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Kathy Butterfly, Pillow

Sue Williams, Color Pile

Figuring Color at the ICA features works by Kathy Butterly, Felix Gonzalez-Torres, Roy McMakin and Sue Williams. The intent of the exhibit is to explore the use of color and form to speak to the body: McMakin’s brightly colored and quirky sculptures address the human form; Butterly describes her enchantingly miniaturist ceramics as self portraits of a sort, and they are full of fleshiness, sensuality and seduction; Gonzalez-Torres’s installations of candy and plastic beads are his homage to the physical absence of a loved one; Williams’s paintings veer from R. Crumb-like portrayals of violence and war to a wanton sensuality of untethered expression, the body present throughout.

Curated by Jenelle Porter, the exhibition is on view through May 20.

The wall text did a good job of addressing the mystery that is color. A few memorable quotes:

The realm of color cannot be conquered by the intellect; it must be grasped through feeling.

–Rudolf Steiner

As I worked along, making the sculptures as they appeared in my mind’s eye, I slowly came to realize that what I was actually trying to do was to take paintings off the wall, to set color free in three dimensions for its own sake. This was analogous to my feeling for the freedom of my own body and my own being, as if is some mysterious way I felt myself to be color.

–Anne Truitt

Color became the breath of bodies, every hue the aching limit of a life, as if is rose up from within the substance it covered the way feeling changes the color of the chameleon, or like those remarkable cephalopods whose configurations alter with their moods, or as, inadequately, our own blood comes and goes like sunshine dreaming among moving clouds.

–William Gass

Blue is the color of the mind in borrow of the body; it is the color consciousness becomes when caressed.

–William Gass

We must again find the way to live with colors, to experience their inner life, and not just to look at them and paint with them externally. It will not help, from the point of view of painting, merely to study the play of colors by staring at them. The only way is to enter with our whole souls into the way red or blue moves, and to feel the colors’ living quality. We must bring to life what is in the color…by actually discovering what is in color, in the same way as the power of laughter is in someone who laughs.

–Rudolf Steiner

Mississippi Gottam, by Mark Bradford

I’ve been a fan of Mark Bradford for a while (and most recently was completely knocked out by the Bradford in the permanent collection at the Hammer Museum in Los Angeles), but the current show at the Boston ICA offered me new insights into his work. Because there are so many ways to enter into his work, pick any of many lenses—political, sociological, race-based, gender, abstraction, counter trends, arte povera, inner city aesthetics. So maybe this is a show that needs several viewings to appreciate the density of meaning and form that Bradford is pursuing.

In his review, Silent and hidden, in the open, Sebastian Smee does a very good job of describing my experience of seeing that many pieces hanging together:

Imposing and even quite grand at a distance, Mark Bradford’s paintings, like the sprawling cities they evoke, suggest ruins up close.

They are ruins — the ruins of other modes of communication, other forms of speech. One over the other, Bradford layers old billboard signs, maps, and street posters. They’re salvaged, shredded, stripped, glued on, and rubbed back.

Working intuitively, he converts all these materials and more into works of art that are dense with history, freighted not only with political and social readings but with an abiding, poignant silence.

It’s the silence that gets under your skin. To wander around Bradford’s superb survey show at the Institute of Contemporary Art is to oscillate between the desire to get up close and even to touch (the impulse to run your fingers over their corrugated surfaces is almost impossible to resist) and a growing sense that you are in fact looking on from unreadable distances, like a general watching a chaotic battle from the top of a distant knoll, or an uncomprehending politician flying high over a disaster zone.

These works are deeply moving and lush even though there is nothing lush about the materials Bradford uses to make them. These are collaged/decollaged assemblages of posters and signs–layered, tattered, worn, wrinkled. His works are majestic and yet fragile, complex and yet direct, deep and yet very attentive to the surface.

Bradford is articulate and open about his way of working and where much of his imagery comes from. He is elementally connected to his neighborhood in Los Angeles (his studio is now in the space that was once his mother’s hair salon where he worked when he was young), strongly influenced by being African American and gay, and deeply moved by the powerful thinkers he was exposed to when he studied at Cal Arts—Michel Foucault, belle hooks, Cornel West. His manner is gentle and unassuming. There’s little of that “look at me!” energy in his tall, lean and understated presence. Which is deeply refreshing.

As for Bradford’s place in the flow of things, Smee is astute in addressing Bradford’s decision to move towards abstraction AND towards painting, two problematic issues for those who follow art fashion (which is a fair term since the art world in its upper registers more closely resembles the highly trend-based world of fashion and celebritism):

On the face of it, the decision looks gloriously perverse. The ’80s seemed to sound a death knell for abstraction. Few artists were interested in it. Its possibilities seemed played out. People were hungry for content, for representation (in all its senses), for the righteousness and punch of politics.

Bradford was part of this. How, with his background, could he not be?

But identity politics can be cruelly deterministic — not to mention hostile to the uncensored movements of the mind, to art. As he began making major work in the early 2000s, a big part of Bradford sought to shake off the expectation that, as an artist, he would hit all the predictable notes.

Hence, perhaps, his attraction to abstraction.

Despite its utopian beginnings in Western Europe and the Soviet Union, abstraction in the United States has tended not to mix with politics. Even abstract artists with a strong political bent have kept art and politics determinedly apart: Ad Reinhardt, for instance, was politically active as a citizen, but there’s not a trace of politics in his monochrome paintings.

I’ll be back for another visit before it closes in mid-March.

The painting by Fred H. C. Liang that hangs next to my desk. Its surface, almost impossible to capture in a photograph, pulls me into its labyrinth of layers every time.

Closer view

Boston-based Fred H. C. Liang is one of my favorite artists and also a finalist for the ICA’s Audrey Foster prize. He blends an ongoing homage to his Chinese heritage with a visually rich and complex approach to painting, printmaking, sculpture, installations. Congrats to you Fred.

From Sebastian Smee’s response to the Foster Prize finalists in the Boston Globe:

Fred H. C. Liang…left China when he was 12 and came to the United States via Canada. Liang combines Eastern and Western idioms to eye-catching effect. His work here includes a decorative, free-form version of traditional Chinese paper cutouts that combine elaborately detailed drawing with screen printing. Resembling a rococo or Song Dynasty interpretation of a world map, the thing sprawls across two walls and onto the floor, where the patterns, which include the glimpsed forms of Chinese zodiac animals, are imposed on a reflective surface.

Titled “Dream of a Thousand Springs,’’ it’s seductive without quite transcending its own prettiness. Better is Liang’s “Untitled (Nushu),’’ a paper accordion book on a plywood plinth that stretches up 10 feet toward the ceiling. Cut into each page are Chinese symbols based on “nu shu,’’ a recently rediscovered secret language invented and used by women in southern China. The form of the piece is deeply satisfying, and the sense of buried secrets rising and expanding into open air charmingly poetic.

A video of the installation is available with Smee’s article if you are unable to see the ICA show in person.

Two Boston museum recommendations:

At the ICA

Charles LeDray, Mens Suits (Photo: ICA, Boston)

I have looked at examples of Charles LeDray’s work online for several years, but seeing his work in person is a whole different kettle of fish. As an idea his approach seemed almost too precious—his curious obsession (and I mean that literally) with the fabrication of thousands of miniatures, done with a decidedly fine art flair. But that originating concept disappears when you are actually in conversation, face to face, with these artifacts. His Art Angel sponsored exhibit, Mens Suits, is best experienced in silence. The absence of the living forms for whom these items were fashioned is so palpable I found myself tearing up. This is work that must be seen in person, whether you catch it here or at the Whitney Museum in October.

The description from the ICA website:

For over 20 years, New York-based artist Charles LeDray has created handmade sculptures in stitched fabric, carved bone, and wheel-thrown clay. LeDray painstakingly fashions smaller-than-life formal suits, embroidered patches, ties, and hats, as well as scaled-down chests of drawers, doors, thousands of unique, thimble-sized vessels, and even complex models of the solar system.

The exhibition gathers approximately 50 sculptures and installations, from seminal early works to the first U.S. presentation of MENS SUITS (2006-2009), his highly acclaimed project presenting three complex, small-scale vignettes of second-hand clothing shops. The ICA will also premiere Throwing Shadows (2008-2010), an extraordinary new ceramic work including more than 3,000 vessels made of black porcelain, each less than two inches tall.

At the MFA

From Nicholas Nixon, Family Album (Photo: MFA, Boston)

Nicholas Nixon’s new exhibit, Family Album, is a loving family portrait by a consummate photographer. Seeing the Brown Sisters hanging together on a wall is always a show stopper. But I loved the chance to view new images of Nick’s children Sam and Clemmie (who grew up with my own in Brookline.) One photograph is of a note scrawled by a very young Clemmie apologizing for her bad behavior. In another, Sam’s hands are grubbily holding a stack of bills. These fit right in alongside the flesh of these babies next to Bebe’s breast or an array arms and legs indecipherably intertwined.

Certainly other families have been portrayed in an artistic setting. The most notorious is probably still Sally Mann’s photographs of her children 20 years ago. But without being showy or self-aggrandizing, Nixon has captured a wholeness and healthiness in his family that is hard to fake. And the photos are, as always, masterfully toned and exquisitely composed.

From the MFA website:

Among the most compelling of Nicholas Nixon’s series of photographs are the portraits that he has made of his close-knit family. These photographs, taken over time, explore the nature of long-committed relationships. The exhibition features the entire sequence of the celebrated portraits of the artist’s wife, Bebe, and her three sisters. Taken annually, the Brown Sisters pictures reveal gradual changes in their physiques and shifts in their relationships. The exhibition also includes photographs of the artist’s daily life with Bebe and their children Samuel and Clementine (born in the early 1980s), which enable viewers to share in the daily interactions and joys of parenthood. Also included in the show are recent portraits of Bebe and self-portraits that stand for the steadiness of long marriage. Nicholas Nixon, who teaches at Massachusetts College of Art, is one of the most celebrated American photographers of our generation. The Brown Sisters photographs are a promised gift of James and Margie Krebs. Many of the other works in the exhibition are loans from the photographer.

Anne Carson and Rashaun Mitchell: Ms. Carson, a poet, and Mr. Mitchell, a dancer and choreographer, collaborated on “Nox” and “Bracko” at the Institute of Contemporary Art in Boston. From left, Marcie Munnerlyn, Mr. Mitchell, Carol Dougherty,Ms. Carson, Robert Currie and Kate Gilhuly in “Bracko.” (Photo: Liza Voll)

My admiration for the poet Anne Carson has been intact for some time. (I’ve written about her work here.) But with the recent publication of Nox and her extraordinarily successful category bleed from text only into text and images, I’m even more agog.

But clearly Carson isn’t stopping for too long at that achievement, and she is moving on to cohabit with yet another métier, dance. On Tuesday night at the ICA in Boston, Carson participated in a performance with dancer and choreographer Rashaun Mitchell that is in many ways unable to be categorized. It felt like the fine art equivalent of a mashup, calling up bits and pieces from the traditions of dance, recitation, poetry, incantation, theater, art installation/performance and mystery school.

From a review of the performance by Alastair Macaulay at the New York Times who, like me, was very moved by the event:

Since the poet and critic Anne Carson and the dancer-choreographer Rashaun Mitchell are each exceptional artists, their occasional collaborations — which began in 2004 — would be historically remarkable even if they were artistically barren. But “Bracko” and “Nox,” the two main works in which they have come together, are events where different kinds of poetry become layered upon one another with extraordinary eloquence. Words, dance, translation, cultural commentary, lighting, music — all add discrete but overlapping zones of beauty, meaning, drama.

On Tuesday, in a performance presented by Summer Stages Dance and the Institute of Contemporary Art here, a further layer came from the museum’s harborside setting. During “Bracko” (2008), transparent curtains allowed the audience to see yachts, water, seagulls, reflections, buildings and evening sky behind dancers and speakers. Then the blinds rose, so that “Nox” (Ms. Carson’s most recently published book, here receiving its stage premiere in what was described as “a new work in progress”) began, with the background view now brighter.

Yet those blinds soon lowered again, shutting off the luminous harborscape altogether. It’s a tribute to these artists that “Nox” then grew all the more engrossing. The older “Bracko” is fascinating, varied and full of promise, but the new “Nox” is a work of rare theatrical power: a sign that the Carson-Mitchell collaboration is gathering in imagination.

Several friends, also Carson fans, have asked me to describe the evening. I have found that difficult to do. It is easier for me to highlight a few peripheral observances as an alternative into the core and feel of the evening. Like Carson and Mitchell saying in the QandA that followed that they think of their collaboration as a work in progress and that they have no ulterior intentions as to where it will go and what it will become. That they assembled the various pieces—text, dance, music, setting, staging—just two days prior to the actual performance. That, when asked by an audience member to offer up one verb to describe the piece, Carson took some time to ponder this and then finally offered up, “thinging.” That Carson participates on stage alongside these consummate performers/dancers while possessing no theatricity or self consciousness herself, wearing a simple shift and her hair pulled back in a casual, offhanded manner. And that this juxtaposition of extraordinary body-based artists with an extraordinary cerebral poet seemed weirdly perfect.

Words or phrases I would use to describe it? Taut and yet wildly open. A celebration as well as a ritual of human sorrow and loss. Wisdom that lives in the interstices.

That’s vague, I know, but it is hard to get any closer. Macaulay is primarily a dance critic, so his approach leans more into that aspect. But for me, being more poetry-centric, I just can’t find a way to move this event out of its hermetic experientiality and into a more shared sense.

I’ve been a big fan of Tara Donovan for several years, and I am very excited to see her new show at the ICA in Boston this week. I bought the catalog for the show in anticipation, and it is excellent–authored by Nicholas Baume, Jen Mergel and Lawrence Weschler (LW is a particular personal favorite.) The images captured in the book knock me out.

I’ve posted Sebastian Smee’s review from the Boston Globe on Slow Painting if you want to read the entire piece. Here is an excerpt from his review that touches on one of my ongoing aesthetic themes—the role of beauty and how it is played out in contemporary visual language.

More excerpts from the book will be forthcoming.

Of course, it’s nice to encounter almost any proposition about beauty these days – even one as potentially ironic as Donovan’s. Until a few years ago, beauty’s repression in contemporary art was almost absolute. No one talked about it, hardly anyone peddled in it. If they did, they did it furtively, guiltily, always making out that other things – more “important” things – were on their mind.

Beauty has enjoyed a bit of a comeback in recent years. But there has been something willed and strained about the revival. Most recent discussions of beauty are about as appealing as a laborious explanation of a bad joke.

Donovan’s unabashedly beautiful work is a step or two forward from all this. It is not only beautiful, it is relaxed about being so, leaving her scope to admit all kinds of subtleties and ironies into her fantastically simple, if labor-intensive, forms.