Her’s is not the motherly voice that serenades us into feelings of calm and security. It is the voice of strength and conviction that conveys a sense that things will never be the same. In Pola’s kingdom, which often interweaves the animal and human worlds, audacity is celebrated and it’s only natural that the protagonist is a woman – and she comes out on top. In her book “GIRL ON CANVAS“, Pola’s friend and journalist Jerzy Szgiel writes “Painting your nails is not the same as sharpening your claws and yet they are somehow related.”

Following on the heels of “Before the Orgy” – a major exhibition of her paintings, Pola Dwurnik’s new show focuses on her recent paper works in gouache, watercolour, ink, pencil:

Pola Dwurnik. A Song About a Doctor and Other Drawings
Opening: 15 Jan 2016, 5 PM
15 Jan 2016 – 29 Feb 2016
Wroclaw Contemporary Museum

While Pola’s art is often a depiction of herself and her own unique fantasy world, make no mistake. The emotions, fears, anxiety and mystery that her pictures convey are just as much a reflection about us – her subjects – as it is about the Queen of Painting. Pola works in her studios in Berlin and Warsaw.

 

Never ending obsessions

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The White Album by Rutherford Chang

As the new year unfolds, so too does another year of discovery and dialogue with artists and art enthusiasts alike. Project Art Lounge is part passion, part obsession, always on the look out for interesting art spaces, programs and events to review and recommend.

Last year at this time, we were discovering Rutherford Chang’s White Album project at Tokyo Wondersite, an installation comprised of Chang’s collection of the Beatles’ original numbered White Album. The New York based conceptual artist is known for his obsessive collection, organization and re-arrangement of mass media objects. At last count, Chang has collected 1,368 of the Beatles’ White Album, which he catalogues and exhibits in their original numerical order. He even created his own vinyl mash-up of 100 White Albums with an original cover that is anything but white – a composite of scratches, doodles and dedications of the earlier owners.  If you’d like to sell (or donate) your copy to Chang, he’ll archive it on his We Buy White Albums instagram page.

What makes Chang’s work interesting and compelling is its timeless quality. His is a never ending project. There’s always a clear goal in mind, but the process is always ongoing. In his current project (Game Boy Tetris), Chang posts videos of his endless quest to attain the Nr. 1 global highscore ranking in the iconic video game (he’s already in second place). As with the White Albums project, futility never seems far off. After all, what’s the point of possessing thousands of White Albums or ascending to the top of a video game highscore list? As Chang describes it, it’s less about winning than about “squeezing in as much perfection as possible in this limited time before your inevitable death.”

If that doesn’t sound like a positive note to start the new year on, think of it in the spirit of Ralph Waldo Emerson: ‘life is a journey, not a destination’. Chang’s repetitive zen like projects remind us to live in the moment rather than in the past or the future. As you set about realizing your own projects for 2016, Project Art Lounge wishes you an enjoyable and artful journey and a Happy New Year.