Fan Mail

Fan Mail: Fei Li

Experiencing Fei Li’s landscapes is like walking into a jungle. Her tangled calligraphy leaps and coils across the paper like vines, folding in associations with visual language; the disparate sensations of walking through dense vegetation and reading a scrawled manuscript are flattened into one experience, such that the idea that the two were ever separate seems like an abstract theory. Li’s work suggests an almost synesthetic relationship between embodiment and reading, naturalizing the simultaneous experience of bodily movement through space and cognitive or cultural movement through language. It does not seem strange to believe that one can feel like one is reading a landscape like a book.

Fei Li. ENTANGLEMENT: Trial 0, 2016; ink on paper; 48 x 36 in. Courtesy of the Artist.

Fei Li. Entanglement: Trial 0, 2016; ink on paper; 48 x 36 in. Courtesy of the Artist.

Li’s landscapes are fundamentally abstract, yet their linguistic evocations seem like conflations of written text and figurative image, despite being neither. Based on Li’s training in Chinese calligraphy from when she was two years old, the movement of her brushstrokes seems to call forth a visceral association with writing. They almost resemble metonymic Arabic calligraphy drawings, in which the word for a figure is written to stylistically resemble it. However, Li’s work refers not to a singular object or phrase but rather to a holistic sensation of movement and space. The result is a dynamic series of ink drawings that encourage a viewer to engage with a form of reading that precedes language, a paradoxical experience of translating without words. This is not to say that the work’s meaning is beyond words, but rather that it demonstrates the reciprocal relationship between words and meaning. Far from being unable to be articulated, Li’s landscapes feel like the beginnings of a new written language.

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New Orleans

Mickalene Thomas: Waiting on a Prime-Time Star

The self is a slippery thing—an entity built on slippery grounds and shaped by slippery forces. The French psychotherapist Jacques Lacan perhaps put it best that “the self” is both something we build as well as imagine; it is located between the fictions of the ego and the fictions of the unconscious, where unity between the two remains impossible but deeply necessary for one’s development.[1] The divide is a drama manufactured by us and for us, built of fragmented impulses and drives that work to negotiate a final assimilation that will (crucially) never take place. It was Lacan’s notion of “the self,” and our desire to organize it, that remained with me as I meandered through the Newcomb Art Museum’s current exhibition of the work of Mickalene Thomas, Waiting on a Prime-Time Star. Thomas’s striking images of women posing for, gazing at, and confronting the viewer raises a question: How does the image of the self that we construct for ourselves compare to the one others create for us? Together, what kind of collage does this make?

Mickalene Thomas, Installation Shot of Collage Wall, 2009-2016. Photo: Jeffrey Johnston.

Mickalene Thomas. Collage Wall, 2009-2016; installation view. Photo: Jeffrey Johnston.

This question is not small, and its profundity is rendered expansively in Thomas’s large-scale paintings of women, which are arguably her most recognizable work. Whether her subject is a friend, relative, or stranger, Thomas finds a way to articulate their power and beauty by engaging the history of female representation. Though the work in the exhibition utilizes various genres and media, the strength of much of Thomas’s work is clearly rooted in a deep investment in the history of painting, its long tradition of masters and masterpieces, and the generations of audiences that have accepted its tropes and icons. Thomas’s work both depends on this rich context and smartly subverts it by claiming its own space within a tradition that has largely excluded, demeaned, and caricatured persons of color and women.

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Palo Alto

The Conjured Life: The Legacy of Surrealism at the Cantor Arts Center

All publicity concerning The Conjured Life: The Legacy of Surrealism at Stanford University’s Cantor Art Center features The Courtship (1949) by Gertrude Abercrombie, one of six artists from the Chicago-Milwaukee-Madison parasurrealist group of the ’40s. I saw this painting once in LACMA’s all-women show of Surrealists, In Wonderland (2012), and looked forward to our reunion some five years and 361 miles hence. The inclusion of a figure such as Abercrombie suggested a comprehensive, scholarly affair, so imagine my chagrin on viewing The Conjured Life only to find no Courtship. True, the show features Homage to Alfred Rethal (1987) by John Wilde, another of the aforementioned parasurrealists, and that painting’s a beaut—akin to The Courtship itself—with a red-robed skeleton sawing on a bone violin while a masked couple dances in the background. But neither Homage’s inclusion nor the confirmation I’ve received from the Cantor Art Center of The Courtship’s absence addresses the question of why the painting is in the show’s advertising.

Gertrude Abercrombie. The Courtship, 1949; oil on Masonite; 21 3/4 × 25 1/4 in. Courtesy of the Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago.

Gertrude Abercrombie. The Courtship, 1949; oil on Masonite; 21 3/4 × 25 1/4 in. Courtesy of the Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago.

Such cavalier unconcern is indicative of The Conjured Life, a restaging of an earlier show at Chicago’s Museum of Contemporary Art. The exhibition, which posits the influence of surrealism on a disparate miscellany of contemporary works, almost completely fails in its promised “legacy.” I can accept Francesca Woodman with her disquieting photographs, or Jess, with his collages that begin where Ernst’s end, as inheritors of Surrealism. And Willie Cole, with a pair of 1992 assemblages made from old electric irons, plausibly makes the grade. But most of the more contemporary works indicate little genuine engagement with Surrealism’s theoretical underpinnings or even more generalized implications of Surrealist techniques or innovations. The worst offenders here—Buzz Spector’s Mallarme [sic] (1987–88), a curio cabinet with lines by its titular poet painted in gold leaf on the glass, or David Noonan’s untitled 2012 work, a monumental silkscreen on linen photo collage of a couple of goofy-looking dudes—smack of a fetishized craftsmanship utterly alien to Surrealism’s aspiration to pierce the boundary between art and life. Donald Roller Wilson’s use of Old Masterly oil technique in The Transformation of Helen’s Brother Larry (1980) achieves something of Dali’s grotesquery but none of his paranoid psychological depth or genius for trompe l’oeil; it’s just a fat kid in a monster mask and skirt. This is “surrealist” only if you take that as a synonym for “weird.”

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#Hashtags: Masculine-Feminine

In response to the Trump administration’s ongoing display of toxic masculinity at work, the Brooklyn Museum’s Elizabeth Sackler Center for Feminist Art has taken the unusual but vital step of incorporating a project about male identity into their “Year of Yes” thematic takeover of the museum. Iggy Pop Life Class by Jeremy Deller is an inquiry into the nature of manhood, corroborated with art-historical artifacts from the museum’s collection. Inviting a group of artists of varying ages, races, and genders to draw the notorious proto-punk rocker from life, Deller positions the male body at the center of questions about bodily self-expression and autonomy. Yet this gesture is less a reversal than a restoration, pointing to the central role that the male nude has played in academic art from Classicism to Modernism.

Iggy Pop Life Class by Jeremy Deller. Organized by the Brooklyn Museum, February 21, 2016. (Photo: Elena Olivo, © Brooklyn Museum)

Iggy Pop Life Class by Jeremy Deller. Organized by the Brooklyn Museum, February 21, 2016. © Brooklyn Museum. Photo: Elena Olivo.

Deller is an artist who consistently returns to themes of masculinity and its obstacles. In his 2014 installation in the UK pavilion at the Venice Biennale, he juxtaposed archival photographs from the 1972–73 miners’ strike with images of David Bowie on his final, concurrent Ziggy Stardust tour. The contrast between miners, whose rough skin and clothes bespeak a hardscrabble working-class existence long associated with masculine attributes, and Bowie at peak androgyny, is a dynamic that Deller replicates in Iggy Pop Life Class. A key difference between the projects is that the masculine and the feminine impulses of the earlier work are explored simultaneously through examination of the rock star’s singular body.

In Deller’s words from the Brooklyn Museum website, “Iggy Pop has one of the most recognizable bodies in popular culture. A body that is key to an understanding of rock music, and that has been paraded, celebrated, and scrutinized through the years in a way that is unusual for a man.” Two aspects of this statement warrant unpacking: First is the assumption that rock music has a body, and that body is male and white. The second is the assumption that scrutiny of Pop’s body tracks with the same kind of body-image policing that women and people of color experience daily.

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Interview with Njideka Akunyili Crosby

Today from our friends at BOMB Magazine, we bring you author Erica Ando’s interview with Nigerian artist Njideka Akunyili Crosby. Crosby says of her paintings, “I always make sure the woman is in a position of power—where her agency is not questioned and where she is an active participant.” This article was originally published in BOMB 137: Fall 2016.

I Refuse to Be Invisible, 2011, acrylic, charcoal, and xerox transfer on paper, 24 × 16 inches. Courtesy of the artist.

Njideka Akunyili Crosby. I Refuse to Be Invisible, 2011; acrylic, charcoal, and xerox transfer on paper; 24 × 16 in. Courtesy of the Artist.

The figures who people Njideka Akunyili Crosby’s large-scale works—hybrids of painting, drawing, collage, and printmaking—inhabit familiar-looking domestic interiors. They appear quiet and pensive, poised in the moment before glances turn into conversation. The Nigerian-born artist, however, makes their voices heard—ruminations on the day-to-day negotiations of postcolonial life once so obvious as to be assumed, but which have taken on greater urgency as the issues of global immigration threaten to subsume them.

Trained at Swarthmore, the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts, and Yale, Akunyili Crosby uses the languages and strategies of Western art, absorbing and subverting classical approaches in order to express ideas more pertinent to our times. Human interactions often serve as focal points in her works, revealing how immigrant life merges—and rattles—disparate identities. Despite the daily power struggles that fragment, divide, and segregate, Akunyili Crosby expresses the desire for wholeness in tight figurative compositions that contain layers of personal memories and of Nigerian culture and politics. Her survey exhibition at the Norton Museum of Art this past spring, the Prix Canson 2016 this summer, her participation in the Biennale de Montréal, along with her first solo show in Europe at Victoria Miro Gallery (London) this fall—all attest to the artist’s rising prominence and the clarity of her vision.

Read the full article here.


Shotgun Reviews

From Generation to Generation: Inherited Memory and Contemporary Art at the Contemporary Jewish Museum

Shotgun Reviews are an open forum where we invite the international art community to contribute timely, short-format responses to an exhibition or event. If you are interested in submitting a Shotgun Review, please click this link for more information. In this Shotgun Review, Carlos Kong reviews From Generation to Generation: Inherited Memory and Contemporary Art at the Contemporary Jewish Museum in San Francisco.

From Generation to Generation: Inherited Memory and Contemporary Art, 2017; installation view, San Francisco, CA. Courtesy of the Contemporary Jewish Museum. Photo: JKA Photography.

From Generation to Generation: Inherited Memory and Contemporary Art, 2016; installation view, San Francisco, CA. Courtesy of the Contemporary Jewish Museum. Photo: JKA Photography.

Memories take no singular form. They exist simultaneously as the recollection of thoughts, sensations, and experiences. They stay alive in feelings and as images. That we even remember events not necessarily experienced by us is designated by the term postmemory, which forms the organizing concept of From Generation to Generation: Inherited Memory and Contemporary Art, co-curated by Pierre-François Galpin and Lily Siegel at the Contemporary Jewish Museum.

Theorized by Columbia University professor Marianne Hirsch, postmemory connotes the memories a latter generation maintains in relation to the events and traumas that preceded it. Emergent from Holocaust studies, postmemory frames the process by which experiences that are so affective and beyond resolve become transferred across generations as memories. Without their direct encounter, such memories are inherited through family stories and gifted objects, and might manifest in imaginations, specters, and projections. Postmemory presumes the ethical commitment of addressing the past as well as the educational responsibility necessary for its persistence in the present. Traversing various styles and media, the artists in From Generation to Generation—from Europe, the Americas, Asia, and Africa—draw forth the inheritance of memory as contemporary art’s antidote to amnesia.

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From the Archives

From the Archives: Interview with Judith Bernstein

In our current age of doublespeak and “alternative facts,” Elspeth Walker’s candid interview with artist Judith Bernstein stands as a paragon of direct communication. As Bernstein says: “[I]t’s important to be true to what you want to say and how you want to handle that. You have to keep moving forward. You can’t just stay where you are. You really have to constantly keep moving in terms of what you want to say, how you are saying it, and reevaluating it. It’s a very tough road.” This interview was originally published on June 4, 2015.

Judith Bernstein. Voyeur, 2015; installation view, Mary Boone Gallery, New York. Courtesy of the Artist. Photo: John Reynolds. 

Judith Bernstein. Voyeur, 2015; installation view, Mary Boone Gallery, New York. Courtesy of the Artist. Photo: John Reynolds.

Since 1967, Judith Bernstein has provided a swift undercurrent to painting in New York. Until recently, despite her storied history in the scene, the grit, tenacity, and technically precise rebel yell of Bernstein’s work has largely gone under-recognized. On the occasion of her current show at Mary Boone Gallery, I sat down with the artist to discuss her newest work, the fantastic threat of the looming vagina, feminist recourse to power, and perseverance.

Elspeth Walker: When I first saw your actual paintings, I realized that I hope they upset men.

Judith Bernstein: Well, I do the work that I have to do. If the men are upset, if they’re not upset, if they love it, if they don’t love it—whatever. I don’t think about the reactions of other people. I am on my own trajectory. There are a lot of very angry women, but my work is about the continually changing dialogue between men and women and about women being much stronger, now.

EW: I feel the abrasiveness of your work is welcome and necessary.

JB: I think one has to be very direct, in all kinds of ways—in my case, genitalia and everything right in your face. I’ve found that directness is a metaphor for my life. My background was quite dysfunctional; I had to scream and yell to be heard. And for a long time I was not heard; I was not given a show in the New York gallery system for many years. I’m thrilled that now I can talk about what I want to say.

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