Art Review

50 Years of the Muppets!

muppets.jpgWinter holidays tend to drive people slightly crazy. This is true almost everywhere, but the annual departure from reality and taste is especially obvious here, in New York City, where, for no apparent reason, the streets are being besieged by puppets. Glassy-eyed marionettes jerk through ballroom dances in shop windows; ominous porcelain figures form pagan tableaux at Saks 5th Avenue (which also features female mannequins in wedding dresses, posed next to male mannequins with carrot noses – call it Bride of Frosty). But, in the midst of a relatively barren winter, when the most talked-about exhibit is a collection of flayed and mutilated human corpses (“Bodies… The Exhibition” at the South Street Seaport), one can only give thanks for the fact that Muppet Christmas specials are playing non-stop at the Museum of Television and Radio.

Although the Muppets are ostensibly kids’ stuff, they’re also a major touchstone for nearly every twenty-something in the city: the fashionista who describes her dour, shaggy indie rock boyfriend by saying

John Kessler - P.S. 1/MoMA, Long Island City

kessler.jpgJon Kessler’s new installation at P.S. 1 collects the detritus of a culture saturated by images of war to make a stunning statement on what it means to live in history. The exhibit incorporates video, sculpture, photography, and various forms of gadgetry too weird to imagine and too complex to name; the central focus of the exhibit, however, is the viewer, who is ineluctably drawn to participate in Kessler’s project. “The Palace at 4 AM” is a site-specific exhibit, dependent upon a specific place and time. It can’t be separated from its moment, because it is its moment. It includes and implicates everyone who sees it.

Egon Schiele - Neue Galerie, NYC

egon.jpgThe human body was Egon Schiele’s most frequent subject; he obsessed over it, idealized it, and degraded it throughout his brief and brilliant career. He was haunted by controversy, and briefly imprisoned on charges of kidnapping a thirteen-year-old girl; although he was eventually acquitted, he openly used little girls as models for pornographic drawings. Many critics have been tempted to speak of Schiele as an artist martyred for his brilliance; few are willing to address the unpleasant truth, which is that an extremely talented man went to jail for child abuse, and went free because none of the laws of the day precisely corresponded to his crime. This winter, the Neue Galerie presents an overview of his life and career, which aims to give the viewer a sense of Schiele (1890-1918) in all his guises: Schiele the student, Schiele the pornographer, Schiele the martyr, and even Schiele the artist.

No Other Appetite - Grolier Club, NYC

plathhughes.jpgTed Hughes and Sylvia Plath belonged to the last generation of rock star poets. The story of their disastrous marriage is one of our great popular romances. But that story has been told so often, and in so many ways, that it’s hard to approach the truth. The most popular version – that Hughes was a sexist brute who drove his brilliant wife to suicide – is simplistic, but it’s supported by some of the evidence. Other versions have tried to explain Plath in different terms, but they’ve also been a tricky mix of fact and slant. The Grolier Club’s public exhibition, “No Other Appetite,” is a collage biography of the legend. It presents the poets’ lives through found texts: letters, diary entries, manuscripts, and tellingly underlined books. It’s surprisingly intimate, and it’s as close as you can get to a completely impartial joint biography of Plath and Hughes.

The Triumph of Painting - Saatchi Art Gallery, London

AOehlen.jpgBack in 1999 when Guiliani was still mayor and not yet a national hero, a show at the Brooklyn Museum of Art entitled “Sensation” (made up of works from the Saatchi collection in London) blew the roof off America’s lingering cultural Puritanism. All kinds of unartsy folks got their knickers twisted over a work of art that used elephant dung in depicting the Virgin Mary. That the artist was of African origin, that elephant dung might have had ritualistic significance in his culture, and that he used it in a whole series of works, made no difference to those who would censor art under the twin banners of decency and reverence.

The culture wars have since taken a back seat to greater evils (the invasion of Iraq, torturing prisoners of war, etc.), but since I found myself in London visiting family recently relocated there, I thought I’d drop in on the Saatchi Gallery to check it out. Adding to its attraction, my Irreverent Guide to London informed me that this was the place to see “the young Turks of the British art scene,” which turned out not to be the case.

Philip-Lorca diCorcia: Lucky 13 - PaceWildenstein, NYC

pace.jpgPhilip-Lorca diCorcia’s “Lucky 13” is a collection of thirteen full-body portraits. His subjects are pole dancers at work. Some people will be dismayed by his choice to shoot these women. Others will be disappointed by his impartial eye, which doesn’t glamorize or vilify them. As for me, I was floored.

It’s become trendy to talk about the “mainstreaming” of the sex industry. However, most images of sex work tend to be informed by one of two ideologies. According to the first, sex work is de facto awful and everyone who does it is a victim, or pure evil. According to the second, sex work is endless fun, and everyone who claims to have been hurt or exploited by the industry is a liar, and pure evil. “Lucky 13” belongs to neither camp. The women in diCorcia’s portraits don’t look tragic, nor do they look like they’re having the time of their lives. They look like women at work.

Russia! - Guggenheim Art Museum, NYC

russiawebimage.jpgThe Guggenheim's "Russia!" exhibit is a sprawling, ambitious collection of Russian art, gathered from seven centuries of history. The curators have arranged the art chronologically, which gives the collection great momentum, coherence, and intensity. There's a unique perspective to be gained by watching a nation's history unfold through its art. If art history is the record of ideas, approaches, and subjects that have been considered beautiful or interesting, then this chronologically arranged procession of images represents the flow of consciousness and self-consciousness in the mind of the nation. It's like taking a walk through Russia's brain. The Guggenheim's spiral-shell design is perfect for this exhibit; the visitor circles through the centuries, finally emerging into the present.

Justine Reyes: My Uncle Vinny - Invisible Gallery, NYC

vinny.jpgThe first thing to know about Uncle Vinny is that he has a lot of face – big, heaping gobs of it. He’s not a pretty man, but in a tradition of portraiture that values psychological insight over surface appeal, he’s the perfect model. His features seem to testify to a lifetime of use and abuse. The rich, crinkling folds of flesh under his chin, his bloodshot eyes, his stubble – these things challenge you to look, and keep looking, in the hopes that you can divine the personality that drove
him through so much life.

In her exhibit My Uncle Vinny, Justine Reyes has chosen to photograph her relative along with the objects that he has collected over the course of his life. Her style owes a lot to Richard Avedon – her subjects are presented head-on, against an austere white background – and something to Catholic pop art, in which the objects that surround a saint’s image are supposed to testify to his life and virtues.

Creating Their Own Image: The History of African-American Women Artists

theirown.gifEven before multiculturalism first stormed the ivory towers of academia in the mid-1980s, the tendency towards “revising” or rethinking American history and culture to include the accomplishments of both women and racial minorities had been in evidence. Hence, it may seem surprising -- or even astonishing -- that our most recent era of Political Correctness failed to produce any comprehensive, scholarly study of African-American women’s artwork. Indeed, such a study has only emerged this year as a result of art historian Lisa E. Farrington’s tireless commitment to produce this extensive look at black women’s artistic contributions from slavery to the present.

In many ways, Creating Their Own Image: The History of African-American Women Artists attempts to answer one basic question: In a society in which the vast majority of black women are objectified, hyper-sexualized, and marginalized (socially, politically, and economically), what does black women’s art actually look like?