Interview with Luc Tuymans (Ran Dian, Winter 2016-17)

February 5, 2017

This piece is included in Ran Dian’s print magazine, issue 4 (Winter 2016–2017)

In an age in which he feels artists have become exceedingly demo­cratic, Luc Tuymans adheres closely to the method he has honed over time—mercifully without, he says, a moment of “painter’s block.” Now fifty-eight, Tuymans had his first solo exhibition in his native Belgium when he was twenty-seven. His commitment to painting is sometimes discussed in near-messianic terms, and it is true that his work has never wavered from an approach to subject matter and technique that simultaneously flattens and deeply probes them. His paintings conjure up preexisting imagery (taken from the internet, Polaroids, magazine and newspaper clippings, TV footage, and other sources) with a light­ness that can feel almost painful. In his own words, Tuymans “Doesn’t want to think on the surface of the painting”: conceptualized over a long period of time, his works, once begun, are executed from the very faintest to the highest level of contrast. The resulting effects are often ghostly or suspiciously wan, making for an implicit critique of the times from which they are drawn.

Iona Whittaker: People say that much more is made now of the per­sonality of the artist; I’m not sure if that is necessarily true. It may be about the personality of the artist in a different way— about trying to obtain more intimate knowledge of what their life is like, or what they are like.

Luc Tuymans: That’s total crap. My work is not me; I’m not my work—don’t try to find the man behind the work and that shit. A lot of people try to do that, and it’s just not interesting. I mean, it’s also what the work is about, basically. At some point there are probably artists working on a very personal level or who are women or feminists or guys who are black—but I’m not that. I’m not an African American; I’m not a woman; I’m not transgender. I’m just Caucasian. I’m not even sure I’m Jewish! So all those things don’t really matter. The only thing that would matter is that I come from Antwerp, which is a city-state full of smart-asses, which is why I never liked New York, because it’s too similar to where I come from. There’s a lot of talk, a lot of baloney, a lot of hot air. I never liked it. It must have been great in the ’70s, ’60s, and ’80s. But I came here far too late.

I read an article explaining that people always say their city was better “back then,” but that it’s really about them having been (or felt) “better” or younger at that time.

No, I know a couple of old New Yorkers like Alex Katz and I mean … argh. I meet all these people. Ellsworth Kelly I used to know, too, and Brice Marden. That sense of humor is no longer alive, and if you meet these old guys it’s really refreshing because at least they can make a joke. But that’s a global thing, it’s not only New York.

Without delving into your personality, there must be, by this point, certain habits or a method by which you work. Do you think you are comfortable in it?

I’m actually still working the way I always worked. I work late in the day, which I’ve been doing for the last twenty-five, thirty years; it became organic and just like a habit. It’s amazing because I’ve never had “painter’s block” or anything like that. I’m also not the type of artist who gets bored easily; I can do one thing. So that means that other things are at stake but it also means that you have the possibility of … being surprised, and sometimes there’s agony in trying to find whatever thing you want to come up with.

I mostly come from a region where realism is the main thing. My region had been overrun by a lot of foreign powers like the Germans, so we have never had the chance to be Romantic, or so-called Enlightened or Rational like the French; we didn’t have that time. So we are really dealing with the real, and the reason to stay alive, which creates extreme individuals. I come from a country with no sense of a group and very little organization but extreme potential when it comes to the individual and the creativity on all levels—not only art but also science and writing. So, if you talk about Belgium, you don’t talk about Magritte, which most people do, or [James] Ensor, who is grotesque and is the precursor of Expressionism. Magritte is not even a surrealist: “Ceci n’est pas une pipe”—of course it is not a pipe, it is an image of a pipe; it is all about the real.

People must ask about truth relative to your painting.

There is no truth in the work. I have a high distrust for images, even my own, so in a sense it’s not about truth. Pretty early on, when I was eighteen or something, I won a prize between all the academies with a self-portrait that I worked on for an entire month, every day. I was thinking differently then, but essentially in the same way. I thought: “Fuck, I’ll never make anything new.” So from there the idea sprung to make authentic falsifications. It was also a regressive role in order to position myself; in that era nobody painted, so it was very difficult to do. This was a way to conceptualize it, to make it possible. Of course, that changed; it was a very infantile concept, but it still was an interesting idea.

Truth is quite difficult to measure. There have of course been attempts by art historians—the October group and [Clement] Greenberg and all that, which were quite valid in their own way but are now totally obsolete. You get people like Hal Foster who don’t get it anymore. And these are the sort of intellectual guys who are just working out [that is, “exercising” —Ed.] nowadays.

But to have maintained such a persistent pursuit amid a system that changes so much and that is ugly in a lot of ways—I’m not sure if that makes you comfortable, or uncomfortable?

I’m lucky because I’m an established artist. To be a young artist right now must be really hard because there’s much more information and the gigantic mechanism of the art market, which is unbalanced because the value put on contemporary art is totally disproportionate. That’s one thing, the speculation. Another is that I know my generation, my standards. . . . But when do I meet them? Everything is completely isolated. People have too many projects; they travel a lot. There’s the market, but there’s no talk about content. This is a vacuum that’s been created. Duchamp came out of the sort of high-end middle class, and they had the salons and the writers—actually, up until the ’70s, it was still quite sympathetic. And then in 1990 the Gulf War happened, and all the little galleries went bankrupt, and thus the mechanism was installed. That’s what you see now.

That is of course something I have to deal with. I had never had a strategy, but once it started, I said, “Okay, I will take care of this”; I’ll do the interviews. I also have an office of people who control the whole thing—the archive, the transport and everything, the publi­cations. I also curate shows. . . . In a sense that’s all possible, but that is the art world. That has nothing to do with making my artwork. This way, I can keep it out of my fucking studio. It’s a lot of work, but I’m a bit of a control freak so it’s better that I do it; otherwise, I’m going to be worried all the time. This is the way you have to create your space today, just to work! It’s insane. This is particularly true when you become famous. When you start out, you choose your own isolation. When you make it, this isolation becomes part of it. You have to take care of yourself, basically. Some can, some can’t. There’s an element of precision and timing, also.

Paintings are quite demanding in the sense that you must really stand in front of them; they want you to come into their remit and enter their world. On the scale you are working with, that is also true, but at the same time the lightness with which you paint and the way the light works in the paintings might counteract that. I’m not sure how or whether you imagine the person looking at it.

A Russian woman, an art critic, mentioned once when I had a show in Moscow that what’s important is the distance measured between the image and the spectator. Painting, especially, has to be made at a certain distance—that’s why I have a mirror—and it has to work from a distance. If you come closer, it might completely evaporate.

My tendency was always to get as close to paintings as possible, to see the brushstrokes.

For me, that’s important—unlike, for example, Richter, in my work even blurriness is painted, so it’s very sharp. But that’s not something I want you to see first. I want you to see the image and then the painting.

So you would rather someone walk toward it than step back?

Yes, exactly.

Have you always worked on this scale?

No. Until 2006 I had quite a small studio. I think the width of the wall was maximum three and a half meters, so if I wanted to make something big, I had to rent something. Then I got a new space with better light, heating for the first time, and walls about four and a half meters high. That enabled me to make bigger things.

I’m glad you have heating.

Well yes, but not until 2006. I did have it but it broke down, and then it rained inside. It was really very Francis Bacon–like.

I like his quotes—“Champagne for my real friends and real pain for my sham friends.” Did you ever meet him?

No, I never met Bacon. I met Lucian Freud. He was a great painter. It took a while for me to really appreciate Bacon, I have to say. I think he was a genuine artist. But the problem with Bacon is that he loved his paint­ings to be put behind glass. There was one moment in Tokyo where there was a big Bacon show, and I was able—because the lighting was off and wrong—to see through the glass to the surface of the painting. And that was quite enlightening. I mean, that’s one of the reasons why I didn’t get it before, because the glass was too much of a barrier.

You have quite a gallery-mate at the moment (Jordan Wolfson’s new installation ”Colored Sculpture“, in which a jointed metal mannequin with recognition software is dragged about the floor on long chains to a loud, intermittent soundtrack—Ed).

Yeah, the doll also says things. I think it’s actually okay. It’s a bit vio­lent and it’s difficult to do it right because otherwise it gets like a gimmick. But it’s totally in opposition to what I’m doing. Juxtaposition is always there.

It’s still relatively peaceful here, though.

I liked SoHo a lot before. It was a normal experience with normal people. Once the galleries moved here (Chelsea), it became very anti­septic. Also, I don’t think galleries should do museum shows. They do—David [Zwirner] did a giant Dan Flavin show across three spaces. Don’t you think that’s a bit odd? Museums should do that.

Are you ever tempted to “quit art,” as some artists have? Do you feel you still have a sufficient amount of say in how your work is shown and conducted?

Yes, sure. Still, no work that hasn’t been approved by me is going to leave the studio. And because I started to show work pretty late—I was already thirty-two—I had the chance to do a humongous amount of self-censorship. This was not always good, because I also overpainted and destroyed works I shouldn’t have. But it makes it near impossible to get something bad out of the studio.

But painting is a fabulous medium because it works through time, to time, and over time. It is a slow medium in terms of perception. And in my case it’s something that fucks with your brain and your memory. There’s a beautiful story I always tell about a guy who is the director of a museum in Honolulu. He profoundly hated my work and he went to see the show at Tate Modern [in 2004] and hated it even more. And then he started dreaming about it, and he became my biggest fan! [Laughs loudly.] I think that sort of amplifies what I’m saying. Even for me, it sometimes takes a while to understand an artist. It took me a very long time to understand Andy Warhol. Then I saw a big retrospec­tive of Warhol at the Centre Pompidou [in 1990]. When I came out of the show, I understood that black was really important for Warhol. By using silkscreen, he employed the authority of print; it’s an interesting take on reality. That’s when he became a very analytical artist for me, and when I could actually start to dig into it.

But I can look very quickly. If I go to a museum show, I’ll be out in about half an hour. I still remember seeing my very first Edward Hopper when I was something like twenty, in a Hayward Gallery show of American painting. I felt something in my back and turned around, and there was a Hopper—I didn’t even know what that was. The same with Friedrich; the same with other important things. You just sense it. There is a specific quality to those works that makes them not only survive but also sort of reenacts them every time you look at them, which is pretty scary in a way. But that’s where the admiration goes. If you look at a [Diego] Velázquez, it’s incredibly beautifully done, very econo-mical. And it’s very harsh also in the sense that Velázquez is the guy who looks down on you: you’re just a fucking ant. Whereas Goya builds himself from the ground up. But now, Goya has become so annoy­ing for me that I think he is more interesting—I can’t really figure him out. He’s not always a great painter, but he’s a very annoying artist. [Laughs.]

I really like humor in art.

Yes, absolutely, and things shouldn’t be taken too seriously, either. That’s a very important rule. There’s a lot of humor in my work—maybe it’s quite sardonic. They call it cynical but it’s not; it’s just sardonic. I don’t think you can afford to be cynical. Like the car with the big horn in this show [“Corso III”, 2015]—that’s a joke. There is always this element and layering, which I think is important because it has to do with something a bit more spiritual—not in a satiric sense but in a real sense. And that’s what you strive for, in a way, and what makes it interesting. I also still read a lot of fiction—it’s really important, especially in the age of the internet and Netflix and all that. Fiction is important because it keeps your brain alive. In the begin­ning all my friends were writers—very few visual artists.

What do you read?

I’ve read all the books by Murakami and Thomas Pynchon. Also classical stuff: I’ve read all the Russians and lots of German writers. I am also great friends with Will Self. I met him when I did my first show with Jay [Jopling, of White Cube]. My wife and I went to the Groucho bar with Jay, and Will Self was on the second floor talking to someone. He sees Jay, and he goes and takes a splash painting by Damien Hirst off the wall and throws it out of the window. Jay goes to get it back, and then Self throws it out of the window another three times. [Chuckles loudly.] And then we started to talk. We had a fight about Francis Bacon or something like that. And he said, “You arro­gant bastard, have you looked at yourself?” So I bought his first novel, My Idea of Fun, and it was good, and so I wrote to him. And now he sends me every new book. I think he’s quite a good writer, and a pretty annoying person. It’s funny because I didn’t know the guy then, and this was really his very first novel.

I like these connections you are describing.

Yes. Relationships really come out of them and things remain, which I think is important. There is reciprocity.

Read it on Ran Dian

??·???????????????112.4 × 142.6 cm?2015??????/????·?????????/ Luc Tuymans, “Le Mépris”, oil on canvas, 112.4 × 142.6 cm, 2015. Courtesy David Zwirner, New York/London..

Luc Tuymans, “Le Mépris”, oil on canvas, 112.4 × 142.6 cm, 2015. Courtesy David Zwirner, New York/London.

??·???????????????114.3 × 111.4 cm?2010??????/????·?????????/ Luc Tuymans, “Light Bulb”, oil on canvas, 114.3 × 111.4 cm, 2010. Courtesy David Zwirner, New York/London.
Luc Tuymans, “Light Bulb”, oil on canvas, 114.3 × 111.4 cm, 2010. Courtesy David Zwirner, New York/London.
??·???????????????120.6 × 120.8 cm?2015??????/????·??? ??????/ Luc Tuymans, “Model”, oil on canvas, 120.6 × 120.8 cm, 2015. Courtesy David Zwirner, New York/London.Luc Tuymans, “Model”, oil on canvas, 120.6 × 120.8 cm, 2015. Courtesy David Zwirner, New York/London.

??·?????????I???????250.8 × 184.5 cm?2015??????/????·?????????/ Luc Tuymans, “Corso I”, oil on canvas, 250.8 × 184.5 cm, 2015. Courtesy David Zwirner, New York/London. Luc Tuymans, “Corso I”, oil on canvas, 250.8 × 184.5 cm, 2015. Courtesy David Zwirner, New York/London.

??·?????????IV???????142.2 × 208 cm?2015??????/????·?????????/ (Next page) Luc Tuymans, “Corso IV”, oil on canvas, 142.2 × 208 cm, 2015. Courtesy David Zwirner, New York/London.Luc Tuymans, “Corso IV”, oil on canvas, 142.2 × 208 cm, 2015. Courtesy David Zwirner,
New York/London.

??·??????????I???????235.5 × 235.5 cm?2015??????/????·??? ??????/ Luc Tuymans, “Murky Water I”, oil on canvas, 235.5 × 235.5 cm, 2015. Courtesy David Zwirner, New York/London.Luc Tuymans, “Murky Water I”, oil on canvas, 235.5 × 235.5 cm, 2015. Courtesy David Zwirner, New York/London.

??·???????????????235.5 × 142 cm?2006?????/????·?????????/ Luc Tuymans, “Church”, oil on canvas, 235.5 × 142 cm, 2006. Courtesy David Zwirner, New York/London.Luc Tuymans, “Church”, oil on canvas, 235.5 × 142 cm, 2006. Courtesy David Zwirner, New York/London.
??·????????????????62 × 46 cm?2000??????/????·???? ?????/ Luc Tuymans, “Lumumba”, oil on canvas, 62 × 46 cm, 2000. Courtesy David Zwirner, New York/London.Luc Tuymans, “Lumumba”, oil on canvas, 62 × 46 cm, 2000. Courtesy David Zwirner, New York/London.

??·????????????????90.2 × 148 cm?1996??????/????·?????????/ Luc Tuymans, “Singing in the Rain”, oil on canvas, 90.2 × 148 cm, 1996. Courtesy David Zwirner, New York/London.Luc Tuymans, “Singing in the Rain”, oil on canvas, 90.2 × 148 cm, 1996. Courtesy David Zwirner, New York/London.

??·?????????III???????127.6 × 216.5 cm?2015??????/????·?????????/ Luc Tuymans, “Corso III”, oil on canvas, 127.6 × 216.5 cm, 2015. Courtesy David Zwirner, New York/London.Luc Tuymans, “Corso III”, oil on canvas, 127.6 × 216.5 cm, 2015. Courtesy David Zwirner, New York/London.

Kai Althoff at MoMA (Spike Art Quarterly, #50)

January 9, 2017

Kai Althoff “and then leave me to the common swifts”

Although Kai Althoff moved from Cologne to New York some years ago, this whole-room installation at MoMA is profoundly European in character. A gauzy tented gallery with diffuse light and a rather close, painty smell is furnished with a multitude of different items, as it were, displaced together. They are gently or “domestically” historical, spanning perhaps three generations reaching up until the 1990s, from parasols to chairs and sneakers, presumably mostly from Germany. Over their arrangement along the walls, on stepladders, in glass cases, on partition walls and on low platforms plays a soundtrack also composed by Althoff; this varies from low humming to childish squeaks, creating extra atmosphere around the nostalgic trove that surrounds one like a story.

Treading the white-painted floorboards, one passes by loose groupings of objects and artworks, many of them paintings or coloured-pencil drawings in Althoff’s vivid figurative manner, redolent of Schiele and other early twentieth-century Expressionists. One has a sense of a temporal progression in the way the props go from the more positive and youthful at the beginning – a collection of shadow puppets, for example, or two life-sized stuffed-fabric dolls passed out by a coffee table as if after a twenty-something party – towards more frightening things, such as a metal chair with stirrups and glass panels in place of padding, and, still later, episodic scenes suggesting horror or its aftermath. A wrecked sleeping area with bundled clothes occupies some of the third section of the room, near which rounded objects like large cowry shells spread away from a sort of effigy of red and yellow scraps. Not far off, a black cardboard set-up has a miniature church and blank-windowed buildings, with life-sized footprints stamping past them and, at the edge, a strange deposit of fine coal. After that, the installation quietens into a kind of attic storage. The last wall has a mixture of paintings and drawings hanging on it, while further canvases and boards lie packed up in brown paper to the side.

As this suggests, “and then leave me to the common swifts” carries a pervasive melancholy. It is evident in the taut, Nietzschean attitude of Althoff’s bodies, in the bygone aura of old lace and other familial detritus simultaneously kept and forgotten, in a rather childlike compulsion to arrangement and display, in its abstract noises and the mock purity of its blanched housing, not to mention in its title. It’s impossible to take in this show without also feeling one’s knowledge of the events that unfolded in Europe – particularly Germany – in the period of time these objects collectively recall. The way they have been gathered, somewhere between abandonment and rediscovery, conjures a delicate ambiance evoking pain or distance. While fresh images of displacement, loss and migration increasingly populate the news, this disparate installation reaches for a certain past (not unlike a squatter in MoMA’s otherwise very ordered rooms) in a very personal way. Walking back towards the entrance, one finds oneself wondering about the present and how it can be grasped, if at all.

Philip Guston at Hauser & Wirth (Spike Art Quarterly, #50)

January 9, 2017

Untitled, 1971
Ink on paper
27.6 x 35.2 cm / 10 7/8 x 13 7/8 in
© The Estate of Philip Guston
Courtesy Hauser & Wirth

Philip Guston “Laughter in the Dark, Drawings from 1971 & 1975”

In case anyone should suspect too much novelty in the current state of US politics, Philip Guston’s drawings in response to the presidency of Richard Nixon prove that while the present rot may be freshly negative in character, the sense of revulsion is nothing new. While many other exhibitions that opened close to the election pursued their usual brand of introverted conceptualism, Hauser & Wirth realised that there was no time like the present to show this group of works in full for the first time, and rushed the show up a week before Trump’s acceptance speech.

Now, as then, it is unusual to find a fine artist, less still a famous one, producing works of fervent political satire. With expectations that the art world would engage with any politics other than its own at an enduring low, one feels grateful for the wealth of expression on show here – and wishes, perhaps, that someone would match it to portray the incoming US President. The Nixon drawings Guston made in 1971 and 1975 were a reaction on two fronts: to America’s leadership, and to attitudes within the art circle that slammed the turn to cartoonish figuration by this revered exponent of Abstract Expressionism in Guston’s solo exhibition at Marlborough Gallery in 1970. Signaling the reign of lumpen tribes of staring heads and pudgy post-classical objects in place of the high, optimistic abstraction of previous years, the show was widely seen as a betrayal of both his artistic abilities and the institution of AbEx.

Holed up with the writer Philip Roth in Woodstock after eight months in Italy (to escape the Marlborough backlash), feeling spat out by the New York scene and disillusioned with abstraction’s phony purity amid the troubled sociopolitical climate of the 1960s, Guston started drawing Nixon. His depiction of the president’s face with a penis for a nose flanked by the bristly scrotum of his cheeks is nothing short of sardonic genius; that the penis grows longer, Pinocchio-like, as time and Nixon’s lies went on is cleverer still.  On show here are some 180 drawings which include Guston’s selection from the “Poor Richard” series (published as a book in 1980) and later works viciously caricaturing his affliction with phlebitis. Two large paintings hung at the start of the exhibition, In Bed II and Alone (both finished in 1971 after the first batch of Nixon cartoons) add existential and painterly mass to the numerous drawings. In them, a characteristic late-Guston figure is seen lying in bed, facing up at the ceiling or down into the pillow, openeyed and block-nosed, anxious.

Among the numerous ink drawings that follow in this historic display, Guston’s aptitude and sentiment are striking. The force of repetition and the simultaneous development of a visual character clearly communicate the passion the artist was able to channel into his subject. There is Nixon recumbent, Nixon by the sea, Nixon ingratiating himself with a blank-looking old couple and a head-banded hippie, Nixon on TV. In some of the best sketches, the president’s full figure is drafted inside the jaws of a gleeful, stylised dragon head (following the news of his plans to visit China), or communes with the swollen triangle-being of Vice President Spiro Agnew and disembodied square spectacles representing Henry Kissinger. The penis-nose doubles up sometimes as a rifle or tank-gun, rests its heavy end on a scroll marked with imagined Chinese script or presses up against a wall.

As in all excellent satire, dismay and energy infuse these drawings in equal measure. During an interview at his studio from a later time, Guston remarks, “What I’m always seeking is some great simplicity where the whole thing is just there and can’t be this and that, and that and that.” Although their backstory is more complicated, the lucid, snorting economy of these cartoons is a brilliant overture to that simplicity, saluting an altogether different type of creative purity.

Not Missing Much: Pipilotti Rist at the New Museum (Sleek magazine, Winter 2016)

November 29, 2016


Beyonce has Pipilotti Rist to thank this year for the image of her striding down a street jubilantly smashing car windows with a baseball bat in the video for Hold Up. The sequence is drawn from Rist’s 1997 video Ever Is Over All, made when the Swiss artist was 35 (the same age Beyonce is now), in which a woman does the same with a plastic flower while a policewoman looks on approvingly. Seen from the vantage point of the present in this 3-floor retrospective at the New Museum, Rist’s work is disarmingly timeless. It speaks to the culture we inhabit, where references swim between genres through the media, bodies and genders are on the line and immersion is key.

Rist’s other works stand up equally well to the present moment. In Mutaflor (1996), Rist wheels about, naked, on the floor while the camera lens zooms into her mouth and out again from her anus. This work is apt for body politics, selfie culture and exposure and sexual expression. It is also a short video projected at our feet, thus contending with the stereotype of video art as a “difficult” (read ‘boring’) medium, both inside the art circle and for the public. Similarly enduring (though it was better installed at MoMA PS1 directly into the floorboards than here, where it plays from an iPhone on the floor), is the strange 6 minute video Selbstlos im Lavabad (Selfless In The Bath of Lava) (1994), in which Rist, again naked, reaches and shouts incomprehensively up to the viewer against a backdrop of digital flames. These idiosyncratic yet confident early works possess a sense of narrative and of an interior world being offered out.

In Rist’s installations as a mature artist, that possible story has been absorbed by a realm of pure sensation. Projections swim on the ceiling, cover whole walls or are cast onto translucent drapes, bathing viewers in oversize footage with oddball, psychotropic soundtracks (Soap&Skin—the musician Anja Plaschgis Rist’s frequent collaborator). At the New Museum, the giant new installation 4th Floor to Mildness epitomizes Rist-world. Visitors lie on beds looking up towards a pair of huge wavy-edged panels (not unlike abstracted water lilies), over which plays a close-up video of underwater scenery replete with swaying, slimy leaves, puffs of algae, silt and other subaquatic stuff, crystal water through which light filters from the near-surface and, occasionally, pale fingertips or a passing nipple. Just as in Mercy Garden (2014) on the third floor and Administrating Eternity (2011) on the second, one has the sense of being received into an environment that is perfectly balanced for the purpose.

Rist’s great popular achievement is this pervasive balance, this seductive sensorial pitch; her outlook is infused with ecumenism. Always skirting the pitfall of spectacle, her work conveys respect for the muculent majesty of the natural world, a humble awe made clear by her love of colour and a vibrantly intelligent sense of humour. Rather than traditional screens confronting the viewer in a black box dialectic, her setups find equal potential in the ceiling, floor and empty volume of a room. One of her expressed aims is for the viewer and image to be on the same level, to “feel like one.” This desire is what makes Rist so prescient and her work so inviting, instinctively grasping a context in which attention is constantly sucked in and spliced between different focal points by all-pervasive media.

Met with so much positive attention for her big installations, Rist thinks her best work is I’m Not The Girl Who Misses Much, also part of the current retrospective. In this blurred, glitchy student video (made while she was studying in Basel in 1986), Rist dances erratically in a wig and low cut black dress that her breasts mostly spill out of while a squeaky voice sings the first line from The Beatles song Happiness Is a Warm Gun —”I’m not the girl who misses much”—over and over. It’s a video sparked with powerful feminism, mania and pathos, and while her work has grown increasingly popular, Rist has also suggested it has “replaced” her individual personality, coming to represent her entirely. As if mirroring the current condition of human culture, she has been absorbed by media of her own making.

For its innate equality, social fluency and sheer, zeitgeist-ready temptation, then, Pipilotti Rist’s work has universal appeal. Critics over the years have rehearsed the same adjectives: “immersive”, “kaleidoscopic”, “mesmerizing”—almost as if it would be difficult (or dreary) to break the cycle. But while Rist’s oeuvre appears uniquely open and visible on the surface, it contains an element of hiding in plain sight: where is Rist herself, and where are we as individuals in this immersive media world mimicking our own? These are works that signal the real ambiguity at the heart of contemporary experience, if we choose to look for it.

The Unbearable Tightness of Being (Ran Dian, October 2016)

October 9, 2016

“No Cause for Alarm”

La Mama Galleria (47 Great Jones St, New York, NY 1000), Sept 15 – Oct 8, 2016

In a video of his performance “Farming the City”, a caption in amiable white lettering accompanies footage of Tsui Kuang-Yu planting seedlings in the dirt around a tree on the sidewalk; it wonders, “Can we eat things grown here?”

The question is less straightforward than it sounds “here” in the contemporary city, and draws towards it further questions, for example about public and private space, individual agency, need, nature and artificiality, social conduct, economy, and time. “Farming the City” was part of “No Cause for Alarm”, an exhibition of works by eleven artists from China, Taiwan, and Hong Kong assembled for the theme of anxiety in contemporary urban life. Curated by Chen Wei-Ching and Ying Kwok, the show envisioned “suggestions and consolations” and a humorous perspective from which to view daily life which, for the majority of people, plays out in a city.

Tsui’s attempt to grow food in the street furniture fails, quashing the suggestion of self-sufficiency (or just some supplementation) without a shop, transaction, and shared habitual structure. “The city seems to be all about how to accommodate to our needs in daily life” (sic.), he muses, with an affected innocence. The sight of his hands patting soil in around the seedlings and their small shock of green among the greyer hues of sidewalk and stoops proves a truthful exercise in relative scale, intimacy, and futility.

Tsui Kuang-Yu,

Tsui Kuang-Yu, “Farming the city”, video still, 2016

Sustainability in cities is less about objective resources than subjective ones, and despite increased interest in mind-clearing self-help activities like yoga in metropolises like New York, people are struggling with what Tony Crabbe recently called “an infinite world” in which work, thanks to technology, is not statistically more, but is always accessible. Wang Ding-Yeh’s painful “Portraits under electric shock” (2014) and “Madness electric shock—Flag song” (2014) could scarcely do more to illustrate the unnatural compulsion to continue and to keep doing under convulsive and ambiguous pressure.

Elsewhere in the show, physical action was put to more sublimely satiric ends. In Musquiqui Chihying’s applaudable video piece “The Jog” (2014), a man runs against the direction of a conveyor towards the checkout in a supermarket; the second video channel in which he stretches in the aisles is surplus to the incisive distillation of flows—at once economic, individual and societal, of leisure and commerce, convenience and resistance—that are conveyed by the runner’s footfalls on the belt. The exhibition text spoke compellingly about the rolling belt implying “the objective of consumption behaviour and the end of movement”, a statement somehow helped by slight vagueness in its English translation.

The shortening and narrowing of perception, too, are general effects of prevalent technology and saturated environments. Elvis Yip Kin Bon’s brilliant wall installation of 260 newspaper clippings, all excerpts from a speech by Qiao Xiaoyang (as former chairman of the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region [HKSAR] Basic Law Committee), sees each cut away differently and zipped into a cellophane bag. According to Yip, the work is meant as an exercise in defiance against “evidence of a general absurdity” conveyed in Qiao’s words; the scraps provoke the speech to speak against itself by amplifying, isolating, and collaging its quotes into an altogether different medium to better reflect its message. Yip’s work—long and meticulous in method and subversive in effect, opposes different forces that act on perception.

In its use of black to hide content in a video, Ocean Leung’s “Black Shapes” (2016), in which eponymous black areas obscure footage of a fire and billowing smoke on a street at night, also implies a response to this situation by evoking censorship. At first hand, however, one thinks more simply of the challenge to clear, focused vision thanks to the clamor of varied focal points for attention. Nearby, the acrylic and stainless steel wall piece by Chou Yu-Cheng with a deliberately long title (recounting all the words printed at the bottom of the panel)—“Chemical Gilding, Keep Calm, Galvanise, Pray, Gradient, Ashes, Manifestation, Unequal, Dissatisfaction, Capitalise, Incense Burner, Survival, Agitation, Hit, Day Light. II” (2016), aims to look at the socio-political chaos currently contained by capitalism. While these two pieces are fairly literal in responding to the current situation, one wonders whether this isn’t an apt approach.

Writing “In Praise of Idleness” in the early 1930s, Bertrand Russell imagined a world where, thanks to advancements in technology, people need only work for four hours a day, with far more time for productive leisure. Little could he foresee the amalgamation of the two, when so much and so many different economies—not only of money, but also of time and emotion—combine to generate the “infinite world” most prevalent in urban centers. This is a state of being which entails high levels of ambiguity (arguably, this is not acknowledged often enough), and for which there is no real strategy for those overwhelmed by it. Under the droll public service announcement manner of its title, the artists in “No Cause for Alarm” admitted this ambiguity, along with states including inertia, innocence, resistance or absurdity which could arise as a result. More than this, they seem to seek these states as channels for empathy and relief—sensations on which this show finally, if indirectly, insisted.

Musquiqui Chihying,

Musquiqui Chihying, “The Jog”, video still, 2014

Ocean Leung,

Ocean Leung, “Black shapes”, video still, 2016

Yip Kin Bon,

Yip Kin Bon, “Speech from Qiao Xiao Yang on 24th March 2013?, (detail), 260 pieces of newspaper, 2013 – 2015

Chou Yu-Cheng,

Chou Yu-Cheng, “Chemical Gilding, Keep Calm, Galvanise, Pray, Gradient, Ashes, Manifestation, Unequal, Dissatisfaction, Capitalise, Incense Burner, Survival, Agitation, Hit, Day Light II”, acrylic, stainless steel, 140 x 300 cm, 2016

Wang Ding-Yeh,

Wang Ding-Yeh, “Portrait under electric shock” C-print, 100 x 100 cm, 2014

Expo Chicago: First Impressions (Ran Dian)

September 24, 2016

For those who haven’t been before, Chicago is singularly solid, clanking, and built-up; population-wise it ranks in the country’s top three, and in atmosphere it is certainly a Great American City. In the Chicago district near the Expo site, the subway crawls between the rectangular masses of buildings at second floor height, sporadically flashing blue sparks at them; thousands of office windows stare at each other.

The city’s art fair, Expo Chicago, this year in its fifth edition, is contrastingly light amid this overbearing environment. It is inside the Festival Hall on the Navy Pier, which stretches its pedestrian walkway out into Lake Michigan with a ferris wheel, restaurants and boat-tour docks; especially at night, it is a scene straight out of an architect’s rendering for public space. The fair occupies one floor of the Hall with (this year) a very manageable 145 galleries. The list shows no particular bias other than a majority of mid-level American galleries ranging from Chicago locals (for example, Corbett vs. Dempsey, The Mission, and Rhona Hoffman), to Minneapolis, San Francisco, and twelve that are based in LA. There is a small sprinkling of big names (David Zwirner, Daniel Templon, Paul Kasmin, Marlborough, Pace, Perrotin and Matthew Marks) and some edgier offerings from New York (Team Gallery, Bortolami, Maccarone, Salon 94), as well as a couple of engaging booths from further afield (The Breeder, Athens; GRIMM, Amsterdam). The layout is low key and linear, with a rather flat VIP area (in which Rashid Johnson’s works—wooden chairs with blocks of shea butter on their seats—stand awkwardly at neck-height on big white box plinths), and a lifeless (at least during the preview) magazines area along the back wall. The Editions and Books section at the other end is contrastingly good, if quite limited.

The general impression from the fair’s content is of a lot of highly colored painting—if not all of it bombastic, then much is still over-charged. What this does serve usefully to do is to make clear a small number of pieces that are really worth a close look; at least to this pair of eyes, there are some real treasures to be found, some of relatively modest size or status and which feel fairly unusual in the context of a fair. San Francisco’s Crown Point Press has a truly arresting etching from an edition of ten by Bruce Conner (“Dennis Hopper One Man Show Vol. III, Image VI”, 1971–73) in which tiny figures scale a snowy, mountainous landscape depicted in brilliant chiaroscuro. It takes some moments to notice eyes open in the jagged spine of rock running up the middle of the composition. At Alexander Gray Associates there is a metal sculpture by Melvin Edwards, “Good Friends in Chicago” (1972), with half oil-drum-shaped ends and slim trestle legs.

Melvin Edwards,

Melvin Edwards, “Good Friends in Chicago” (1972) at Alexander Gray Associates

Very surprising is the collection of Roy Lichtenstein work at Alden Projects’ booth which includes a flattened-out paper cup design, a “Foot Medication Poster” from 1963, and a framed patch of used wallpaper from 1968. Nearly 50 years later the foil is cracked, but the dots are resiliently intact. Seen at both Jane Lombard Gallery and Rhona Hoffman are works by Michael Rakowitz. At Jane Lombard, a mini-exhibition from the current series May the Obdurate Foe Not Stay in Good Health contains small works coupled with quotations and recollections. The objects, made from the packaging of Syrian foods imported to the US which are increasingly hard to buy in Syria, are reconstructions of artefacts destroyed, looted or at risk amid the civil war. This is an extension of the project “The Invisible Enemy Should Not Exist”, compiled in cooperation with the University of Chicago’s Oriental Institute and Interpol’s website, which in turn recreates objects stolen from the National Museum of Iraq after the US invasion in 2003. Not at a gallery but at the Chicago Conservation Center’s side booth is a large vertical graphite and oil wash drawing by Mauricio Lasansky. One of The Nazi Drawings (#19) made in the 1960s, its brutal composition appears gradually, with a naked figure attacked by the harshly-rendered bodies of birds, each a rash of hard lines.

Appealing among the technicolored paintings at the fair is Hernan Bas’s “Who the hell is Robert” (2016), which has a Vuillard feel (at Galerie Peter Kilchmann). Martin Wong’s work, too, is here with P.P.O.W from New York. James Cohan declined to bring any Xu Zhen, whose paintings from the cake-frosting-like series Under Heaven are by now an art fare staple, but did show two Anselm Kiefer works. Of these, “Untitled (Secret Life of Plants)” (2004) is absorbing, its foreground dominated by a deeply cracked clay surface while grey, boxlike towers lilt in the background to the right.

Expo Chicago falls this year at one of the most politically-charged moments in US history. The fair, doesn’t obviously register this—one might say “of course”—unless a proliferation of saturated paintings speaks of escapism. The sales, perhaps, will tell; or not. Meanwhile, the Trump Tower protrudes to a height of ninety-eight glassy floors, just up river.

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Magdalena Abakanowicz for one of the Expo Projects (Marlborough Gallery)

Magdalena Abakanowicz for one of the Expo Projects (Marlborough Gallery)

Michael Rakowitz at Rhona Hoffman

Michael Rakowitz at Rhona Hoffman


Lichtenstein “Foot Medication Poster” at Alden Projects

Mauricio Lasansky at the Chicago Conservation Center

Mauricio Lasansky at the Chicago Conservation Center

Richard Hamilton,

Richard Hamilton, “The Critic Laughs”, 1971-2 at Alan Koppel Gallery

Ren Ri's beeswax sculpture as part of the Projects, brought by Pearl Lam Galleries

Ren Ri’s beeswax sculpture as part of the Projects, brought by Pearl Lam Galleries

David Kordansky Gallery with works by Betty Woodman

David Kordansky Gallery with works by Betty Woodman

Martin Wong at P.P.O.W.

Martin Wong at P.P.O.W.

Hernan Bas at Galerie Peter Kilchmann

Hernan Bas at Galerie Peter Kilchmann

Anselm Kiefer at James Cohan

Anselm Kiefer at James Cohan

A detail of Bruce Conner,

A detail of Bruce Conner, “Dennis Hopper One Man Show Vol. III, Image VI” at Crown Point Press

Lichtenstein wallpaper at Alden Projects

Lichtenstein wallpaper at Alden Projects

New York Hit List: Futures, Lightness and Noir (Ran Dian, August 2016)

August 11, 2016

“Danny Lyon: Message to the Future”

Whitney Museum of American Art (99 Gansevoort Street, New York, NY 10014, USA), until Sept. 25, 2016

In about 1969, as he showed photographs he took in Colombian brothels five years earlier, Richard Avedon laid into the then-27-year-old Danny Lyon, asking “Who’s the real Danny Lyon? You photographed civil rights, you photographed prostitutes, you photographed bikers.” Moving through this meticulously hung exhibition of over 150 photographs and films shot by Lyon over his deeply committed career, one could see this attack, in hindsight, as a compliment. Lyon’s huge output is one propelled by a sense of empathy and responsibility to his subjects, which include the Civil Rights Movement (during which he was the photographer for the SNCC), inmates of American jails in the 1960s (shown on film as well as in photographs), motorcyclists in the American Midwest, Lower Manhattan before it was razed to make way for the financial district, street scenes, couples, kids and their dogs, Colombian urchins and rural people in Shanxi, China. Although every lens needs to be pointed, Lyon’s intense documentary impulse serves almost to dissolve one’s sense of his presence. This is an immersive and raw purview that absorbs one in a multitude of small frames.

Danny Lyon,

Danny Lyon, “Shakedown at Ellis Unit, Texas, 1968?, vintage gelatin silver print, 21.6 × 31.3 cm. Museum of Modern Art. © Danny Lyon, courtesy Edwynn Houk Gallery, New York

“MoholyNagy: Future Present”

Guggenheim Museum (Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, 1071 5th Ave, New York, NY, USA), until Sept. 7, 2016

Another future-titled exhibition, this large retrospective of László MoholyNagy’s oeuvre, as is customary for Guggenheim exhibitions, attracted comments about the selection of works and what might be missing from it. To the non-scholarly eye, however, this is more than a sufficient introduction to the priorities and energy of the Bauhaus professor who died in Chicago aged 51. The compositions on show are hugely enjoyable, and extend through geometric paintings and a series of deft photographic collages. A stern photograph of Moholy-Nagy from his 1930 “Declaration of Intention” supports the seriousness of his vision—but there is a distinctly playful spirit evident from the works, too.

La?szlo? Moholy-Nagy,

La?szlo? Moholy-Nagy, “A II (Construction A II)”, oil and graphite on canvas, 115.8 × 136.5 cm, 1924. Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York, Solomon R. Guggenheim Founding Collection 43.900 © 2016 Hattula Moholy-Nagy/VG Bild-Kunst, Bonn/Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York.

“Lauretta Vinciarelli: Light Unveiled”

Totah (183 Stanton Street, New York, NY 10002), until Sept. 18, 2016

At Totah, a relatively new commercial gallery established by the collector David Totah on Stanton Street in the Lower East Side, there is a memorable exhibition of watercolors by Lauretta Vinciarelli. The late artist’s mastery of her medium is singularly impressive, put towards beautifully subtle renditions of mostly cuboid shapes suspended in a gentle warm and cool palate of emerald greens and shades of orange and blue. The iterative impulse that plays out here is testimony to Vinciarelli’s architectural background (she taught at a number of schools including Pratt and Colombia in New York, and was married to Harvard architecture professor Peter Rowe); meanwhile, the minimal urge behind these paintings speaks in part to her personal and working relationship with Donald Judd, whose complete writings, incidentally, have just been republished.

Lauretta Viciarelli,

Lauretta Viciarelli, “Suspended in Green (A7)”, watercolor on paper, 70.8 x 56.5 cm, 2005.

Pei Li: “Greater New York”

Klein Sun Gallery (525 West 22nd Street New York, NY 10011, USA), until August 19, 2016

Those who saw a sombre installation based on Pei Li’s grandfather’s abandonment of the bonsais he had been tending for twenty years at Taikang Space in 2010 (#9 in the 51m2 exhibition series) will recognize the use of containers of ink combined with sound or vibration in the current exhibition. But the highlight here is a video called “The Moles” in which Pei recounts life with a pet dog who eases her depression. Loneliness, vulnerability, intimacy and the mundanity of daily life are mixed together humbly in this short narrative filmed using a camera attached to the scruff of the dog’s neck; Pei’s themes have not changed, then, but her mood appears lightened in this new work.

Pei Li,

Pei Li, “The Moles”, video still, 2016


Simuvac Projects (99 Norman Avenue, Brooklyn, NY 11222, USA), until Sept. 4, 2016

Ivy Haldeman’s “Pulp” at the four-shows-deep Simuvac Projects in Greenpoint is arguably one of the best solo exhibitions of the year so far. Haldeman’s first individual outing in New York, it has a brilliantly strong aesthetic using a limited number of elements, namely a “hotdog lady” clad in a soft yolk-colored bun, her high-heeled pumps, and open books pressed beneath tapering pink fingertips. Through a range of poses, Haldeman paints a strange icon fusing tenderness, grace, and disgust in ways that only an intersex anthropomorphic snack at leisure could. Drawing on memories of her grandfather’s takeaways from the plastic factory where he worked, taxidermy, and the physical attitudes of a tired female figure reworked by a procession of artists throughout history but who is now to be found softly reading, the paintings in “Pulp” occupy a supple world of their own.

Ivy Haldeman,

Ivy Haldeman, “Full Figure, Sitting, Hand Pulls Back Bun to Reveal Thigh, Fingers Splayed on Open Book”, acrylic on linen, 24” x 18”, 2016

Danny Lyon,

Danny Lyon, “Weight lifters, Ramsey Unit, Texas, 1968?, vintage gelatin silver print. Collection of the artist. © Danny Lyon, courtesy Edwynn Houk Gallery, New York

“Moholy-Nagy: Future Present”, installation view, Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York. Photo: David Heald © Solomon R. Guggenheim Foundation

Lauretta Vinciarelli,

Lauretta Vinciarelli, “Incandescent Frames (Study 2)”, watercolor on paper, 57 x 38 cm, 1998.

Pei Li,

Pei Li, “The Moles”, video still, 2016

Ivy Haldeman, Ivy Haldeman, “Pulp”, installation view at Simuvac Projects

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In Character (Ran Dian, July 2016)

July 21, 2016

Song Ta: How is the Weather?

Practice, New York

Jun 30–Jul 10, 2016

smallroom_closeupHere, Song presents his calligraphy along with three pen drawings and one exam paper (not his) with a perfect score that is suspended from the ceiling in the middle of a room. Ho King’s thoughtful installation shouldn’t go unnoticed: twists of electrical cable under display screens were deliberately left visible to echo the movement of written characters; in playful acknowledgement of the suggestion that expert calligraphers are  learned in general while less is expected of those who draw well, Song was encouraged to show his cartoons of animals. With simple black line, these deliver a flair for shape and his enjoyment of the demeanors of creatures.The calligraphy (shown mostly as digital images) inscribes unrelated fragments—”Rotate resize select paste drag into wind crab by the street eat what what”—and copies quotations (from Mao Zedong’s “A Little Spark Can Kindle a Great Fire” or the great “wild grass” calligrapher Huai Su’s Autobiography (Zixu Tie)) or other extracts as an excuse to practice writing. That no reason was given for the choice of texts contributed to a certain feeling of detachment around the display—a lack of context (or the need for it) that in some way echoed the mood of its name.

“Perhaps the only decent calligrapher in Mainland China in the past two decades” was Song’s idea for a title. Equipped with this attitude and a trove of gawky, unbalanced, sprawling characters, he put up what could be called a “bad calligraphy” show after Marcia Tucker’s now-historic 1978 exhibition “Bad Painting” at the nearby New Museum, which asserted a positive, liberal attitude to the mixing of art historical references. But while “Bad Painting” featured “artists who consciously reject traditional concepts of draftsmanship in favor of personal styles of figuration” as Song does for his characters—this is certainly a tease aimed at the calligraphy establishment—Tucker also felt the bad painters’ work bypassed aesthetic progress as a goal affecting the determination of value. While his writing is irreverent, Song would like his pieces to be considered and properly appreciated (indeed, he invites their “review”, and the exhibition includes a video of a child remarking on his writing and comments from an artist friend who responded with her own calligraphy). For him, to entertain this calligraphy would be a step forward, though it’s not clear whether he wants this for himself alone, or the discipline in general; again, Song’s sphere of reference is only minimally sketched.

His approach might more simply be a “deskilling” of his own. The term was first used in hindsight (by Ian Burns in his essay “The Sixties: Crisis and Aftermath (Or the Memoirs of an Ex-Conceptual Artist)” in Art & Text in 1981) to appraise artists like Seurat in the late 19th century who invested new energy in their work partly by fritting away at the idea of virtuosity (in so doing, in a sense “de-historicizing their art”); in this lay the kernel of fine art’s challenge by industry and the consequent turn against manual as opposed to machinic or “readymade” effects—one deepened by the possibilities of photography. There followed the self-conscious rejection of technical drawing and other skills at many western art schools.

Though his anti-academic stance is nothing if not low-key, Song clearly has no interest in emulating master calligraphers or perpetuating formalism. Then again, neither do his scrawlings here suggest a path away from the individual hand— quite the opposite. He seems quietly confident, and like a lot of his work, these writings harbor a certain scorn clad in deadpan humor and an inclination to simply do something, and share the results. Song’s amiable, “dysfunctional” characters are thus very much in-character—they best convey an art of attitude, the hopes of which begin and end in the moment of making.

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Larry Bamburg (Art in America, May 2016)

May 19, 2016

Larry Bamburg: TalctoTile, PL’d to MDO

Simone Subal, New York

Feb 14 – Mar 20, 2016

LB-TalctoTileTower, from a unstable foundation_1

A saccharine, minty scent greeted visitors to Larry Bamburg’s solo exhibition. It emanated from three large, weighty, pastel-colored forms standing on the floor, two centrally placed so that viewers could walk around them, and one positioned to the left against the wall. These sculptures, from Bamburg’s “TalctoTile” series (all works 2016), were composed by stacking four-inch-thick layers of bathroom tiles (some oriented frontally, as on a wall, and some side-on) and handmade soap. Each work is topped with a piece of raw talc, the shape of which dictated the contours of the layers beneath it.

TalctoTile PL’d to MDO, shown in Pink might remind one of topographic models of hills, while TalctoTileTower, from a unstable foundation has the look of a strange, leaning, six-foot-tall pink cake. The colors of the tiles and the soap mimic the tones of the talc, so that the works are solid masses of pale pink, yellow, or green. Each of the sculptures bears a range of textures, from the smooth, clean surfaces of the tiles at the base to the central portion of soft, greasy soap to the dry craggy formation of talc at the top. Bamburg made the soap with tallow, lard, and different animal fats. I was told by gallery staff that TalctoTileTower, from a unstable foundation is “three cows’ worth.” A framed sketch for that work highlights those slaughterhouse origins in a scrawled inscription: “meat glue.”

According to the press release, these works began with Bamburg’s interest in the unresolved relationship between an original and its copy. The show included a series of color studies of a cross-section of a mulberry tree. A piece of bark was encased in a wall-hung vitrine. Framed photographs of the same bark appeared alongside it, and color charts were hung beneath them. Analogously, the “TalctoTile” sculptures echo the outline of a piece of mineral without copying it precisely. Yet it’s hard to see the soap works merely as formal experiments in copying, given the sensory associations with domestic and private experiences and Bamburg’s playful twists on form and meaning. The sculptures’ minty smell conjures memories of bathing, cosmetics stores, and hotel bathrooms. SeasShellSoap, shown in Peppermint takes the shape of a giant clam shell, as if to parody conventional molded soaps. The fatty texture of soap dimples when coerced into a sculptural body, rather like human skin. Bamburg’s use of FDA-approved dyes makes the works safe for domestic use, as if such a function were necessary now. While bathroom tiles usually line interiors, Bamburg places them on exteriors. The physical memory of such tiles as markers of a private enclosure is turned inside out in these public objects.

TalctoTire, shown in Black—a dirty pile of old tires, trash bags, acrylic sheeting, and other detritus—was positioned in a corner, and visitors would most likely have noticed it only on their way out of the gallery. It left a black smear on the wall behind it. An antithesis to the clean, benign forms that otherwise pervaded the exhibition, the work suggests that the mild horror attending them—and not just a play with concepts of original and copy—is indeed part of the artist’s intention.

Justin Berry (Art Review, May 2016)

May 15, 2016

Justin Berry: Photographs

Essex Flowers, New York

4 March – 10 April 2016


For some years, Justin Berry has been shooting landscapes from within videogames. The ten photographs in this exhibition (all but one in black and white) have each been stitched together from 100 or more high-resolution shots taken while playing a first-person-shooter game. Using the game’s built-in camera, Berry takes the photographs at moments when his player’s weapon is lowered, leaving an unobstructed view of the surrounding environment. The pictures include scenes of human settlement (sometimes ruined) in rural settings, natural vistas (for example a path through trees with majestic mountains ahead) and land- scapes seen through simple courtyard buildings in a vaguely oriental style. People are visible in only two of the photographs: one is barely noticeable, while in Perch (all works 2016), a figure sitting atop a wall is a focal point in the composition.

Printed in a square format and simply framed, the photographs are of modest size. Berry could easily have presented large images in the high-definition his method affords, but it’s not his intention to immerse the viewer in a given scene; his chosen scale instead invites one to contemplate the landscapes as contexts in relation to our own. Their scenes are fairly still, lacking the more ominous feel of Berry’s earlier works, such as Tail Wind or Last Palm (both 2012, not on show), in which waving palms in heavy jungle evoke a sense of impending drama or threat reminiscent of Apocalypse Now (1979). The most visually effective work (and the poster image for the show) is Cap, in which a rocky outcrop is seen partially covered by drifts of snow that contrast powerfully with its dark layers. The dense textural detail and striking chiaroscuro between snow and graphitecoloured rock add up to a rewarding image.

It is not part of Berry’s design to include any element of trickery or trompe l’oeil in the production of these photographs. In a spirit of experimentation, he produces images that tread an undetectable line between submission and suspicion in the eye of the viewer. In these landscapes, he tests photographic conventions, a certain artworld discomfort reserved for virtual reality and digitally generated work, and what can only be described as a human urge to fully understand what is seen. Berry challenges one’s suspension of disbelief, which in a videogame is offered willingly but becomes brittle when presented with these frozen scenes IRL (‘in real life’). Here one is compelled to figure the scenes out by minutely examining their nonreality.

This tension between belief in the imagery and a rejection of it as unreal is most effectively staged in the contrast between More or Less, an enticingly natural alpine scene under dappled light, and Perch, which confronts one with an obviously fake figure. Through the virtual landscapes he shoots in acute detail, Berry explores ill-defined territory between perception, interpretation, expectation and dismissal – in his own words, seeking ‘to look at the virtual world with the same kind of steady gaze one applies to the real world’. The photographs are arguably addressed to that most human satisfaction in naming what is, and what isn’t, and serve to question the com- pulsion for such ‘knowing’ in this day and age. Humour, too, features in what could be a sardonic reaction to attitudes that take the ‘real’ seriously while dismissing the virtual (according to the press release, ‘in order to get the pictures he wanted, Justin Berry had to kill more than one person’). This ongoing series signals a personal quest upon which he has embarked through the conventions of imagemaking and interpretation. It questions why landscape photography should be insulated from the glare reserved for everyday reality.