Charred Order: Leonardo Drew at Sikkema Jenkins

Number 185 Leonardo Drew

Number 185, 2016, Wood, paint, pastel, screws, 121 x 134 x 30 ins

Gorgeous surfaces of charred wood draw you into Sikkema Jenkins Gallery in Chelsea, where Brooklyn-based artist Leonardo Drew has an exhibition of new work. Each sculptural relief hanging on the wall boasts an intricacy of material and surface that invites a closer look. Drew tends to work with new materials that he batters into a weathered submission, so that the final appearance is of found materials. The orderly nature of his compositions and aesthetic aspect of rich black textures belies the catastrophe implied by the burnt wood, as if by some kind of post-apocalyptic magic each charred remain fell into a grid pattern.

Detail, Number 185, 2016

Detail, Number 185, 2016

Although the materials, which seems to drive the works, recall referents in the world, as images they are resolutely abstract. I feel comfortable talking about these three-dimensional works as images, because they hang on the wall and play with the idea of breaking through the picture plane. Number 185 comes forward slightly into the viewer’s space. More prominently, large wood pieces jut off at a vertical tilt in the top left corner of the square composition, anchored by a protruding bottom weight. The force of these divergences lies in the break that it makes from the stalwart square of the picture plane.

Number 190 Leonardo Drew

Number 190, 2016, Wood, paint, and mixed media

As you enter the second room of the gallery and turn the corner, an arresting composition of weathered and beaten, black or colorful, composite objects runs across the two white walls like so much Morse code. Many of the same tensions of the discrete works are present here in Number 190: tensions between the roughness and variety of the material and the meticulous order of their arrangement, between the clean white gallery wall and the seemingly dirty scraps that have been applied to it, and between the suggestion of meaning and resistance to interpretation. I felt a sheer visual pleasure running my eyes over the miraculously coherent installation. It is equally intricate up close and when viewed as a whole. While it reminds me of Cold Dark Matter by Cornelia Parker, Number 190 seems more decorative or typographical than that work because it is laid out on the walls in a linear fashion. Parker’s suggestion of entropy has no corollary here. Drew has cited the influence of growing up near a dump on his aesthetic; in this manifestation of that influence, he corrals the debris of the world into order.

On view at Sikkema Jenkins & Co through October 8, 2016.

Detail, Number 190, 2016, Wood, paint, and mixed media

Detail, Number 190, 2016, Wood, paint, and mixed media

A Schematic and Spiritual Early Abstraction: Hilma af Klimt

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Hilma af Klint in her studio, 1895

Swedish painter Hilma af Klint is pictured above at age 33, looking entirely comfortable in her studio space in Stockholm among figurative works and wooden furniture. This conventional photograph does not hint at her other body of work: large and dynamic abstract paintings that preceded work by such pioneers of abstraction in modern art as Kandinsky and Malevich. “The Keeper” exhibition, up at the New Museum through September 25, boasts a beautiful gallery with 16 of these audacious, tactile, spiritually driven exercises in expressing the nature of a godly reality through reduced line and color. They make a case for a kind of abstraction not encompassed by the story of a move toward reduction and simplification in response to an increasingly chaotic modern world.

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Installation view, “The Keeper,” New Museum, 2016

Af Klint was in fact trying to express a complex vision of the world. John Yau describes af Klint’s exhibition history and context wonderfully in this essay on Hyperallergic. Yau clarifies how the artist arrived at the mystic belief that “painting was the best medium for bringing the invisible or occult world into the visible.” Her readings in theosophy led her to pursue schematic illustrations in which color has distinct emotional valences (for example, blue represented masculinity; pink, spiritual love). As the image below suggests, af Klint’s works are tactile and imperfect, as if the artist was unconcerned with rigorous line for its own sake, but rather pursued form to make visible the underlying order she found in the world. Her abstract paintings were not shown publicly until 1986, writing her out the history of modernist abstraction that she pre-dated. Since then her work has been increasingly shown.

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The Swan, No. II, Group IX/SUW, 1914-15

Why did Massimiliano Gioni and the other curators include these paintings in “The Keeper”? They don’t suggest an interest in preservation in themselves. Rather than small sketches or drawing diagrams on paper, af Klint choose to work in paint on large canvases, despite the fact that she did not show or sell these works as she did in her concurrent figurative practice. Instead, she preserved these works at home until her death in 1944. Gioni, Artistic Director of the New Museum, also included af Klint’s work in the Central Pavilion at the 2013 Venice Biennale. At that time, he defended her mystic occultism, which to many people would separate it from art as such, saying:

“placing a work [of art] next to materials that are difficult to classify [such as af Klint’s], thus repositioning it in a narrative dimension, the reinterpretation of the piece is reactivated as both the trace of a personal experience and a different means through which to conceive our image culture. Thus the work of art returns to its former existence as a mysterious object charged with multiple meanings, and returns to presenting a view on the world.

…What really interested me was to reveal the mysterious and, at time, even mystical fascination with art….To escape from the definition of a work’s quality according to its market value. I believe it is essential that works are inserted into a discourse that embraces the entire system of images, including pieces that do not conform to the rules of the market”

I Dream of Knowing Everything: An Interview with Massimiliano Gioni on the 55th International Art Exhibition, by Christina Baldacci (Fondazione La Biennale di Venezia, 2013)

Perhaps one can interpret preservation more generously, in which case these images display a need of the artist to preserve a vision of inner reality of the world. Their size is impressive. Yet, the square format does not recall the human figure, as is sometimes ascribed to vertically oriented canvases. They remain removed from the human experience in their non-figurative imagery as well–for example, in the dynamic composition of radial swirls spiraling across a red background as in The Swan, No. 9 below. Af Klint also used recognizable elements at times, such as birds or astrological signs. In her hands, these elements serve a symbolic purpose rather than an attempt at illusionism.

The Swan, No. 9, Group IX/SUW, 1914-15

The Swan, No. 9, Group IX/SUW, 1914-15

Af Klint’s paintings do an amazing job of unsettling notions of abstraction in art history and the role of mystic diagrams in high art. The paintings do not confirm to the rules of the market, certainly, but they don’t confirm to the story of high art either. I, at least, experienced them as powerful and challenging images. Even at the overwhelming Central Pavilion at the Biennale, af Klint’s few contributions exercised some kind of magnetic appeal. Seeing a larger group of her paintings at the New Museum now is rewarding, as they easily slip into the Modernist, white cube context but still resist clear categorization. It is touching to see the fragile application of paint and imagine the strange tenacity which drove a young Swedish women to create such unconventional works that operate even today on several registers.

Self-fashioning in Apartheid-era Studio Portraits on view at the Walther Collection

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S. J. Moodley, Untitled (Family Portrait), 1974

For a women to style herself both in traditional male clothing and then sedate, proper female attire in the same photo shoot plays on gender boundaries even today; I did a double-take on finding such portraits in an exhibition of South African photography from the 1970s. The selection of black-and-white photography currently up at the Walther Collection Project Space, “Who I Am: Rediscovered Portraits from Apartheid South Africa,” features insightful works taken by Singarum Jeevaruthnam “Kitty” Moodley in the 1970s and 80s. Kitty’s studio portraits allowed his subjects to model themselves as they wanted to be seen, exposing their hopes and aspirations. Implicitly they offer insight into the complexity of this particular context: the 1970s South African city of Pietermaritzburg and lives of some of its “non-white” citizens. Under Apartheid, these middle and working class people were classified as African, Indian, or Coloured–a legal status that would be reflected in the ID booklets that everyone was required to carry. Kitty, politically active and opposed to Apartheid, earned his living partially from ID photos, even as his studio became a place for political discussion and the modeling of more complex images of self.

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S. J. Moodley, Untitled (Three Men Dancing in a Line), 1975

Kitty’s vernacular photography transcends the sometimes stilted atmosphere of the studio. Boys dance ecstatically in modern dress; a female stands like an unsmiling statue in traditional clothing. The popularity of photography studios at the time in South Africa recalls the initial emergence of photography in the West, with Nadar’s studio in Paris and the fad of carte-de-visite. There is an informality and vitality to the rapidly shot images that was impossible 100 years prior, but these images similarly circulated in the private domain. Here, images were also served specific social purposes, such as the family album or a token for a boyfriend working in a distant city. What is on view is a self-fashioning that is perhaps fictional but not coerced; rather it presents how subjects wanted to see themselves. At some level though, cut off as we are from the subjects and place, we can only wonder as to an individual’s motivations.

S. J. Moodley, Untitled (Woman Wearing Zulu Beadwork and Holding an Umbrella), ca. 1982.

S. J. Moodley, Untitled (Woman Wearing Zulu Beadwork and Holding Umbrella), ca. 1982

Why did the unknown young woman want to be photographed in both traditional and men’s clothing? In the image above, the women dresses in a skirted outfit featuring Zulu beadwork, according to what would have been customary in her tribe. In the image below, she wears pants and poses next to a floral arrangement. In both her bare feet contrast with European umbrella. Kitty’s studio had a minimal backdrop of curtains, and a few props that reappear from portrait to portrait, such as the umbrella or a telephone. Commercial European goods served as synechdotes for modernity to the sitters who chose to use them. These two photos, like the abandon of the dancing boys, suggest the playfulness that was found in Kitty’s studio.

A newfound appreciation for African studio photography and vernacular photography brings these prints into an art context for the first time. Their history is fascinating and reflects the racist system that they were created under: a local museum curator bought the negatives of Kitty’s studio after his death, and then threw away a wide selection because it portrayed Africans not wearing traditional, ethnographically acceptable ways of dress and ornamentation but rather as individuals freely embracing modernity in different ways. An intern saved them in a garage until they were bought by the current New York-based owner.

S. J. Moodley, Untitled (Woman Wearing Zulu Beadwork and Men's Pants), ca. 1982.

S. J. Moodley, Untitled (Woman Wearing Zulu Beadwork and Men’s Pants), ca. 1982

Seeing the works complicates our idea of the desirability of European modernity or what modernity looked like in South Africa: sitters appear not only equally comfortable in traditional garb and European dress, but consciously using them as signifiers. As Okwui Enwezor writes elsewhere about the work of Malian photographer Seydou Keïta: “the image is, above all, to be read as a pictorial sign of various representational intentions of the sitters rather than the objective, detached, autonomous practice of the photographer alone” (Events of Self: Portraiture and Social Identity, 2010, p. 33). This kind of freedom of self-fashioning would have been rare for the middle and working class patrons whose social lives were structured around the racist limitations of Apartheid. The contradictions inherent to these photographs, unlike those of “art photography,” are not shaped purely by an artist’s vision but are the result of a complex place and time, one that we have fascinating access to here. The collaboration of the photographer and the sitter gave private voice, and now documentary access to the viewer, of a changing South African identity which struggled with the movement away from colonialism, racism, and surveillance.

“Who I Am: Rediscovered Portraits from Apartheid South Africa” is up at the Walther Collection Project Space at 526 W. 26th St, Suite 718 through September 3.