Don’t you hate it when that happens? So confused. Yep, my co-host today is Brooklyn based artist Natalie Baxter. I have loved Natalie’s textile work for years, and I’m sure you’ve seen it because I’ve written about her a bunch of times, she’s in both of my books on women (here and here), and she was on the podcast a few years ago. Natalie has taken quilting to a whole new level by making soft guns, stuffed American flags, and bedazzled eagles among other things. We were planning to tackle the topic of art vs. craft, which we attempted, but that also lead us down some other pretty winding paths like women in art, and mothers as artists. Yeah, big topics. You can listen right up there under her “clearly confused” banner, or subscribe here.
Here’s a little look at a few of the things we talked about. First up, a couple of her “Bloated Flags” and two “ALT CAPS” banners:
Love! And there’s more… how about some bedazzled eagles from her “Squad” series, and a bunch of “Warm Guns”:
Ooh, look at that big guy! So. Good. These guns were the first quilted pieces Natalie ever started making and, clearly, there was no turning back after that!
And finally, a couple of girls who both look fabulous in leopard print:
Ahhhh, so beautiful! I’m so excited to see what’s next for Natalie, ie., as soon as she posts about her “Housecoats”, I will too! Thanks so much to Natalie for taking the time to do this with me; thank you Create Magazine for supporting this episode… don’t forget to submit your work to their International call for women artists > February 2nd is the deadline for submissions; and huge thanks to you for listening… there will be more ART FOR YOUR EAR next weekend.
Sheila Hicks, Artist
Joshua Simpson Photography (Natalie’s husband)
Vermont Student Center
Gee’s Bend quilts
Erin M. Riley on AFYE
The quilts she made for her sisters
Natalie’s Upcoming Shows: FEMMEPHILIA (New York, NY) January 16 – 23, 2020 / DOMESTIC DISPLAYS, Alleghaney College Art Galleries (Meadeville, PA) Opening reception & panel discussion Tuesday Jan 21 6:30pm / MATERIAL ART FAIR (Mexico City) Feb 7-9, 2020 / BARBIE: Dreaming of a Female Future – Birmingham Museum of Art (Birmingham, AL) August 10, 2019 – January 26, 2020
Toshio Saeki, the legendary Japanese artist known for blending eroticism, horror, and humor in his works, passed away this week at the age of 74. During his life, he was given the moniker “the Godfather of Japanese Erotica,” amassing a dedicated underground following before a widespread, renewed interest in his work arrived during the past decade. Among the symbols of that resurgence were appearances in shows at Jeffrey Deitch Gallery, Art Basel in Hong Kong, and Jiu Xiang Ju Gallery in Taipei.
Welcome to the 10th installment of the interview series Meet LA’s Art Community. Check out our past interviews here.
This week, we interview artist Jazmín Urrea, who works with installation, photography, video, and performance. In her practice, Urrea examines symbols and totems prevalent in Latino communities. She received her MFA in Photography and Media from the California Institute of the Arts (2017), and a BFA in Photography from CSU Long Beach (2014). Urrea’s installations have been exhibited at the Studio Museum in Harlem, the J. Paul Getty Museum, University Art Museum (UAM) Long Beach, and SADE LA. She currently lives and works in South Central Los Angeles.
Where were you born?
Pioneer Hospital, in Artesia, CA. This hospital no longer exists.
How long have you been living in Los Angeles?
Since 1990! I was born and raised here in Los Angeles.
What’s your first memory of seeing art?
My family’s home. My mother used to work in a factory that made airplane parts by day and used to sell Home Interior by night. Home Interior was a company that sold Renaissance–inspired prints of paintings, floral arrangements, etc., to decorate homes and offices. The print I vividly remember was of a little girl sitting on the piano staring out into the distance.
Do you like to photograph the art you see? If so, what device do you use to photograph?
When I truly love an artwork, I like to photograph it on my phone with the artist label. I like to know who made the work so I can add it to my personal list of artists I should know.
What was your favorite exhibition in Los Angeles this year?
No Wrong Holes: Thirty Years of Nayland Blake at ICA LA.
What’s the best book you’ve read recently?
El Super, by Kurt Hollander. It talks about what the traditional Mexican diet was and has become.
Do you prefer to see art alone or with friends?
I usually prefer to see art with my art crew, aka my friends. Seeing art with them becomes a whole day affair! We gallery/museum hop, talk about the work, and debrief about what we saw.
What are you currently working on?
I am currently preparing for a talk I have coming up in 2020 for Art in a Changing America’s Imagining a New Map that will be taking place at REDCAT. I am also collaborating with a nonprofit organization called Able ARTS Work and their students on an art project that we will be exhibiting in the spring of 2020.
What is one accomplishment that you are particularly proud of?
My contribution to this year’s Current: LA Public Art Triennial! “IMPERISHABLE” was my first public art undertaking and I got to learn a lot about what it takes to create a work of art in the public sphere. I had to take into account the scale, construction, and overall durability of the piece. I also got the opportunity to work with my community of South Central. We got to bring artists, chefs, authors, and others who are working with food in the city of Los Angeles to take part in conversations about food access and justice. I am so happy and thankful that I got to share my work with my South Central LA community.
Where do you turn to for inspiration for your projects?
I am inspired and influenced by where I grew up, currently live, and my surroundings. I like to stay present and in the moment.
In 1952, Tibor de Nagy gave Fairfield Porter his first solo exhibition, at the urging of Willem De Kooning, along with Jane Freilicher and Larry Rivers. Porter was in his mid-40s at the time. Shortly after Earl Kerkam died in 1965, six artists wrote a joint letter to the Museum of Modern Art stating, “Kerkam in our eyes is one of the finest Painters to come out of America […].” The letter went on to say that he deserved to be shown at MoMA. De Kooning was one of the artists to sign the letter. I thought about this history, largely ignored by New York museums as well the establishment art world, when I went to see the group show Post at Steven Harvey Fine Art Projects.
The artists in the exhibition are Bob Thompson, Earl Kerkam, Elaine De Kooning, Gandy Brodie, June Leaf, Jan Müller, Lester Johnson, and Milton Resnick. While not officially included, Anne Harvey’s “Portrait of George Duthuit” (1940) was in the back office space, along with works by Resnick, Thompson, and Kerkam, all of which complimented the show.
The De Kooning-Porter connection came to mind when I was looking at the beautiful graphite drawing “Portrait of Anne Porter” (1945) by Elaine De Kooning. Depicting Porter sitting in a chair, lost in her own thoughts, with no indication of the background, I wondered if the portrait was inspired by the sinuous, delicate lines in the drawings of Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres.
Elaine’s husband, Willem, created imaginary portraits based on Ingres, but tough-as-nails Elaine went for actual subjects and cleared a big space for herself. The determination to push into one’s own territory is what the artists in this exhibition share. This does not mean that the works on view are the strongest by each artist, but enough of them are first rate to prove that paintings and drawings can be captivating years after they were done, and that a timely style has a way of becoming uninteresting, even mummifying.
Remember Neo-Geo and Neo Expressionism and who was hot in the 1980s? How many of the artists connected with those period styles remain interesting (which is different than continuing to invest in them)?
There are more than 15 works, all drawings and paintings, in Post. With the exception of the Harvey portrait, all were made between 1945 and ’63 — the year Roy Lichtenstein had his first solo show at Leo Castelli Gallery, featuring his signature Ben-Day dots and speech balloons, and one year after the Sidney Janis Gallery mounted the International Exhibition of the New Realists, which included American Pop artists and European artists connected with Nouveau Réalism. This was the first show of Pop artists in a prestigious uptown gallery. Philip Guston and Mark Rothko, who also signed the letter in support of Kerkam, quit Janis because they felt the gallery was following the latest fashion.
By bringing together this disparate group of artists, almost all of them working figuratively (Resnick is the exception), the exhibition should remind us of the important role fashion, or what might called timeliness, plays in determining what gets elevated at any time, and, starting in the 1960s, what the art world invests in.
There are three standout paintings in this exhibition: “Mulberry Street” (1963) by Lester Johnson, “Untitled (Seated Figures)” (1953) by Jan Müller, and “Bacchanal” (1960) by Bob Thompson. They were done during the height of Abstract Expressionism and the first years of Pop Art and Color Field painting, when painting with a brush began to be superseded by other means. And yet, looking at them now, they don’t seem old fashioned.
Lester Johnson (1919-2010) had the longest career, far outliving Jan Müller (1922-1958) and Bob Thompson (1937-1966). Thompson, whose work was characterized by the art historian Meyer Shapiro as radiating “rhapsodical hotness,” is the best known, and was the subject of a retrospective, Bob Thompson, at the Whitney Museum of American Art (September 25, 1998–January 3, 1999). Johnson and Müller are cult figures.
Johnson’s “Mulberry Street” is a deep blue, moody painting of a crowd of featureless men in hats. Painted wet into wet, the figures both emerge from and disappear into the paint. They are palpable ghosts, what T.S. Eliot might have called “the hollow men,” but there is nothing hollow about them. The art critic Harold Rosenberg characterized Johnson’s men as “golem-like” (Art News, 1966). The dark blue street rises up along most of the painting’s surface, with a band of pale blue at the top, indicating light and/or the street. Rivulets of dark blue run down the surface.
It is not clear if the men are walking away from or toward the picture plane. Through paint and color, Johnson gets at the malaise permeating the lives of men who seem to be going nowhere except their next destination.
Müller, who studied with Hans Hoffman from 1945 to ’50, began to break away from his teacher in the late 1940s, when he started covering his surfaces with mosaic-like squares and rectangles, rejecting Hoffman’s “push-pull” notion of composition. Müller was in his late 20s and had less than a decade to live. Hovering between abstraction and figuration, “Untitled (Seated Figures)” (1953) is the first “mosaic” painting to be figurative, marking a decisive shift in Müller’s work.
In “Untitled (Seated Figures),” Müller slowed the long, vigorous brushstrokes of gestural abstraction into controlled bands of paint abutting each other across the painting’s surface; the length and curve of the brushstroke alludes to the two figures or their environment. The difference between Müller’s brushstroke and that of artists working more energetically is significant, as it demonstrates that painting with a brush had not been exhausted — the brush still could be used to put down paint in fresh ways. Chronologically speaking, “Untitled” (Seated Figures)” marks Müller moving further away from abstraction toward nudes in the landscape — the pastoral idyll.
Müller’s pastoral idylls are what drew Thompson, who was from Louisville, Kentucky, to Provincetown in the summer of 1958, but he arrived too late. Muller had died. Painted when Thompson was in his early 20s, “Bacchanal” (1960) shows an artist who, inspired by Müller’s idylls and Johnson’s featureless silhouettes of men, has made these possibilities into something all his own. The thickly painted “Bacchanal” is a scene of excess, with a nude woman splayed in the middle of the horizontal composition. Violence, sex, and gluttony are entwined. This is Eden for hedonists, a pastoral scene gone amok.
A thoughtful look at the period from 1945 to 1963 in American painting is still necessary, with special attention to the figurative artists working during these years. Kerkam, Brodie, and Leaf still need to be studied. According to Thomas B. Hess, writing in New York Magazine around 1963, “the historical puzzle” that was the art world “was scattered so brusquely [that] the whole art Establishment crossed the street to avoid saying hello.” Hess seems to be implying that there was suddenly a right way to go.
If you ask me, much of the “art Establishment” is still on the other side of the street, convinced they are right. They pay lip service to De Kooning, Shapiro, Rosenberg, and Hess, but they don’t really give a fig about what they stand for.
Post continues at Steven Harvey Fine Art Projects (208 Forsyth Street, Lower East Side, Manhattan) through February 2.
PARIS — In Peter Hujar’s “Bruce de Ste. Croix,” 1976, a thin man on a dining room chair studies his erect penis. Gripping it with his right hand as though setting down a glass, he rests his left palm on his obliques, his downturned face placid, remote. What is stunning about the tall penis in the center of the frame is how utterly unmonumental it appears, how affectless its owner. Immediately to the right, a black-and-white portrait of the same man depicts him leaning naked against a bare wall, his legs curled before him, his hand on his forehead, looking longingly, almost boyishly, at something (or someone) beyond the picture plane. “Which moment is more private?” the pair seems to ask. In which is this young man more exposed?
Such questions — probing the depths of intimacy, power, and vulnerability — are posed throughout Hujar’s retrospective Speed of Life, on view at Paris’s Jeu de Paume till January 19. They are addressed perhaps most tenderly in his later work dedicated to the erotic, often reclining, human form. Overshadowed by his contemporary Robert Mapplethorpe, whose nude Adonises compelled a late 20th-centuary reassessment of both kink and classical aesthetics, Hujar is well known for his brief, intense relationship with the late artist David Wojnarowicz (1954-1992), the subject of many of his most stirring portraits.
In vibrant tension with Wojnarowicz’s harrowing images of Hujar’s face and body in the moments after his 1987 death from AIDS-related complications, Speed of Life celebrates the New York photographer’s sensitive, dynamic accounts of the everyday erotic and unabashedly eccentric. Eschewing pomp while honoring circumstance, Hujar’s portraits serve as cogent tributes to what may be called the pedestrian peculiar, or the quotidian queer. Leg hair, sock imprints, tan lines, and scars make Mapplethorpe’s nudes look airbrushed in comparison.
Traditional valuations of gendered beauty are likewise questioned. In “Pregnant Nude (Lynn Hodenfield)” (1978), the British fashion designer lies back against a pile of throw pillows on an unmade bed, her breasts and belly swollen before her, her kohl-lined eyes staring directly at the lens. In “Sarah Jenkins with Head Brace (3)” (1984), the performance artist’s frail, naked, braced torso contrasts with her steady, equanimous gaze to the right. The men on display often lack conspicuous musculature and tone — as, for instance, in “Nude Backstage (Ridiculous Theatre Company, Eunichs of the Forbidden City, Westbeth)” (1973), featuring a clown-faced man casually seated in what appears a messy greenroom, his chest narrow and penis limp; or “Robert Levithan on Bed” (1977), in which the body of Hujar’s then-lover/muse is pressed against a bare, flat-sheeted mattress, his left hand and wrist tucked underneath his stomach as though to keep warm.
Hujar wrote (quoted on the wall texts) that his portrait subjects were “those who push themselves to any extreme” and those who “cling to the freedom to be themselves.” Among them, the most glamorous figures are undoubtedly the drag luminaries Candy Darling and Ethyl Eichelberger, the latter the most photographed person in Hujar’s oeuvre. Dressed in black velvet gloves, a hip-length petticoat, and bunched fishnets, her stilettos coquettishly impaling the air, Eichelberger playfully balances on a lone chair as “Minnie the Maid” (1981); contrasting Minnie’s lacquered, open-mouthed grin is the portrait “Ethyl Dressed as a Man,” a close-up of Eichelberger in a buzz cut and pin-striped suit jacket, looking plain-faced and introspective. Neither is a “truer” portrait of Eichelberger than the other. Similarly, in “Candy Darling on Her Deathbed” (1973), the banal institutional backdrop isn’t any more or less real than the Warhol Factory superstar’s irrepressible energy, as she poses dramatically on her side, surrounded by long-stemmed roses. Requesting that Hujar take her final portraits during her hospitalization for lymphoma, Darling made the act of dying itself a series of cinematic gestures — one over which she retained a performative agency despite the grim circumstances.
In her 1977 study On Photography, Susan Sontag defines photography as “to participate in another person’s (or other thing’s) mortality, vulnerability, mutability.” It feels fitting that one of the most iconic images in the exhibition, from 1976, depicts the philosopher lying on top of a blanketed mattress, braless in a dark, ribbed turtleneck, her hands behind her neck. As she stares contemplatively into what appears to be the unadorned space of a bedroom, she is at once relaxed and cerebral, wistful and removed. “I want people to feel the picture and smell it,” Hujar said of his work. In Speed of Life sexuality is neither spectacle nor shameful; it is simply human.
Peter Hujar: Speed of Life continues at Jeu de Paume (1, place de la Concorde, Paris, France) through January 19.
OMAHA, Nebraska — It is not exactly whopping news that reliably red, heavily agricultural Nebraska sports many powerful Republicans, including its governor, both US senators, and all three congressional representatives. Nor is it a surprise that these predictably pro-Trump politicians are climate change deniers with stridently anti-environmental voting records.
The whopping news instead involves birds and floods. Nebraska, with its grasslands, is a major habitat for birds, whose population has declined precipitously over the past several decades. The loss of grasslands due to escalating cultivation, rampant use of agricultural chemicals, and climate change is the primary culprit.
Floods are also occurring with more frequency and intensity. When a sudden March 2019 heatwave melted a record snowfall, unprecedented floods inundated vast amounts of farmland, resulting in severe economic distress; with climate change, devastating flooding may well become routine. While its politicians, with their heads in the sand or — perhaps — in pots of lobbying money, remain willfully oblivious, rock-ribbed Republican Nebraska is facing such an environmental crisis that even the state bird, the Western Meadowlark, with (according to audubon.org), its “sweet, liquid notes,” is being severely threatened.
Enter Canadians Richard Ibghy and Marilou Lemmens, an artist duo from Quebec. While on a months-long residency at the Bemis Center for Contemporary Arts (a Nebraska treasure) in Omaha, Ibghy and Lemmens, who initially intended to concentrate on a video concerning bird sounds and bird-human interaction, expanded things to also focus on this local crisis with global significance.
They combed through economic and agricultural journals and reports; met and befriended scientists, conservationists, and activists working on the front lines; visited bird sanctuaries and a zoo to meet with caretakers; and traveled to rural areas, investigating the complex, cross-species relationship between birds and humans, as well as the economic and environmental forces dramatically impacting on birds. Their exhibition, with the buoyant title Look, it’s daybreak, dear, time to sing, at the Bemis Center for Contemporary Arts (organized by renowned Canadian curator, art writer, and art historian Sylvie Fortin, who is the center’s curator-in-residence) is at once playful and political, whimsical and sobering.
On several tables sit the most delightful, seemingly abstract small sculptures from the artists’ Futures series, which refers to commodities contracts traded on stock exchanges, but also to possible futures. Made of wood pieces dyed different colors, cut into rudimentary geometric shapes, and arranged in very particular ways, at times incorporating string and thin metal rods, these decidedly non-monumental sculptures evoke important art movements: think of really minimal Minimalism, pint-sized Modernist abstraction, and shrunken Russian Constructivism. They also suggest the wooden blocks children use for building and games. The twist here is that these beguiling mini-sculptures are actually based on data, graphs, and charts. They are graphical representations of the economic and industrial forces so affecting Nebraska, and its birds.
“Hedging vs. Speculation on the Chicago Wheat Market (1996 and 2011)” — all works were made in 2019 — features small wood blocks in basic configurations resembling sculptures by Carl Andre. As commodity trading increases and wheat farming expands, more and more grasslands are being plowed under and plied with chemicals, robbing birds of their natural habitat and polluting what’s left.
“Sales Volume of the 10 Top Meat Processing Companies (2014)” has four simple constructions. With each, either two or three colored geometric pieces of wood are attached to a wooden spindle. Lovely to look at, this sculpture/graph addresses a pressing matter. A large percentage of corn (the top crop) grown in Nebraska is for animal feed, primarily cattle and hogs. Grasslands are disappearing and bird populations are plummeting so that people can eat meat and corporations can make tons of money.
Without its label — and the artists’ handwritten labels give everything a personal touch — “Pounds of Glyphosate Applied to Top Soybean States (1996 and 2006)” would be a charming suite of five handmade minimalist sculptures, each pairing a low block of wood with a towering one, and each a different color (red, orange, light blue, dark green, blue). With the label, however, this work visualizes the exponential increase in the use of the weed-killer Glyphosate during this 10-year period. Native weeds, while bad for farmers, are an important foodstuff for birds. It is no wonder that so many Great Plains birds have been lost. Humans are seizing their homes and eradicating their food.
Although the artists make no fuss about this, they have fashioned their fanciful sculptures from wood found at their Quebec farm and colored by dyes made from local berries and vegetation. The sustainability-based artworks contrast starkly with widespread chemical-intensive farming. The elongated and horizontal “Movement of Spot and Futures Market Prices for Agricultural Commodities (2005-2012)” is the most maximal work, with multiple parts and colors, varying heights and swooping shapes. This physicalized economic data looks spectacular while making the market forces shaping Nebraska’s ecosphere immediate and concrete.
Also included are tabletop wood sculptures from the Survival Editions of Popular Wooden Games series, which resemble antiquated board games but have startling import. In one, a player rolls a ball down the lane that looks a bit like a miniature bowling alley to hit distant target balls. The title: “Plant and Insect Community Knock Out.” In Nebraska, native plants and insects are indeed being knocked out by pesticides, herbicides, and insecticides, disrupting the food chain and causing havoc for birds. This little fun game points to an ongoing emergency.
In their disarming, alluring, and often humorous way, Ibghy and Lemmens map out the dire situation, while inspiring viewers to imagine alternative futures based on care and respect for non-human beings, rather than wanton disregard of them. Birds are at the core of the show — birds which have been on this planet far longer than humans, and which most scientists trace to dinosaurs in the Late Jurassic Period.
Displayed around the room are videos of bird-human interactions in Nebraska and Canada from the series, TheViolence of Care. In Central Quebec’s Carden Alvar Provincial Park, the organization Wildlife Preservation Canada is addressing the plight of gravely threatened Loggerhead Shrikes. In the video “Banding Young Eastern Loggerhead Shrikes in the Carden Alvar,” biologists and conservationists using nets in a large, outdoor aviary catch these young birds, which are bred in several US and Canadian sites and then transported to the aviary and eventually released. After netting them, the scientists examine them, measure their feathers and wings, and attach bands to their legs. This looks disturbingly violent (hence the series title, though no harm is done) yet is essential. The odds are steep and the Loggerhead Shrike is facing extinction in Canada (according to a much-cited report in Science, almost 3 billion birds, or about 29% of the North American bird population, have been lost since 1970).
From wounded crows being rehabilitated and released, to a zoo caretaker assiduously, even lovingly, cleaning a habitat for puffins and Common Murres as they paddle back and forth, and two scientists on a five-minute bird count to determine approximate bird populations, thoughtfulness and respect are communicated in these videos, not anthropocentric mayhem.
In “Feeding Cottonball,” a Nebraska woman hand-feeds Cottonball, an aged hen who can no longer make it to the henhouse to eat on her own. This is a normal, ethical action, one able creature helping another enfeebled one. Tears, however, are in order, given the surrounding context. Cottonball is hungry. She is being assisted. By a human. And that’s very different from the many birds elsewhere in Nebraska that are being summarily erased.
Completing the exhibition is the video animation What Birds Talk About When They Talk, projected on a plywood panel with the top half left raw and the bottom half painted white (the projection gives everything a sky-blue tint). In this elemental work, bird songs and calls — the birds are never seen and their intricate sounds are mesmerizing — are accompanied by intermittent short texts.
Sometimes the text is simply the bird’s name or its sound transcribed into phonics. Sometimes it’s the classification of a particular call (the Spotted Sandpiper’s “alarm call near nest” and its “flight song) or an attempt to understand what bird sounds might mean, to us and to them (a Jackdaw’s plaintive call is interpreted as “Come back. Come back. Oh, come back!”). The video explores our endless fascination with birds but also our separation from them. We thrill to their sounds but can only guess about their languages, thoughts, and motivations.
Interspersed are succinct examples of the interrelationship between birds and humans, some from myths and creation stories (each morning the Norse god Odin sent two ravens, Huginn and Muninn, out to explore the world and bring him news) and one from pop culture (audio from a Looney Tunes cartoon featuring Tweety, the anthropomorphic canary). A passage from the 12th century Persian Farid Ud-Din Attar’s epic Sufi poem, The Conference of the Birds (“I create a tumult among the roses as well as in the hearts of lovers. The secrets of love are known to me”) is accompanied by mellifluous bird sounds — the gorgeous language of the poem juxtaposed with the sonic “poetry” of birds.
Unlike the calamities unfolding in the grasslands-turned-farmlands, in this enthralling video, people (with their words) and birds (with their songs) share the world without human-imposed hierarchies and domination.
Look, it’s daybreak, dear, time to sing continues at the Bemis Center for Contemporary Arts (724 South 12th Street, Omaha, Nebraska) through February 15. The exhibition is organized by curator-in-residence Sylvie Fortin.
DOHA — In an interview with the Paris Reviewin 1993, the late Toni Morrison once said,
I think of beauty as an absolute necessity. I don’t think it’s a privilege or an indulgence. It’s not even a quest. I think it’s almost like knowledge, which is to say it’s what we were born for.
Her words resonated with me as I walked around El Anatsui’s retrospective Trimuphant Scale at Mathaf: Arab Museum of Modern Art in Doha, Qatar. The beauty of his work is at once bewildering and awe-inspiring. This beauty goes beyond aesthetics and is imbued with a world of ideological commentary dealing with colonialism in Africa, the politics of representation, conspicuous consumption, and the environment. The show is a historic work, long in the making by the late curator and intellectual Okwui Enwezor, as well as Chika Okele-Agulu, a professor at Princeton University and a former student of El Anatsui himself. While Enwezor passed away before the show premiered at the recently embroiled Haus Der Kunst in Munich, it is a testament to his relentless mission to move contemporary art beyond European and North American modes of representation, and his dedication to bringing artists and intellectuals from Africa and elsewhere in the Global South to the forefront of the conversation on aesthetic practices, writing, and curation — especially when it relates to their own regional context.
El Anatsui, a Ghanian artist, rose to prominence in the early 1970s with work inspired by the Sankofa (“Go Back and Pick”), a post-independence movement that sought to return cultural production and knowledge to their vernacular origins in Ghana. During this period he experimented with traditional woodcraft, producing pieces such as “On their Fateful Journey to Nowhere” (1974-75). This work — a wood disk with a cluster of footprintscarvedin the center— recontextualizes trays traditionally used by Ghanian merchants in terms of migration and displacement. He strips the object of its utilitarian function and reconfigures its meaning with various symbols that comment on the disruption of cultural and economic systems that existed prior to colonialism.
It’s important to note that El Anatsui is as much an artist of his region in the Western Coast of Africa as of his native homeland. He moved in 1975 to Nigeria to teach at the university in Nsukka, where he became a member of the Nsukka Group, a collective of Nigerian artists concerned with re-imagining the vernacular crafts of the Igbo people in the world of contemporary art. InChika Okeke-Agulu’s 2015 book Postcolonial Modernities: Art and Decolonization and Twentieth-Century Nigeria, he comments on El Anatsui’s historic ties to institutions and artists in Africa, asking:
Is it really possible to fully understand, say, the magnificent metal and wood sculptures of El Anatsui . . . without any knowledge of his intellectual connections to two Mbari artists, Uche Okeke and Vincent Kofi, and to Kwame Nkruahmah’s politics and the rhetoric of African personality?
By posing this question Okeke-Agulu addresses the histories of art institutions and artists in Nigeria and elsewhere in Africa and the manners in which those histories have often been forgotten in Euro-American contexts or disregarded as “imitations of western art.” From tracing the Sudanese Surrealist Movement to studying modernism and postcolonialism in Uche Okeke’s “the Art Society” in the late 1950s Nigeria, Okeke-Agulu attempts to create a cartography of grounded artistic practices from North to West Africa. In doing so, he affirms that they did not exist in vacuum, but in a confluence of ideological beliefs.
El Anatsui’s strength is his ability to reinvent himself and his mode of work in every period. Whether it is experimenting with chainsaws on wood or 3D-printing of portraits, he does not confine himself to a singular mode of practice. Yet his most inventive period was in the early 2000s, when he began working with metal and aluminum, creating epic sculptures out of bottle caps. “Gravity and Grace” (2010) reveals the true monumentality of his work. The 11-meter-wide work, composed of various recycled aluminum and coppers scraps, is to be displayed differently each time. He re-shapes its draping and alternates between horizontal and vertical positioning. This speaks to the fluidity of his work and his relentless emphasis on context, and reaffirms the sculptural language of his wall-hung pieces. Whether it is the allure of the intricate and colorful weaving of details or the size alone, the work is arresting.
Another striking work, “Tiled Flower Garden” (2012), makes a dramatic statement on the crumbling ecology of our world and the environmental legacy of colonialism. A vast ground-floor installation composed of liquor bottle caps and copper wire, it resembles a polluted wave engulfing the earth below it. The sense of environmental urgency El Anatsui communicates this work is powerful. From its vibrant colors to its ghastly form, the piece conveys a visceral sense of an imminent environmental collapse. By requiring viewers to gaze down at it, El Anatsui invites the audience to be participants in this conversation on ecology and not just passive observers.
Through his use of the Nigerian bottle caps, from such brands as Castello and Headmaster, El Anatsui relates this ecology to the history of liquor in the slave trade. In his article, “Alcohol under the Context of the Atlantic Slave Trade,” scholar Jose C. Curto indicates that out of 1.2 million slave captives shipped from Portuguese colonies in Angola from 1710 to 1830 alone, “33% have been estimated as purchased through the importation of alcoholic drinks.” In light of these numbers, El Anatsui’s work serves as a commentary on the establishment of breweries on the backbone of enslaved captives and the economic relationship between free-market industrialization and colonialism. In weaving the bottle caps together as a tapestry, he is also addressing contemporary issues related to taste-making, community, and labor. Liquor companies, particularly those from North America, succeeded in exporting “western” middle class taste and a market for certain beers in West Africa. Beer brands, such as Castello and Headmaster, then become part of everyday consumption, particularly for individuals who continue to be disenfranchised under informal neoliberal economic structures in West Africa.
At a conversation I attended between El Anatsui and Okeke-Agulu at Mathaf, the former noted that the question of “monumentality” for him came from the realization that he was using “cheap material”; for it to have a commanding presence it had to have a certain scale and appearance. While the material itself is “cheap,” consisting of forgettable or disposable objects from everyday life, El Anatsui transforms these into remarkable forms embedded with narratives and histories in manifold ways.
As El Anatsui combines traditional crafts from Ghana to Nigeria with contemporary art practices, his emphasis on hybridity informs his choice to bring different aesthetic possibilities to each sculpture. His commentary on ecology comes largely from his experience of collecting liquor bottle caps and cassava branches to bring back to his studio. Rather than approaching colonialism through a linear chronology, he couches it between the Atlantic Slave Trade of the past and the current unequal labor and market relations in West Africa. His tapestries and objects woven together signify that the current postcolonial and post-industrial moment cannot be understood without taking a critical look at the past. Breweries are tied to both ecological issues and an industrial history of slavery.
In an interview with academic and critic Carol Becker, Okwui Enwezor once stated:
We are grappling with very difficult historical issues that concern not only how we live and produce art and culture, but also how we experience it and our place as citizens within the global community.
When I look at El Anatsui’s work “Black Block” (2010), I think of Enwezor’s words. The work — overwhelming in size, the facade of a defined face emerging from its draping — is a reminder that our current ethical, cultural, and environmental choices exist between the dread of a stolen future and an unresolved relationship to the past.
El Anatsui: Triumphant Scale continues at Mathaf: Arab Museum of Modern Art (Education City, Doha, Qatar) through January 31.
LONDON — Unflinchingly Gamboge! Well, I ask you … The title of this exhibition is ridiculous, of course, shamelessly so. So pretentious too! And those two words taken together, they represent such a clash of personalities: gamboge — a yellow pigment made from gum resin — for the benefit of that sniffy, finicky-fingered mincer of a sliver of a fine art man who cannot for the life of him bear to use the word yellow because it is far too tainted by the degrading fact of its near-universal popularity, and unflinchingly because … well, how could Gamboge ever be chosen Unflinchingly?
Gamboge is far too knock-kneed and effete ever to be boldly unflinching in anybody’s company. Or could Glen Baxter be up to something else altogether? Come to think of it, isn’t Gamboge also the color of a Buddhist’s robes? And of many delicious spoonfuls of Bird’s Eye Custard into the bargain?
In short, who but Baxter, that perpetual troublemaker with words — he’s had a bit of a fixation on wimples too — would ever have thought that two such unlikely bedfellows could actually enjoy each other’s company?
Yes, the truth of it is that only Glen Baxter, that vintage, hopelessly anachronistic-cum-dadaistic, socially real comic book artist (of sorts) from — oh, deepest pit of putrefaction! — Leeds in Yorkshire, could have thought that such a solution as this one to the age-old problem of actually giving an exhibition a title would prove satisfactory to anyone but a miserable chancer of a tyke such as himself.
And yet there it is, brazen as a brass tack in the sole of the foot, cocking a snook at us in the window of a Cork Street gallery. Baxter is back again, with his little, brightly colored cellular lampoonings, executed in vivid crayon — Caran D’Ache, Derwent, and Primalo, since you’re asking — taking no prisoners but his own shadow.
I casually throw down the notion of Social Realism in relation to Glen and this new exhibition of 20 or so oldish, newish, and almost new works at Flowers Central, London, only because he said it first, in answer to a question I put to him just a few days ago (as the crow flies) as part of my ongoing efforts to do my best to pigeonhole this slippery-slithy man, who once pledged an allegiance to Max Ernst and Giorgio de Chirico, and is currently about as easy to wrestle to the ground as it would be to catch a butterfly in the jaws of a steam shovel. I’d been mentioning cartooning to him. Did that ring a bell, Glen?
Not at all! He is not a cartoonist, never has been, because cartoonists deal with the topical, the political, the newsworthy, the nasty, chaotic shapelessness of the Now. Whereas almost everything that he puts his hands on — from those wigs to the keen, Brideshead side-partings on the heads of smooth-jawed, bland young socialites; from the motorbikes to the jaw-jaws in the jungle — has been flung into the lumber room of history long ago.
But how can Glen’s work have anything whatsoever to do with society or realism when it seems to suggest, by its very unstable and ridiculous nature, that society is a construct as dependable as ant routines on a trapeze, and reality as real as the Nirvana to be glimpsed inside a soap bubble by any passing, Gamboged Buddhist monk?
Fortunately, there is a source of authority upon which we know we can always depend, even when it is profoundly mistaken in matters of fact and opinion, and that is – I hear you mouth the very words even before I lightsomely tap these keys – TheNew YorkReview of Books. Two years ago the NYRB published a book called Almost Completely Baxter – New and Selected Blurtings. And the imprint under which it was published? New York Review Comics! So there you have it.
Glen Baxter is not, after all, a variety of canned soup, opportunistically snatching his deft cue from Warhol. He is not an advanced experiment in robotics either. Nor is he a manufacturer of medicines. He is, according to the NYRB, a comic book artist from Leeds who currently has a studio in Camberwell, South London.
Some while ago, the great American poet John Ashbery tried to nail down Baxter’s lineage by naming the names of a few like-minded scribblers and daubers from the past. This is what he came up with: Lewis Carroll, Sax Rohmer, Marquis de Sade, Raymond Roussel, Luther Burbank, and the Comte de Lautréamont. The young Baxter got his first big break in the US in 1974, when Ron Padgett and Larry Fagin invited him to read his poetry at St Mark’s Church in New York. A subsequent show at the Gotham Book Mart Gallery came to the attention of Edward Gorey, who became an early champion. And so it has gone on.
So what are these works in the show today? As fairly customary, Glen is taking a tilt at the absurdities of the fuzzy, whizzy showbizyness of the art world. He’s been doing this for years. Remember, quite early on, that spread-legged cowboy, Stetsoned, bandanna-ed, low-slung-gunned to the nines, standing with his back to us, staring at a blank canvas by a Ryman or some other modern American showman/roustabout big in the auction house? The gunslinger’s frozen to the spot. His arms are about to wheel helplessly in the air. No well-greased bullet will avail him. Never in his life on the prairie has he been confronted by such a barefaced object of menace, fraudulence, and emasculating perplexity as this blank canvas which costs so much and promises so little. The caption, as bald as it is simple, reads: It was Tom’s first brush with modernism.
Baxter’s art hits its mark over and over by setting just a handful of pithy words beneath an image as ridiculously simple and crisp as any glass of water. The two go hand in hand, image and word, like lovely, well-practiced routines. The paper he habitually uses looks and feels a little ragged and antique, though it’s not. It’s Two Rivers watercolor paper, hand-made in Somerset. Its grainy texture allows for a strange stippling effect, which seems to dust the whole with an air of comic unreality. In this show, a cowboy bursts into a room through a doorway without a door. A torch flares in his hand. His presence there is set against the blue of the night sky beyond, the sliver of a high-riding crescent moon. Inside lies nothing but trouble: a mobile hangs in the air. The caption reads: “Calder or no Calder, I’m going in!” bellowed the connoisseur.
Will Baxter never stop threatening us with butterflies?
Unflinchingly Gamboge: the Selected Works of Glen Baxter continues Flowers Central (21 Cork Street, London, England) through Febuary 1.