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Report from the Front

Art criticism, sometimes with context, occasional politics. New shows: "events;" how to support the online edition: "works."



Lucy Jones, Lucy Jones with Her Walking Stick, 1996. Oil on canvas, 86 x 61 3/4 in. Courtesy of the artist and Flowers Gallery, London/New York
Continuing my rounds of exhibitions greatly or slightly off the modernist path, I comment (belatedly, alas)on 1) “Björk” at the Museum of Modern Art (closed June 7); 2) “Peter Malone: Paintings” at The Painting Center (closed March 28); 3) “Subodh Gupta. Seven Billion Light Years” at Hauser & Wirth (closed April 25), as compared to “The Painter of Modern Life” at Anton Kern (closed April 11); and 4) "Lucy Jones: How Did You Get on This Canvas?” at Flowers (closed May 9).


Bjork Guomundsdottir is a pop singer who, like Madonna and Cher, is known by her first name only.

Born in November 1965 in Reykjavik, she has compiled an impressive list of credits, starting out in her native Iceland with various musical groups, moving on to the UK and going solo, winding up dividing most of her time between homes in New York City and Reykjavik (when she’s not circling the globe on tour).

Her Wikipedia entry is very long and very distinguished, with many, many singles and albums, prizes, awards, platinum sales, roles in movies, tours, a vast range of vocal and instrumental effects, and many collaborators among musicians, movie-makers, fashion designers, craftsmen, architects, and so on.

But that wasn’t why I went to see this show. I went because a friend of mine who has a profound sympathy for the modern, as well as a passionate desire to keep up with culture on all fronts, wanted very much to see it. I figured if he was so enthusiastic about it, I ought at least to look in.

I can report that this show, which was organized by MoMA’s Klaus Biesenbach, was very, very popular, especially with the young and people who looked like out-of-towners.

But it was mostly about music and the cinema, what’s euphemistically called “time-based art” when it appears in galleries, but not the visual arts as I understand them (I distinguish between them and the performing arts and literature by the fact that the visual arts remain stationary and can be taken in all at once).

There was a minor purely visual component to the Bjork show at MoMA: a pathetic little collection of props, costumes and other impedimenta employed by the lady in her music videos and I suppose her public appearances, cryptic notes in little notebooks, photographs of her and other memorabilia. It would never have flown alone.

The two more the prepossessing parts of the show were musical and cinematic, housed in two rooms in a house-like structure specially constructed in the central atrium of the museum, and rendering it largely if not entirely unavailable for the display of visual art.

One of these two parts was a retrospective of Bjork’s solo music videos, released from the 1990s on through the early years of this century. The room was dark, warm and liberally furnished with big cushions that viewers could sink into and lie back upon.

The costumes and sets in the videos varied considerably, and as a young woman, the artist was kind of cute, with blonde hair and a softly-rounded face, but the music in all of these videos was very similar and very soothing. I blush to admit that I dozed off.

The second part of this music video experience was “Black Lake.” It was commissioned by MoMA and required the viewer to stand through its ten minutes, so there was no chance of slumber.

The video was projected on two huge screens that faced each other, so one had to keep turning back and forth to see what was going on. The scenery – all filmed in Iceland – was rocky and desolate; the singer was clad in a glittery dark fabric with snake-like strips of it climbing over her shoulders, and once again, the wailing music didn’t inspire me.

I later heard that the sorrowful score was supposedly inspired by Bjork’s recent breakup with Matthew Barney, and (to be cruel) I’m not surprised by the split. Now that Bjork’s nearly 50, she’s beginning to show her age a little, and, although Barney is only a year and a half younger than she is, he has to keep on pretending he’s Peter Pan.

I mean to say, the postmodernist myth depends on its claims to eternal youth.


At the other end of the scale was Peter Malone, in a show that was all about painting-- informal, conventional portraiture, hence remarkably refreshing. The notes upon my checklist read, “Unframed, simple, straightforward – no shit.” Exactly!

This small show was housed in the Project Room of The Painting Center. It consisted of just six head shots, three men and three women. Two (Lois Dodd, Julian Hatton) were relatively well-known artists, but the other sitters appeared to be more private people (meaning that googling their names produced no usable information).

Malone has degrees from the School of Visual Arts and Teacher’s College, Columbia University. He is coy about his age, but his photograph shows him with white hair and his website does concede that he has been exhibiting since 1984.

In February, he had a larger show of portraits at Blue Mountain, another cooperative gallery in Chelsea. Upon that occasion, artcritical.com published an interview with him by Jeanne Wilkinson (Malone has published reviews with artcritical.com and hyperallergic.com).

The Wilkinson interview elicited the information that in Malone’s earlier years, he passed through a minimalist phase, and later an abstract expressionist one. He didn’t start painting portraits until 2011, and, he told Wilkinson, “I think doing so fits into the contemporary art world pretty well if you think of what’s going on in alternative spaces and commercial galleries.

"But in terms of the museums — the Whitney, the Modern, and the New Museum — my work is as foreign as you can get.”

This to me suggests that his work, too, fits right in with Darby Bannard’s parallel universe (as reported in my posting of June 15)—though I would also say that the stark simplicity of the show I saw still reflects a minimalist sensibility.


The incentive to visit these shows came from The New York Times for Friday, March 13. Roberta Smith had reviewed the Gupta at the top of the weekly “Art in Review” section, which customarily includes three to five short reviews of what are considered more than ordinarily interesting gallery shows; Ken Johnson had reviewed the Kern group show further down in the section. I made my rounds on Saturday, March 14 – the day when their reviews might be expected to be having maximum impact.

Housed in the gargantuan Hauser & Wirth space, the exhibition of the Indian assembleur Subodh Gupta consisted of similarly gargantuan artworks.

Among them were silvery piles or groups of household utensils and other souvenirs of humble existence; videos; a minimalistic oil on canvas, largely black except for three affixed pie-plate-like utensils & a trompe l’oeil rendering of another; and a concrete block, decorated with 27 photographs of individual Indians – men, women and children.

The piece de resistance – selected by Smith as her illustration—was yet another monumental pile of pots, pans, colanders, and the like, but this one with pipes upstanding in and around them, topped by faucets and spouting real water (collected beneath the pile and recycled, I was assured, lest I worry about the environment).

The title, “This Is Not a Fountain,” combined allusions to both Duchamp & Magritte. Wowser! But the entire gallery was pretty much deserted—only a very few other art-lovers were visible when I was there.

It was quite another story at “The Painter of Modern Life,” whose title was taken from an essay in which the poet Baudelaire supposedly described his great friend and master realist, Manet (though the essay never uses Manet’s name, and there’s speculation that in his references to “Monsieur G.” Baudelaire meant somebody else).

Anyway! This was mostly paintings and works on paper, though with a sprinkling of collages, assemblages, photographs and sculptures thrown into the mix.

The lion’s share of the work – though by no means all of it – cautiously verged upon the abstract, but even the more overtly representational work had, in most cases, little if anything to do with contemporary life.

But the strangest thing about it all was that the show was really pretty crowded, with a lot of people carefully going around it, work by work. Can it be that the art-loving public is at long last tiring of dadaist message art? Or is this only one little straw in the wind?

I too went around this show with my little checklist. As organized by Bob Nickas, the show had 70 pieces by 21 artists, and I have check marks next to ten works, indicating that I considered them above average.

For what it’s worth, here they are (in the approximate order they appeared on the checklist):

1) Mamie Holst, “Landscape Before Dying (Toward Exiting #8),” abstract acrylic;
2) Matthew Cerletty, “Returns & Exchanges,” representational oil
3) Mamie Holst, “Landscape Before Dying (You Know How It Goes),” abstract acrylic;
4) Chip Hughes, “I tried to hide the heart from the head,” abstract (?) oil;
5) Xylor Jane, untitled, abstract oil
6) Daniel Hesidence, “Untitled (Summer’s Gun),” large semi-representational oil
7) Stanley Whitney, “Insideout,” abstract oil
8) Wayne Gonzales, untitled, semi-representational gouache (my favorite – two check marks)
9) Xylor Jane, untitled, abstract colored ink
10) Daniel Hesidence, “Untitled (Summer’s Gun),” small semi-abstract oil

Stanley Whitney’s painting was one of few works in this show with brilliant colors. It resembled the work in his show at Team that I reviewed in May 2012. I liked it then; I like it now. Though I am still a little irked by his artful crudity, I am not nearly as irked as I was by Ken Johnson’s reference to this painting as “a blast of optical hedonism.”

In the self-same issue of The New York Times, we have Holland Cotter describing an exhibition of Native American handicrafts at The Metropolitan Museum of Art as “one of the most completely beautiful sights in New York just now….”

I’m sure it was a lovely show, but the language here smacks to me of a double standard.

As long as it’s members of an underprivileged community making abstract decorative art (as opposed to fine art) it’s okay for a New York Times critic to call it “beautiful,” but as soon as we have a white male doing his best to create something equally abstract and equally beautiful, it seems necessary to go all moralistic about it and brand it “hedonism.”

(Or at any rate, I suspect that Johnson thought Whitney was white--as did I, when I wrote about him three years ago--and only since I originally wrote this review -- for inclusion in my print edition -- have I learned that he is actually an artist of color.)

In any event, "hedonism" seems to have become an adjective of choice when writing about anything that smacks of colorful abstraction, and it makes me feel like quoting Scripture, specifically that passage in the Gospel of Luke, where Jesus tells his disciples not to worry so much about practical things.

“Consider the lilies how they grow,” he says. “They toil not, they spin not; and yet I say unto you, that Solomon in all his glory was not arrayed like one of these.”


An abstractionist artist-friend of mine pointed me in the direction of this show of large, full-length self-portraits by Lucy Jones, a British artist, at Flowers. My friend had been most impressed by Jones’s use of color, and the commanding way in which the paint had been laid on.

Indeed, these paintings were radiantly-colored, and their oils had been laid on by a masterly hand.

Beyond that, though, there was a piquant contrast between the finesse of the paintings themselves, and the awkwardness of the figure thus depicted.

Upon inquiring at the reception desk, I learned that Jones, who is now almost sixty, suffers from cerebral palsy. Since this is a condition that normally begins at or near birth, she has suffered from it for almost all of her life, but still managed to achieve a real and very serious career.

Born in London, she studied first at the Camberwell School of Art. This was followed by study at the Royal College of Art, where she won a Rome scholarship in 1982.

Over the years, she has exhibited widely, and became known initially for her landscapes, which are also distinguished by their radiant colors and simplified (but never cartoon-like) outlines.

To me, they appear (at least in reproduction) to have much in common with German Expressionist works by Ernst Ludwig Kirchner or Max Beckmann.

Although the show at Flowers included recent work, with one painting showing the artist with a walker, the most impressive were the three from the 1990s facing the entry to the gallery.

All were life size, on canvases measuring about 7 x 5 feet. In the center was “Standing Alone” (1997), showing Jones standing by herself, in a white top and yellow shorts, with an area of vivid green in back and a base of aqua below.

To the right was “Going Swimming” (1997). The most naturalistic of the three, it showed the artist in a jaunty red-and-white striped bathing suit, with a blue field of sky and water behind her, and yellow sand below.

For me, the most affecting was the painting on the left, “Lucy Jones With Her Walking Stick” (1996). Here the artist shows herself with a modest little cane, wearing a bright green sweater and gray pants, a rich purple field behind her, and glowing yellow below.

This is all straight, factual reportage, not an ounce of sentimentality or self-pity in it, and the more powerful for those omissions.

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