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Comments on Art

Updated on April 19, 2016

Visual culture provokes thought and dialogue, art provokes response, art provokes comments.

Posted below are our observations and comments on visual works.

general comments by Tom Csaszar

Writing and reading what is written about art can help one understand the art world dialogues with which works are connected and help understand how works out in the world are read by others. Visual works generate visual dialogues through their interactions with each other as well as through the dialogues of writing.

The French poet and essayist Edmund Jabès wrote that a bad book is a book poorly read by its first reader. Likewise a bad visual work or painting could be said to be a work not completely seen by its first viewer. Creating--and also responding to--visual works requires a concentration and focus. This should not be replaced by a “detached” viewpoint. But one should augment one’s impassioned view of visual experience to include what aspects of a work another may see. The act of reading art criticism and writing about works of art can be part of this process, which can short circuit incomplete responses to works.

Donald Moffett by Emily Elliot

At first introduction, Moffett’s shag paintings really are something a viewer can be excited about, but the sparks fade to mundane more quickly than one would hope.

Often times lately, my conversations with other artists turn to topics of material and surface texture. In such a recent conversation, someone shared excitement with me about Donald Moffett’s peculiar paintings which are referred to by the artist as ‘shag monochromes’. As told to me, these paintings are described as being highly textured, seeming to be factory-made. They appear as if they’re plaques of Astro Turf or some variety of plastic fiber that is not immediately, or ever, quite nameable, but is immediately attractive and intriguing. These are however made of oil paint. This oil paint is extruded from a kind of piping tip, as one would expect to be used by a baker or pastry decorator, and the culminating result takes the form of chromatically intense, uniform, and highly glossy “strands” that look quite like artificial grass.

I was recently able to see these paintings for myself. At first, a singular painting was seen at The Armory Show’s Contemporary wing at Pier 94 where the artist was included in a group showing by his representing gallery. Then a whole host of the shag monochromes appeared at the ADAA Marianne Boesky Gallery booth where Moffett was the spotlighted artist, filling the entire space with his attention-grabbing pieces.

It is true that these paintings are interesting and mysterious in texture and presence. In addition to the extruded strands, the paintings’ supports are also characters of curiosity. Like a more traditional painting the paint is applied on linen, though this linen is backed with thick plywood. This whole support structure is then drilled through to leave wide gaping tunnels (sometimes drilled perpendicular to the picture plane and sometimes drilled at an angle) which reveal the thin layers of wood that are laminated to build the depth of the plywood. After this drilling, the paint is piped in a very regular and ordered way so that the strands are nearly identical, creating a carpeting effect across the surface of the canvas. Around the periphery of the drillings the paint strands sort of ‘fall in’ to the hole, their tips bending to point into the void but mostly staying out of it.

As this system of creating is established the artist goes on to make variations on theme. Here’s one done in pink. Now one in silver. Then lavender, followed by a green so deep it is almost black, a white, and an orange one. Maybe one has a lot of drilled holes, and then the next has only one hole. This one has holes that only cut away the very edge of the canvas, and that one has only centrally contained holes. Then, there are a few variations of the edge of the canvases-a scalloped edge, a Moroccan tile sort of arabesque edge, a straight-cut edge, one with tunnels that radiate from center to edge. There’s just enough variety provided to let us know that the artist isn’t making quite the same piece over again.

As I reflect on this, I’m reminded of Chuck Close’s advice to his younger self (CBS News, April 10, 2012) in which he says to “sign on to a process and see where it takes you.” Does Moffett have the same intention here as Close in making so many variations, slight as they are, on the same system? Is he exhausting all possibilities of the process so that he may inadvertently (or quite deliberately) discover a revelatory new tangent that will transition into a different body of work or bring this one to a fresh intersection with something else?

It is my hope that this ‘signing-on and seeing where it goes’ is a definite concern of Moffett’s, especially in reference to this particular collection of pieces that are quite solidly ‘signed on’ to the particular process of paint-extrusion and support-drilling. I hope that these multiples are his explorations of how this system can manipulate and how it can deviate in incremental steps that will eventually reward repetitive efforts with a uniquely distinct “eureka”. And if they are not-if they are autonomous entities meant as ends unto themselves-I say that he then is losing the artistry and poetry of what that initial system sparked by turning it into a commodity of quantity.

In reference to this speculated commodification, I take particular issue with the introduction of variation which is not actually varied enough to constitute meaningful difference between the pieces. Because this variation is so slight, the variation itself does not act as a stand-out quality to differentiate one piece from the next. It instead dulls the potency and impact of the system’s key players by making them seem commodified in that the unique quality of the material is exploited in too many possible (but really the same) forms.

Absolutely, I believe that Moffett should exhaust all possible and potential deviations of his theme. I’m convinced that this taxonomic approach can be crucial to the growth and development of this process and employment of material. But do we as viewers need to see all of it? Do we need to see so much of what may happen behind the walls of the studio?

To let us in on so many of the constricted variations leaves me to feel like the artist is concerned too closely with output and maximizing product. I realize that Piece A isn’t so special because Piece B, right next to it, wants to be unique but really isn’t. For this reason, seeing the lone piece at the Armory Pier was a treat-all of the interesting aspects of the painting were fresh and novel in their unfamiliarity. However, when I was able to view the whole sampling of the too-many shag monochromes at the ADAA booth, disappointment was felt as I was made aware that what I previously thought was a rare mode of making was actually quite commonplace in Moffett’s artistic practice. By the end of it all, I’m reminded of a Happy Meal toy given to a child, which at first is a source of excitement, but too quickly loses its appeal for something more interactive and engaging.

At first introduction, Moffett’s shag paintings really are something a viewer can be excited about. But when we’re given too much without enough substantial variety, the sparks that could be powerful fade to mundane more quickly than one would hope.

An Examination of Derek Jarman's Blue by Rebecca Sedehi

Despite the separation that one might expect to feel in front of a vacant screen; the viewer is actually entrenched in Jarman’s emotional journey.

Composer Frederick Chopin wrote, “Simplicity is the final achievement. After one has played a vast quantity of notes and more notes, it is simplicity that emerges as the crowning reward of Art.” Blue, the last film by Derek Jarman chronicles Jarman’s experience of physical decay as complications from AIDS render him partially blind. While film is normally defined as a continuum of moving images, here the viewer is presented with an alternative approach; the screen is filled with a single shot of deep, radiant blue. The simplicity of this pure color functions as both a powerful backdrop and an empty space where the viewer is able to project his/her own images.

In this saturated field of color, the viewer is instantly reminded of Yves Klein’s renowned monochromatic blue paintings. Klein believed that, “The use of a single color, like the use of one note drawn out, creates a sense of the infinite, of continuous immaterial space, of which we are catching (or hearing) only a brief glimpse, a point of possible entry, a tiny invitation to experience, perhaps ever so slightly, the vast reality beyond what is visible.” Jarman was also deeply fascinated by the connection between mysticism and art and the monochromatic works of Klein affected him profoundly.

In 1974, after visiting an exhibit of Klein’s work at the Tate Gallery, Jarman was inspired to make a film dedicated to the artist. However, he did not pursue this idea until almost a decade later following his diagnosis of AIDS. At this point Jarman’s health was in rapid decline and his original concept for the film transformed into an intimate portrayal of his struggle with AIDS. Despite these thematic changes Jarman stayed true to his original concept by eliminating images, opting instead for one color (Yves Klein Blue) to create the “vast reality beyond what is visible.” Thus, Jarman’s “Blue” is simultaneously an autobiographical narrative and a tribute to Yves Klein.

Throughout the 79 minute soundscape several narrators (including Jarman) question and probe the philosophical and metaphysical meaning of blue through poetic descriptions and free association:

Blue of my heart

Blue of my dreams

Slow blue love

Of delphinium days

Blue is the universal love in which man bathes - it is the terrestrial paradise.

Here, blue is defined as an internal emotion that correlates to the infinite. Blue, followed by the words- heart, dreams, love and days conjures particular human experiences but are ultimately rooted in a universal language. Even more abstract phrases such as, “Blue bottle buzzing” or “blue canvasses fluttering in the wind….blue people from over the sea” ground the viewer by using words that reference ordinary things like “bottles”, “canvases” and “people.” At the same time Jarman’s use of the words “sea” and “wind” evoke the elemental and amorphous qualities of an unattainable space.

Though Blue is undoubtedly a film about death it succeeds in being more than a somber film. The narrator at once expresses both wonder and awe as he contemplates the unknowable and mysterious state of nonexistence.

“One can know the whole world

Without stirring

Without looking out the window

One can see the way of heaven

The further one goes

The less one knows”

Beauty reveals itself inside layers of sadness, anger and fear. The narrator longs for his former, vital self but gradually surrenders to the void, as death is inevitable.

“Impatient youths of the sun

Burning with many colours

Flick combs through their hair

In bathroom mirrors

Fucking with fusion and fashion

Dance in the beams of emerald lasers

Mating on suburban duvets

Cum splattered nuclear breeders

What a time it was.”

As the viewer is submerged in blue, a tapestry of sound is woven together with fragments of music and voices that collide with the banal, mechanical, noises of modern life. The monotonous drone of the hospital reiterates the strange and relentless embrace of death. Compelling metaphors such as “My retina is a distant Mars” and surreal statements like, “I’ve walked behind the sky,” create multiple reflections of illness and dying. Like Sigmund Freud’s “rules” for arranging patients away from himself during psychoanalysis to “avoid giving the patient material for interpretation” Jarmon’s positioning of the viewer in front of a blank blue screen allows one to form one’s own images through personal association and intuition. After all, Jarman is a patient himself during the film and his vulnerability and fear are palatable emotions that form the basis of the narrative. However, despite the separation that one might expect to feel in front of a vacant screen; the viewer is actually entrenched in Jarman’s emotional journey. Through the meticulous craftsmanship of sound, music and Jarman’s poignant narrative; the viewer’s senses are magnified transcending one's imagination into a visceral and emphatic experience.

Works cited:

Brougher, Kerry; Vergne, Phillipe; Ottman, Klaus, Yves Klein: With the Void, Full Powers, Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden/Walker Art Center, 2010

Jarman, Derek, Kicking the Pricks, Univ Of Minnesota Press; Minnesota, 2010

Barbara Kasten: Construct PC/XI, 1982, Polacolor print

Barbara Kasten, Architectural Site No. 8, 1986

Impossible Landscapes: Barbara Kasten at the ICA by Nadine Beauharnois

Thoughts on "Barbara Kasten: Stages" at the Institute of Contemporary Art, Philadelphia.

At first encounter with Barbara Kasten’s work, I generally know I am looking at photographs, but the certainties end there. In particular, with her often richly colored, expertly composed “Constructs” from the 1970s and 80s, Kasten provides just enough information to ground me in the world in some way: the edge of a mirror, or a tear in the backdrop paper. When I think I’ve begun to unravel the puzzle and am about to identify the possible corner of her studio where wall and floor meet, or when I discover a tangible object like a piece of wood or a metal hook, this recognition is just as quickly dissolved by a strategically placed rod or mirror that again obfuscates any logical read of the environment. Visual games such as these are the strongest undercurrent of her retrospective at the Institute of Contemporary Art in Philadelphia, an absorbing and wonderfully arranged show. Organized relatively chronologically, “Barbara Kasten: Stages” begins with the artist’s early experiments with non-silver photography (primarily the cyanotype), as well as large-format Polaroid film used to make her Constructs series.

Included are several pieces from the Photogenic Paintings series from 1974-77. Kasten’s choice of BFK Rives paper for the cyanotype photograms in this body of work results in a rich, velvety surface that connects the work as closely to painting as photography. For example, Photogenic Painting Untitled 76/7 from 1976, suggests a vague scene obscured by wire mesh, or perhaps low-resolution security footage or infrared video. In Kasten’s hands, a process as simple as making a photogram is turned into an enjoyably complex game of visual hide-and-seek. Her use of crumpled fiberglass screen creates shallow, textured spaces, and I found myself trying to look beyond the screen to see what it was that Kasten wanted to “represent”: flowing fabric of a dress, perhaps. Of course Kasten’s intentions weren’t to represent any object in the traditional sense, but the tension she created by treating the fiberglass screen as both subject and object remind me of the importance of not just the photographed environment, but also of the tangible objects used to make her images. In a helpful curatorial decision, the Photogenic Paintings are situated in close proximity to Kasten’s fiber works from 1971-72. The fiber works, Seated Form(s), are suggestive of bodily orifices in their convex and deeply concave surfaces. The bodily element is augmented by 3 nearby diazotypes on newsprint, depicting a female nude seated on and otherwise posing/interacting with one of the chairs. While the show is more or less chronologically arranged, the inclusion of a large pigment print from 2012 (Scene III) with a group of works otherwise from the 1970s, is demonstrative of Kasten’s sustained interest in the potential of that fiberglass mesh screen. In Scene III the screen is suspended, shown almost in full as a large, flat rectangle. The screen is now a subject in an environment instead of a surface.

This play between subject and surface and the importance of props and lighting in Kasten’s work recalls the show’s title and another of its themes: theater. When confronted with a theatrical stage, we know the action is a farce, but we believe it for the duration of the performance. In a recent piece for Art in America, Kasten writes “I considered my “Constructs” to be similar to stage sets, and my photographs of them look like impossible landscapes. Central to this work was my own process of building and manipulating the sculptural objects and repositioning the lights” (AiA 33). The photographs themselves present an impenetrable, staged world of often geometric and angular objects like metal hooks, corrugated metal, rectangular mirrors, plaster pyramids and the shadows that these objects cast upon one another. Indeed, in the best Constructs, light and color play off the carefully composed props in ways that create environments that evoke reality just enough to feel familiar, without conveying actual situations that would be found in the real world. I take issue is the size of the prints, however. Modestly sized prints (17”x 14”, 10”x8”) feel more like keyhole views into these staged worlds. Larger prints, like Diptych II Construct XXX-XXIX (approximately sized 36”x24”) are closer in size to windows, and allowed me to feel as though I could almost enter Kasten’s paradoxical, richly colored and textured environments, and for these reasons, are more compelling.

The allure of Kasten’s photographs lies in their visual paradoxes: objects juxtaposed in such a way that identifying where objects end and space and light begin is constantly in flux. With this in mind, I was at first disappointed by the inclusion of some of the actual wood and plaster props on a low floor pedestal. Kasten’s work is primarily two-dimensional, and to extract some of the props from her wonderful, imaginary, staged worlds seemed to drain the magic from the photographs. On the other hand, Kasten’s process of making her images is more akin to that of a sculptor or installation artist. Thus, the presence of a few of her props has the potential to heighten our awareness of the level of theatricality and trickery in her photographs, particularly in relation to the nearby print Metaphase 3, from 1986. This photograph features some of the pyramid props and mirrors bathed in mottled, multicolored light. In the photographed environment, the props take on personalities far more mysterious than their humble, white-painted presence in the gallery. Looking from the props to the photograph and back again, the transformative capacities of color, light, and photographic techniques such as framing, become all the more apparent. The highly controlled nature of Kasten’s studio environment also becomes even more evident. In her Constructs, every step of the process is carefully considered: building the structure, lighting it, and framing it within the camera.

A refreshing counterpoint to the controlled world of the “Constructs” is the inclusion of several prints from the Architectural Site series. While still highly staged and requiring much advance planning, because the photographs in this series take existing architecture as their subject, a certain relinquishing of control of the minutiae was necessary. Kasten was required to respond to a subject that she herself had not built from scratch. The pieces included at the ICA that are more successful are those in which the architectural elements seem more fully integrated into the image, such as Frank Gehry’s Loyola Law School building in Architectural Site 8, December 21, 1986. Less successful is the recognizable staircase in Architectural Site 7, July 14, 1986 (Cesar Pelli’s World Financial Center in New York). This piece seems like more of an opportunity to play with color, lights, and mirrors, and less of an attempt to utilize architectural elements as formal devices with which to make an image of an abstract world as compelling yet impossible to “enter” as her Constructs. The inclusion of some Architectural Site works also underscores the importance of architecture to Kasten’s practice from the beginning of her career. In the 1960s, she visited Le Corbusier’s Notre Dame du Haut in Ronchamp, France. Kasten recalls “As I walked into the cool quiet of the interior, swatches of color floated in space, changing shape as they landed on surfaces of different textures…I felt as if I were in an intangible space, at once outside of reality and deeply connected to the physical properties of light” (AiA 32-33). This experience and Kasten’s writing about it are nowhere better illuminated than in recent photographs such as Transposition 8, 2014. Her work from the past decade is sparer, less chock-full of objects and their shadows. The air in these environments is palpable, and in composing her scenes primarily with clear acrylic sheets, Kasten seems to now achieve more of what so inspired her in Le Corbusier’s cathedral, with less.

A word should be said about the large-scale video made specifically in response to the ICA’s architecture (“Axis”, 2015). Kasten’s white cubes and pyramid props again make an appearance, rotating rather dizzyingly and projected onto a 30-foot tall corner, accompanied by a soundtrack of vaguely industrial noises. The video responds in appropriately formal ways to the architecture of that corner of the ICA, and insofar as it relies on geometric objects, echoes much of the other work in the show, but doesn't do much more than that. On the other hand, the soundtrack, which can be heard throughout the exhibition galleries, establishes a lonesome tone that serves as a fitting, unifying soundscape for work that compels us to linger, to imagine ourselves in its environment, yet interminably keeps us at bay.

Works Cited

Kasten, Barbara. "Architectural Light." Art in America Jan. 2015: 32-33. Print.

© 2015 commentsonart


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