Bruce Nauman revisits Contrapposto at Phildelphia Museum of Art

Video still from Bruce Nauman’s “contrapposto studies, i through vii,” 2016. Credit Bruce Nauman/Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York; Sperone Westwater, New York

In 1968 American artist Bruce Nauman created an important early video work, Walk with Contrapposto, in which he walked down a corridor while jutting his hip out step by step, in an exaggerated and animated demonstration of the classical Greek sculptural pose contrapposto. In the past two years, Nauman returned to this subject matter in a series of seven works now featured in the exhibition “Bruce Nauman: Contrapposto Studies, I through VII” at the Philadelphia Museum of Art. The museum also exhibits the original 1968 video work, and the contrast between the earlier and later works is stark.

Installation shot at Philadelphia Museum of Art, Bruce Nauman, Contrapposto Studies, I through VII

Installation shot at Philadelphia Museum of Art, Bruce Nauman, Study in Contrapposto, 1968

The original experiment in contrapposto is shown on a TV screen in the center of a small, darkened room. On the tiny screen, a fuzzy black-and-white image of a youthful, lithe body is seen awkwardly and methodically pacing down a tall, narrow white corridor, one hip jut at a time. The viewer observes the figure’s back as Nauman walks to the end of the corridor away from the viewer as well as from the front as he walks toward the viewer. The spectacle is simple and slow, making sculptural conventions ridiculous and exploring how video could be used by an artist to implicate the audience in uneasy relation. The viewer is not confronted as directly as in some works Nauman would make in the following immediate years, such as Live-taped Video Corridor of 1970, but the voyeurship of watching the artist and his body presented in new terms the relationship between the viewer and traditional sculpture. Using the then-new medium of video makes the relationship more circumspect than that of, say, performance. That is especially true today, when such grainy small footage reminds the contemporary viewer more of security cameras than televisions. Overall, the impression is stilted and highly focused. Tension comes from the way the body fills the narrow corridor, which directs him along the only possible path he could walk on. The performance is durational; if you watch carefully, he tires over the course of the hour–the length of video cassette tape at that time. The only sound is that of his footsteps in the otherwise empty space.

In his recent works, Nauman again walks back and forth methodically jutting out an opposing hip, step by step. In both the early and later works, the same person walks in the same way in the same nondescript outfit of white t-shirt and jeans. If his earlier body resembled that of the classical Greek sculpture, his aged body is by comparison less nimble and heavier. But the more arresting difference is the technology used: Nauman has updated to large color digital projections that he manipulates. The simple moving image of 1968 becomes compounded into several similar but competing images in the same field, projecting across from competing images, sliced through horizontally more and more while the sound of footfalls is layered to build into a cacophony. In some of the works, Nauman shows the image in color and its negative. The overall effect is a blurring of action and sounds, complicating the action of a single body in motion as if someone had made video collages from a Muybridge strip of a man walking.

Installation shot at Philadelphia Museum of Art, Bruce Nauman, Contrapposto Studies, I through VII

Certainly, the works reflect the technology of their times. One could argue that these new studies as merely translating the original 1968 video into new technologies. However, the meaning of the work itself also splinters under such digital manipulation. Where before the viewer had to wait to watch Nauman pace first down the corridor, and then back, here he approaches the viewer simultaneously, rendering his movements in positive and negative, forward and backward, within a single field of vision. The relationship of the viewer to the artist is easier, somehow, because your vision is free to roam over the many iterations of Nauman’s figure rather than limited to an unending tunnel. The viewer is now immersed in the large-than-life projections, implicated in the scene by the presence of some stools scattered throughout the gallery. The change in setting from the corridor to wide room loosens the sense of constriction; in the newer work, there is a sense of freedom and play. Where the young body became tired, the aged body seems in perpetual motion of recombination. What you gain is a kind of humanity alongside the deadpan, unblinking honesty that characterizes much of Nauman’s work.

Bruce Nauman: Contrapposto Studies, I through VII” is on view at the Philadelphia Museum of Art through April 16, 2017.

Live Culture: Slavs and Tatars at Tanya Bonakdar

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Reader, I drank it. A gallery employee filed a copper tumbler with a ladle of thin white liquid topped with an airy foam he especially fished out for me from the metal cart pictured above. This is the last week to visit the exhibition “Slavs and Tatars: After Pasteur” at Tanya Bonakdar gallery, where the artists have installed a bar of drinkable Turkish yogurt in a room of playful sculptural objects (don’t sit on the cots!) lit by pink and green neon. This interview with the collective Slavs and Tatars explains its origins as a reading group in 2006 interested in historical political and cultural threads in the Balkans and Caucuses. From those activities of reading, publishing, and disseminating texts developed the method of artistic presentation for trans-cultural histories on view here: a method that is playful rather than pedantic and associative rather than analytical. At least, this is part of the context for “Afteur Pasteur,” which claims to “challenge our understanding of the self through the unlikely relationship with bacteria and the microbe, the original Other or foreigner.”

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On the upper floor of the gallery, the artists show works from two ongoing series among others. Pictured above on the left, the Kitab Kebab series offers books as a “talismanic digestive, a mashup of narratives and texts to be appreciated as much through the gut as the mind.” If it’s not clear from the image, the books have been pierced through with a skewer, brutally violating and connecting texts from different cultures in a mock up of the region’s notably violent history. So, not just a light lunch for a bookworm. Pictured above on the right, colorful plastic plaques riff off of Marcel Broodthaers’ “Poèmes industriels” in form, but do so to compare the inherent power dynamics of languages through semantically off-kilter juxtapositions and one-liners.

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With all the value there is to a more playful approach, I wonder who is getting the joke? All the objects in the exhibition are beautifully produced and cleverly described. But the jokes rely on a cross-cultural knowledge of complex regions of the world that are difficult to make sense of, even for the people living there. Thus the original book club, with its research and publications, seems very much missing from this exhibition and very needed.

Constriction and Anxiety: Rashid Johnson at Hauser & Wirth

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Rashid Johnson’s large exhibition “Fly Away” takes advantage of monumental spaces of Hauser & Wirth’s gallery on 19th Street where the artist tries to confine broad, unsettled themes of race and distrust to the work of art. Yet their implications seep out, notably in the dramatically different opening and closing rooms of the exhibition. The opening room of black and white images hung on the wall read as overblown inkprints or cartoons at first glance. Between the somber palette, the loose grid, and the orderly arrangement across wide open concrete floors, the effect is stark, even before one gets close enough to reckon with materiality and influence, abjection and horror. In contrast, the final room is devoted to a large black frame installation dominated by plants and the jazz notes of a pianist encased inside the structure, like a living room TV stand run amok under the influence of the the 1970s and the jungle. “Fly Away” feels particularly timely with it’s Afro-centric cultural evocations citing the pressures on the black figure and the black person in the world. As others have noted–including the artist, the missing faces and erasures are poignant and pointed in light of recent events related to police brutality in the United States.

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The living plants and live music of Antoine’s Organ (2016) in the last room are almost the elements of a garden party, a contradiction with the serious implications of the installation. The black metal scaffolding contains books, video screens, mounds of shea butter, and plants in ceramic vessels built and decorated by the artist. Details such as copies of the satirical novel The Sellout by Paul Beatty suggest a darker element. The exhibition takes its title from the old hymn “I’ll Fly Away,” which ties into the performances of Antoine Baldwin, also known as Audio BLK. The pianist activates Antoine’s Organ from a perch for upright piano built within. When I visited, Baldwin’s playing was more melancholic than triumphal, avoiding the more transcendent note that the title “Fly Away” might otherwise suggest.

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The underlying limitations and negative significance underscore the stark impact of the first room, where six large-scale panels of white ceramic tile covered with dozens of agitated faces scrawled in black soap and wax. Johnson uses black soap as a paradoxical material: it is a cleansing agent that, especially when applied to white ceramic tile commonly found in bathrooms, resembles shit. Connotations aside, the texture contrasts between shiny ceramic and rich matte soap is elegant. The unhappy sketched faces recall Jean DuBuffet.  I felt there was poignant contrast between the black soap faces with mouths scratched across as if silenced or ravaged and the live notes spilling into the room from the artificial domestic jungle structure. The series builds on previous work called Anxious Men; these are called Anxious Audiences.

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In tandem with anxiety, constraint is the tenor of the show, as Johnson highly controls the tools of the trade within the confines of the traditional art surface. His cultural commentary, like his material fascination, is decorative re-presentation, a re-use of signifiers to touch on themes of escape and identity. While there is value in creating a space for reflection, and today’s political context demands just such reflection, it offers no alternative vision of what could be, and the music echoes off the cavernous white walls rather than finding or offering a way out.

Up through October 22 at Hauser & Wirth.

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