Saturday, January 17, 2015

The Shell at Almine Rech Gallery - A Show Organized By Eric Troncy

Alex KATZ, Three Cows, 1981 Oil on canvas 243,8 x 367 cm, 96 x 144 1/2 inches

"Le Panorama ( a literary and critical review appearing five times weekly), in volume 1, number 3 (its last number), February 25, 1840, under the title "Difficult Questions": "Will the universe end tomorrow? Or must it -enduring for all eternity- see the end of our planet? Or will this planet, which has the honor of bearing us, outlast all the other worlds?" [...]

Walter Benjamin, The Arcades Project,   The Belknapp Press of Harvard University Press, Cambridge, Mass. and London, England,  (1st paperback edition), 2002, p.98

It was a bit strange to find oneself in Paris last weekend in an atmosphere of trauma and world ending, many Parisians being shell-shocked enough to display a very unusual if pained niceness in their everyday dealings with each others. Yet everybody kept on going their normal business, in defiance of the trauma, and business there was to be had aplenty, albeit in places prominently displaying the ubiquitous Je Suis Charlie posters in their front windows as if to say the show must go on, the show can't go on, the show will go on, the show must go on.
 And so one found oneself attending the opening of The Shell, an exhibition organized at Almine Rech Gallery by über-talented French curator and art critic Eric Troncy, who, as you know if you follow FBC! even occasionally, is the (my) intrepid editor of Frog Magazine, and someone I now find myself lucky to call a friend. If this doesn't constitute the fullest disclosure ever I don't know what else does, but in passing, he's the kind of friend of such caliber that I feel very free to critique what he does, because he's this very rare type of smart guy who can take in criticism (hi, Eric! Hope we're still friends at the end of this post!)
For those of you who like to get  their predigested primers in the form of a press release in advance of taking in a show, Eric Troncy must be the most infuriating of curators/writers ever because he refuses to be a condescending mansplainer uncovering all his choices and the reasons he made them, as he trusts the viewers to make their own opinion about what they see. Yet there was some unearthing of the ideas behind the exhibition in the press release, which for me seemed transparently clear but it may be because I've known a few things about it for a while. I know things. I really do.

Alas, all my pictures of the show suck. Sorry about that.

In a nutshell (ahem) the show is a reflection on the place painting is currently having in today's bloated art market, ostensibly showing current market darlings (Joe Bradley, Alex Israel, Brian Calvin, Christian Rosa, etc.) alongside artists who made it big, sometimes eons ago (Bernard Buffet or even David Hockney) or in the mid-distance, someone like Julian Schnabel who's represented in the exhibition with two (surprisingly) more than decent purplish abstractions (The Day I Missed, 1990 and Later That Day, 1990) that would give shame to our current so-called zombie abstractionists. There's also one of his atrocious dinner plate paintings from the 1980s (Untitled, 1988) for contrast.
 There's a certain sadness in witnessing  Schnabel has in fact been capable of producing paintings that were really good at some point in his career, but somehow ended up as that sort of harmless buffoon symbolizing the excesses of the art world of yesteryear, now being surpassed in fame by the likes of Koons, Hirst or Abramovic (not that we don't envy Schnabel's wealth, mind you). All because he got famous with this bloody dinner plate paintings, which unfortunately obscure the rest. It's the first feat in this show to make one reflects on an artist we usually dismiss as really commercially bloated and uninteresting to realize he had, in fact, all the makings of becoming a good artist, instead of settling for mediocre work that sold. 

Josh Smith, Jean-Baptiste Bernadet, Betty Tompkins, Alain Séchas

I said, "ostensibly showing current market darlings " because some of the super smart choices like Betty Tompkins I don't believe have ever been art market darlings ever (I could be wrong, but I don't keep such a close watch on what happens or had happened on the art market over the last decades or so), ditto the French artist Alain Séchas who outside of France isn't particularly well-known. Tompkins is represented by in-your-face black and white (or rather, gray-hued) erotic/pornographic paintings seized for obscenity by French customs in the 1970s, in an innocent era that didn't know yet the ease of finding internet porn of a much more aggressive nature than Tompkins paintings, which now look almost subdued in comparison.
In passing, the paintings are installed very close to each other in the exhibition (less than one foot I think) but when you see the show in person it doesn't look crowded whatsoever, on the contrary the closeness of the paintings to each other makes them come alive more and helps understand better the groupings and arrangements.

David HOCKNEY, The Arrival of Spring in Woldgate, East Yorkshire in 2011 (twenty eleven), 31 May, No. 1 2011, 2011

What can be found online, art-wise,  is also a theme of The Shell, and by extension so is the advent of the new technologies so ubiquitous nowadays. Troncy observes (in the press release but also elsewhere, such as in the audioguide available online for the exhibition La Décennie at the Pompidou Metz - in French) that the advent of the internet has totally changed the way exhibitions are conceived and also the way art is distributed and perceived: just perform any Google Image search and jpgs jump at your face seemingly randomly, selected by an algorithm without any obvious reason why they're picked up in the first place over some others.
The way we can now supposedly find any image online - supposedly, because in fact many photos of  contemporary artworks made before, say, 2002 or 2003 are very difficult to find online if they haven't been exhibited recently - has radically changed the way art history is taught, for one thing, and therefore the way future art will be made (that is, if artists are still taught art history).
Before the advent of digital photography and of Powerpoint, instructors were dependent on making/finding slides and often had to rely on re-shooting images out of art catalogs or magazines, themselves contingent on the availability of 4"x5". And so the art history we were told was reduced to a few "significant" choices of images representing which artworks were deemed masterpieces (by whom?), depending on whether they photographed well or not.
In the age of mechanical reproduction, theoretically images could be multiplied indefinitely but in reality not so many artworks were deemed worthy of being photographed, which explains why sometimes we know only a few works from some historically significant exhibitions when the checklist is considerably bigger than the 30 or so plates reproduced in the catalog.

In the age of digital dissemination now just any image can be shot and uploaded in a matter of seconds, and made available for all to grab (I'm loosely paraphrasing Troncy here). I am not sure it has actually diminished the aura of the original artwork itself (if it had the art market would have crashed at the same time of the rest of the economy, maybe) the way mp3s and music streams have destroyed the magic of experiencing music, but it certainly has changed the way art history is taught, and is being constructed in today's hyperpresent.

 Part of a David Hockney, David Ostrowski, John Currin, Christian Rosa

For one thing there are exponentially many more art images to be found online, more often than not without attribution: if we know the name of the artist (frequently misspelled), then the title is missing, if the title is indicated then we're not told when the work was made, if there's a legend somewhere then the techniques and dimensions are missing, and so forth. If we come as total virgins to an artist's work it's not obvious from a Google Image search why some pieces are repeated more often than others, why some periods of the works are more represented than others, etc. (yes, yes, we know about SEO and all that shit, but how it works for art isn't particularly obvious).
And so, if we are to believe the exhibition press release, the paintings in the show were meant to be shown the same way images appear on a Google Image Search, or are "reblogged" from Tumblr to Tumblr without reflection, critical thinking and, one might add, without comment or attribution.

John McAllister, John Currin, Christopher Wool

Yet if there is no apparent hierarchy in a Google Image Search and the selection is made by an automated algorithm, in The Shell the selection is made by a human being and very seasoned curator who knows how to install a show like it's nobody's business. When visiting the exhibition it's rather obvious why some paintings are in the vicinity of the others, often (but not always) because of formal similarities. For example the Ostrowski, Currin and Rosa grouping shows a progression from left to right, with a squiggle within a beige rectangle that offers similarities with the ocher upright rectangle on the screen (where the bra is dangling from) in the Currin, while the abstract Rosa sees both the squiggle motif and the rectangles be present.

Karen Kilimnik, The fancy pretty farm - the happy cows grazing by the fountain, 2012

Likewise, there are similarities between artworks by artists from different generations, which are not necessarily shown in the same room but offer easy points of comparison, such as the lovely if small Karen Kilimnik above and of course the magnificent and much larger Alex Katz at the beginning of this post. A lesser curator would have maybe tried to install one next to each other, and would have failed miserably in any case because of the scale. Speaking of Kilimnik and Katz I'm sure you guys can spot the blooming tree with pink flowers on the lower left corner of the image above, and then have a look at the  the gorgeous and lovely Cherry Blossoms by Katz below and, well, you catch my drift.

 Richard Phillips, Daan van Golden, Alex Katz

Some of the groupings were very convincing, some less so, though it may have to do with individual taste - I'm still not convinced by Richard Phillips, whose painting here was preceded by a Brian Calvin on the adjacent wall - but in the arrangement above I thought the van Golden was a bit extinguished by the Pop-like colors of Phillips but mostly couldn't hold a candle to the really great Alex Katz right next to it.  Which made me want to see a Katz retrospective, stats.

Charlene von Heyl, Ida Tursic & Wilfried Mille, Bernard Buffet.

This was one of my favorite grouping in the entire exhibition, in no small part because I totally fell in love with the two paintings by Ida Tursic & Wilfried Mille, who for me were the revelation of The Shell. As far as these three paintings being together it's rather obvious how they all function, so if people can't get it, well, what can I say? Maybe they should consider getting some sort of eye transplant. As for the Bernard Buffet shown on the right, some people at the opening were commenting about its relevance in regard to last week's events in Paris, but Troncy having worked on this show for months and months I'm pretty sure it's a coincidence.
In passing, Troncy has been instrumental and very brave in trying to rehabilitate Buffet's standing as a painter, a courageous move I don't necessarily agree with (nor disagree with, just not my cup of tea but maybe Troncy will convince me otherwise next time we meet). Yet it's interesting to me in terms of how the fads and trends of the market and of art history work, generally speaking. The presence of the Buffet and the Schnabels make a strong point about how the aesthetic permanence of  artworks can mark the collective consciousness at a given time, to give way to mockery and ridicule and aesthetic impermanence after the big sellout has occurred and we get tired of seeing the same things over and over.
It may not be the mechanical reproduction of the artwork that destroyed its aura but rather its ubiquitous repetition (real Buffet paintings were shown in dentist waiting rooms the world over, not posters of them), the same way being subjected to the same songs over and over in supermarkets and shopping malls signals the entry into obsolescence of a proven hit.

Eric Lindman, Brian Calvin, Bertrand Lavier.

Here I thought there was an interesting juxtaposition, which works precisely because of the grouping. I am not sure the Lindman holds itself together as a standalone painting (it's rather bland in its, er, Matisse-esque paper cut/sort of Ellsworth Kelly-like desire to be a sharp abstraction and IMHO fails at it) whereas it works with the Lavier opposite (from the Walt Disney Production series, where Lavier appropriates background "abstract/modern" paintings and sculptures from Disney animated cartoons and blows them up as real artworks). The Lavier also shows some interesting layers that work as a "painterly" signifier over the inkjet print he used. Painterly layers as signifiers of "Painting" with a capital P are used as well in the Ida Tursic & Wilfried Mille paintings, and in other works that punctuate the show at very precise moments.
 The layers/brushstroke as painterly signifiers work most interestingly so in the Christopher Wool right next to the John Currin in the "erotic room". The Currin is rather porny, in a great porny way, yay! This specific Christopher Wool painting, as far as his production goes, is rather the blandest and most boring one he ever made. But, in between the Currin (which you should really go see in person) and the really great purplish Schnabel next to it, it just seems to scream "smeared semen" and suddenly loses its overall (and bland, boring and generic) abstract appearance.
I don't know about you, but me, when I saw this, the only thing I could think about was (beside "PAINTERLY SPERM!", I mean) was that it takes a really masterful curator to turn a painting  into something that screams sexual arousal and subsequent release, a painting that in itself, alone, on a blank wall would only want to become some sort of elegant decorative tax-write off for a wealthy collector's foundation.

The exhibition was designed to function as a panorama, that 19th century invention displaying 360º paintings into rotunda-shaped buildings for the entertainment and sometimes education of the masses. At the time they were very popular in Paris, where one arcade abundantly studied by Walter Benjamin, the Passage des Panoramas, still keeps their memory in its name. They were a sort of pre-cinema, so to speak (Benjamin has written extensively about panoramas, if you're curious).
 As the center of the panorama presented by Troncy lays a spectator, here metaphorically represented by the Katharina Frisch sculpture you can see above, staring at my favorite painting in the entire exhibition (by Ida Tursic & Wilfried Mille). Because I know things, and I really do, I know the sculpture is supposed to be the centerpiece that holds the exhibition together, logically so as the prehistoric man represents a sort of perplexed viewer being assaulted by this explosion of paintings surrounding him/her without any kind of apparent logic (yet as I said above there is one when you look closely). As far as it being successful I am not sure its presence was absolutely necessary, because I think the exhibition could hold itself together as well without it. Maybe it's a bit too demonstrative for me but yet again I knew why this sculpture is there whereas I'm not sure how obvious it is for other viewers.

In any case I'm glad that prehistoric man was placed in such a way he could stare constantly at the Ida Tursic and Wilfried Mille painting, because these two are very talented painters and the crappy photo above doesn't give justice to their work. This painting alone is worth traveling to Paris to see The Shell, and if someone ever wants to commission me to write a 3,000-word essay on this painting and only this painting, you know where to find me. I'd gladly write it here but then this is going to be the longer than long epic post from Hell, so I'll just state that their paintings need to be seen up close as well as from a distance, because there's a very interesting superposition of layers and brushwork that can't be rendered in photographs. I really love the way the spots of color everywhere on the gray landscape seem to invade it, as some sort of disease spreading everywhere and ready to almost overflow outside of the canvas. If you really love me, my birthday is in April and I think this painting would fit very nicely in my bedroom. I hope.

Another revelation for me were David Hockney's iPad "paintings" as I've never seen them before. They're not  "real" paintings obviously, just inkjet prints of digital images he makes using the painting app of his iPad, but the resulting glossy texture is very appealing and more interesting to me than his older, "regular" paintings (I tend to think  Hockney is a much better draftsman than painter). The only regret I have about these inkjet prints is that to get one large size image, he assembles 4 smaller prints into one, the seams being very obvious when you look at the work up close. I mean, he's David Hockney, I'm sure he has the means to get them printed in one large sheet, if Jeff Wall can do it then so can David Hockney FFS.
 Since the exhibition is also a comment on the resilience and resurgence of painting (on the art market but obviously it goes beyond it) in the era of digital dissemination, and of the way new technologies change the way we experience art, Hockney's works could be a perfect piece of the puzzle if we think about them as the illustration of an idea. But then that would be too simplistic because this isn't the way the exhibition functions, thankfully. One of the Hockneys is situated opposite Katz's cows in the main room (the one with our friend the Neanderthal Man) where it responds formally to it with its green overall tones, but its purple hues also react to the John McAllister's painting that shares the same wall as the Katz. When you are in the exhibition, the most striking thing as a spectator is the way color is used masterfully throughout the exhibition, as in the examples I've just quoted but also with the Schnabels, etc.

This was the other Ida Tursic and Wilfried Mille in the exhibition, where the yellow noodle-like finger painting (not sure it is finger-painting but from a distance it looks like it) oozes over the mountain to cover it, like some sort of dirty material answer to Hockney's own elegant use of iPad finger painting. In the show this was cornered by a black figure on a yellow background by Charlene von Heyl on the left, and the Bernard Buffet sporting a blackish balaclava-clad character holding a rifle on a yellow background, seemingly pointing from his own canvas over the yellow mountain of the Tursic & Mille in the direction of the von Heyl figure (see above).

This one was also of my favorite views in the show, in the same room as the über-porny Currin and the Christopher Wool "smeared semen" painting. The palm trees are a collaboration between Alex Israel and Josh Smith (and there's a Josh Smith painting of palm trees on a pinkish/orangey background in the other room immediately on the left of the door, if I remember correctly), with the curator taking advantage of the architectural decor over the door between the Smith/Israel painting and the John McAllister on the right. Now as far as standalone paintings go I do find the Smith/Israel paintings of no great interest whatsoever (especially when in the presence of  the greats around them) but as an ensemble this is really a great view. Which is why The Shell really succeeds in its presentation "as a panorama without apparent hierarchy", the exhibition as an ensemble is gorgeous and smart even though some of the paintings in the exhibition are less than interesting to me (and, let's be blunt, not particularly good) and couldn't really function on their own.
Which is exactly what happens when you do a Google Image search: some of the images are obvious, many less so, some are relevant, many more are not, and images get repeated while some others that would be obvious when you know what you're looking for don't appear. Images appear out of sequences, and you can get anomalous results based on whatever the algorithm is programmed to do.

Stripes against stripes: Charlene von Heyl next to Bridget Riley.

In this regard the exhibition as a whole can be somewhat cruel to a younger generation of successful artists, such as Brian Calvin whose large portraits (and only those as The Low Road (God Out West), 2006, is rather good ) really pale in comparison to Katz, for example, and as I said I don't think the Smith/Israel collaborative paintings work all that well. The weakest works in my opinion were Jean-Baptiste Bernadet's whose specific brand of late post-Monet in psychedelic colors impresses me as much as the exact same type of New Age paintings made by the hippie wives of Hollywood executives living in retirement communities around San Diego or Santa Barbara. I don't see why they would be more interesting made by a youngish French guy than presented by some sort of elderly Self-Realization Fellowship devotee enthusiastically working for the local amateur society annual show in, er, say, Azusa.
But then the Tursic & Mille paintings hold together fantastically if you consider they're in the vicinity of Alex Katz and David Hockney, and John McAllister does pretty well for himself, thank you very much, and the Jonas Wood is rather cool, too.

The worst paintings in the show without contest, to me, are Richard Phillips's (I am very predictable) not for the same reasons everybody seems to hate Phillips (I, er, don't care that he's successful and rich) but because = Los Angeles commercial painting murals, anyone? Not sure I see such a difference if it's on canvas or on a warehouse wall in North Hollywood, and, er, there's such fantastically great work elsewhere in the show I'm not sure I see any use for these in it, except maybe as  a counterpoint needed for a burst of color here and there within the entire ensemble.

Which functions fantastically in its entirety and manages to make everything shines within groupings and also if you think about it as a whole, with the placement of the paintings within the same room or how they respond to each other formally. Even though there are works I didn't like (and when is it you ever go see an exhibition and you like absolutely every single work in it?) I thought this was one of the most stimulating exhibitions I have seen in a while, and which would deserve a much deeper reflection if I wasn't so pressed for time. For one thing, this is one of the most fantastic exhibitions about painting I've seen in a long time, and an exhibition that asks questions about the validity of market success as an indicator of historic and aesthetic relevance in the long term, showing together heavyweights for whom fame, critical success and commercial success may not  always have been concomitant (Katz was totally outside of fashion, and outside of art historical and critical discourse for a long time, for example) and how these indicators become even more blurred in the age of digital dissemination.
Lastly, like all great exhibitions, it's one of these where seeing images online or elsewhere don't give a real feeling of the impression one gets as a spectator when physically confronted with the art, which is a perfect demonstration that the show drives the point home effortlessly.

Speaking of: you can have a pretty good idea of the show as a panorama on here but you still need to go see it in person. You do.

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