Sunday, June 27, 2010

Bravo’s Work of Art

I think we have all seen enough examples of reality television shows over the past two decades to understand that they might better be dubbed “selectively edited TV.” From MTV’s The Real World to The Biggest Loser and Home Makeover: Extreme Edition, we recognize that producers and editors manipulate viewer emotions through music and sometimes one-sided footage. While the Survivor-style reality TV competition had already been a prime time fixture for several years, it was not until Bravo launched its successful Project Runway that a new sub-genre was born. And since that time Bravo has essentially built its network programming around reality-based shows.

June 2010 saw the launch of Bravo’s newest Project Runway-style offshoot. Work of Art: The Next Great Artist (full episodes available from Bravo's website) follows the same format as its predecessors: Project Runaway, Top Chef, Shear Genius, and Top Design. These competitions among members of the creative class have gained quite a following, both by those who are part of those communities or aspire to be. I was uneasy about the premise of a competition among artists when I first heard the show was in production, but was also interested to see what kind of animal this show would be. This assessment of the show is based only on the first three episodes. My opinions may change as the episodes progress and the first season reaches completion.

The contestants fit the stereotypes that we have come to reply upon for any reality-based contest show. There is a loud-mouthed, over-confident figure who claims to have “already won.” There is also an untrained artist who learned quickly that the cry of, “I’m not trained, so I don’t know all the ins and outs of the artworld,” was not going to fly with the judges. There are older artists, younger artists, a good split between the genders, a mix of ethnicities, artists from various faith backgrounds, and, because this is Bravo, at least one gay artist. This is the tried and true recipe that began with the first season of The Real World. It guarantees that personalities are going to come into conflict, making for more entertaining TV.

There is another stereotype that is perpetuated in Work of Art. It appeared in the first episode when executive producer Sarah Jessica Parker made a surprise visit to the artists. As she encouraged the artists in their quest one particular statement struck me. She wanted them to remember that “This is a competition.” Working alongside other artists can certainly push us to do our best, but instilling the idea that the artworld is competitive benefits no one. There are certainly elements of competition since some artists get that big grant, prize, or exhibition. Yet there always remains the element of subjectivity and the contemporary diversity of styles and materials is matched by the particular tastes of the tastemakers—gallerists, curators, critics.

Still, this is a show has a prize and that is one of the things that makes the premise worthwhile. The “winner” will receive an one-person exhibition at the Brooklyn Museum. Perhaps this was seen by the Brooklyn as a good way to repair an image that was sullied by the Sensation exhibition. I suspect that the winner will not provide us with anything nearly as controversial as Chris Ofili’s Holy Virgin Mary, though he or she may utilize materials that are outside the expectations of the general viewer.

In addition to the Brooklyn Museum’s role in Work of Art, I was pleasantly surprised at the caliber of the judges. In particular, the presence of critic Jerry Saltz on the panel of judges seems to add credence. In fact, the quality of the comments that the judges make is possibly the best feature of the show. After each competition “project” and its subsequent exhibition by all the artist contestants, the judges speak with the highest and lowest scoring artists. These limited critique events are actually something that I would suggest art school students watch. These comments give some relevant insights into what curators and gallerists are actually thinking when they are assessing the work of artists for exhibitions.

The individual projects that artists must complete are where the competitive nature of the show produces a problem. The artists are coming to the show with pre-established styles, adept at creating with certain materials but perhaps ignorant of the methods needed to work in other media. Most artists will not be overly proficient in a great multitude of media. When some artists failed to produce pleasing results in a competition based on assemblage it was by no fault of their own. Other artists, used to working with specific themes, did not fare well when trying to produce a book cover design—something that is actually considered the work of graphic designer and not a fine artist. There are corporate sponsorships at play here that have more to do with money than with good art. Are we supposed to think that Penguin Books approached Bravo with the idea of having an artist do a book cover for them?

The final decision of the judges in the first episode, wherein the artists had to produce portraits of each other, proved that they believed a “portrait” had to be based in a somewhat representational image of a person. The more abstract images, whether or not they revealed more about the subject than a mere image of that person, were not well received by the judges. Since there was no indication that this was something the judges expected, breaking the traditional mould for portraiture proved to be problematic. As in the actual artworld, the contestants found that it is always a risk to break the rules since sometimes it pay off and other times it does not.

What makes Work of Art more palatable is that the artists seem to have an innate understanding that, though they want the prize money and the Brooklyn Museum show, they are really in competition with themselves more than each other. They are challenging themselves to do bigger, better things. Bravo’s other competition shows seem much more cutthroat. Participants seem willing to sabotage one another. These artists are more apt to—believe it or not—help each other with their projects. The ideas and the images are going to live or die on their own, but the work is so diverse that the artists are more willing to help when they have more expertise with a certain material, offer suggestions (which may eventually lead to sabotage), or simply to help lift some enormous object.

This is the most redeeming part of the entire program. Contemporary art is built upon the art of the past. Each artist is indebted to his or her predecessors and contemporaries. Sharing and borrowing is part of this system and appropriation is at the heart of much contemporary art. Maybe these artists understand that better than the executives at Bravo.

Sunday, June 13, 2010

Sean Gyshen Fennell: Fashioning the Facade

For nearly a half century now the politics of identity have been a staple subject within the artworld. Critical Theory has caused many artists to reassess the cultural narratives that may have left certain persons—because of gender, culture, or race—to have no voice in larger conversations. The resultant art can sometimes be a bit too esoteric or narcissistic, but when the work touches on the universal human qualities we share it speaks to everyone.

Sean Gyshen Fennell’s work is based in gender identity. Many works are highly personal, yet they remain open enough to strike an empathic chord with those who do not share his identical experiences. The self portrait photographs that compose his Sewing the Facade (Sean) series come from a specific back story. One need not know all the details to uncover much of the emotional content.
In the pieces a viewer finds the artist, nude from the waist up, in evocative poses. Facial expressions fall somewhere between ecstasy and grief. The black background and choreographed movements recall Bill Viola’s Passions videos. Both artists are heirs of the postures found in religious art from the Renaissance.
Looking closer one finds that the artist has broken the picture plane. Actual needles and thread are piercing the surface of the work, creating sutures across the artist’s chest and torso. Stitches encircling the artist’s nipples seem at once sensual and painful. They call attention to a highly sensitive area and stir up questions about sexuality. As the chest is pushed together to form cleavage, the artist binds the gap with a seam of cross stitches. Although there appears to be no physical wound here, there is no escaping the concept of healing in this gesture. The placement of the actual needles in the hand of the artist lets us know he is working to heal his own wounds.
A related series of photographs, Sewing the Facade (Nathan), pushes the idea out of the artist’s strictly personal experience into a universal realm. These digital photographs are printed on canvas. That media choice is profound. The texture of the canvas can make the work appear like a photorealist painting. With similar poses, the photos seem even more closely aligned with renderings of mystics and martyrs depicted in Renaissance paintings.
Placing the images on canvas also connects the work to trends in mid-twentieth century artworks. The canvas, again, is pierced with needles and thread. One can relate this to the aggressive and destructive slashes of Lucio Fontana’s canvases. However, Gyshen Fennell is not content to leave gaping holes in the canvas. These pieces offer healing. When we find the double portrait of Nathan, connected by threads from one canvas to the other, we experience the desire to heal the wounds of the self.
The fabric and instruments of sewing also connect to the feminine. These tools were reclaimed as badges of honor for early Feminists. They were the indicators of “women’s work”—tools of the lesser crafts that the artists wore as a badge of honor. For Gyshen Fennell to appropriate these materials in his own work is to question gender identity once again. Is there now any gender specificity to the tools of art? Is anything appropriate for one artist but not another?
Since these pieces are about identity, the double portrait is significant. The images of Nathan appear less like works of healing and more like construction. The individual is creating his identity, fashioning his persona. The exterior facade is a construction based on the interior life of the individual. It is these universal elements that extend the artist’s work past the merely self referential and into a place in which we all exist.

Thursday, June 3, 2010

Louise Bourgeois: Farewell to the Spiderwoman

The world said goodbye to one of the most acclaimed “artist’s artists” on May 31, 2010. Louise Bourgeois was not a household name, but she did influence several generations of artists with her provocative and seemingly contradictory images. Since she lived to the ripe age of 98—working well into her 90s—it is no surprise that multiple generations have looked to her for inspiration. It is hard to imagine artists like Kiki Smith creating such mythical and symbolic works without Bourgeois as a forerunner.

Bourgeois was born in France to parents who worked as tapestry restorers. The mosaic of that household, with all its traumas and dysfunctionalities, was the endless well for her creativity. Her father was a charismatic philanderer who openly carried on an affair with the live-in governess. Though her mother tried to shield the children from the situation, she also acted as if the affair did not exist. The artist, therefore, somewhat loved and distained both parents.
By 1938 Louise had met and fallen in love with an American art historian. They married and she moved with him to the United States. During the next decade she became ensconced in the old boys club of the mid-century artworld. She studied with Stanley Hayter and several of the leading Surrealists at Hayter’s relocated Atelier 17 in New York City. Though Bourgeois denied any attachment to Surrealism, she was part of the influx of European Modernists who had converged on New York, transforming it to the art capital of the world. She had a rather successful career during this time—a period when many outstanding female artists, such as Lee Krasner, were still relegated to the backseat of the artworld bus.

During the next two decades Bourgeois seemed to disappear into obscurity. She continued working steadily as her art, quietly, changed the way women were perceived within art society. The questions she was asking and the ideas she explored were especially influential on the new generation of feminist artists.

It wasn’t until 1982 that Bourgeois was suddenly omnipresent within the artworld. The Museum of Modern Art held a retrospective of her work—the first for a woman at that institution. At the age when most Americans would have been approaching retirement, Bourgeois was just about to begin the most important decades of her career. This is where the contradictions began to be evident. This tiny senior citizen was creating chiseled marble sculptures. This grandmotherly figure often produced overtly sexualized images—like the infamous sculpture tucked under her arm in her portrait photograph by Robert Mapplethorpe. But she also produced sensitive watercolors and doll-like figures sewn from her old clothing. The variety of materials appropriated always made her difficult to pinpoint.

 In recent years Bourgeois has most often been associated with her spider sculptures. These tend to be gigantic spiders that hover over the viewer, transforming him or her into prey. Typically exhibited in public settings, these spiders are made on a human scale. The spider image is derived from the artist’s mother and the family tapestry business. Bourgeois saw her mother as a protector and a weaver. Still, the ominous quality of the spiders cannot be fully explained through analogies to the artist’s mother alone.
The marble sculptures of Bourgeois exist singly, but also as elements within larger works. Often, they are in the form of disembodied appendages. The body is always the central image of Bourgeois’s work, even when it is absent. Hands, feet, and headless and armless bodies remind the viewer of the traumas of life and the severings that populate our relationships. Figures exhibit amputations that recall the effects of tattered relationships.
Other marble sculptures mix the sexual characteristics of males and females. The artist never saw herself as a feminist, per se, though the evidence of her childhood experiences and relationships to her parents bleed through in these works. The rounded and organic forms are at once abstract compositions, but they can simultaneously be read as hybridized breast and phallic forms. They are inter-sexed works that allude to the physically complimentary nature of men and women. The red watercolor seen here, with a clearly male figure seemingly carrying a fetus within its womb, creates a similar effect.

The spider is certainly feminine for Bourgeois, but it seems to represent a mixture of the mother and the governess. The female spider is protective, but it has an element of temptress to it. Bourgeois created small room-like installations that she called “cells’ or “lairs.” The latter term relates specifically to the spider. When the lairs are created with wire fencing they have a web-like appearance that doubles as a place of confinement. It is contradictions like these that make Bourgeois difficult to decipher. From one work to another, and sometimes within a single work, the symbolic imagery can read as multiple things all at the same time.

Along with the fearful emotions that are conjured with many of the artist’s works, there is an alternate side of healing that is also derived from Bourgeois’s youth. The doll-like sculptures, sewn from remnants of the artist’s old clothing, relate to the mending of worn tapestries. These dolls, or puppets, are reincarnations and reanimations. The new life found in these works is like the adage of “making lemons into lemonade.” Bourgeois has taken the tatters of the childhood she was handed and turned them into works that go past the hurts of her youth. These were not art therapy for her, but a way to deeply touch these similar wounds in others, that all may move past their common tragedies.
Bourgeois was an artist who adapted to the times. She lived through the days of Modernism, when the Cubist abstractions of Picasso were seen as revolutionary. Unlike Picasso, and many other Modernists, Bourgeois significantly adapted her work in startling ways over her many decades. The message remained the same though she was able to develop new processes to speak to new times, influencing countless younger artists along the way.