Repetitive Affect: Ragnar Kjartansson at the Reykjavik Art Museum

Ragnar Kjartansson, God I feel so bad, 2008

In addition to the many treats of my recent trip to Iceland, the Reykjavik Art Museum had the exhibition Ragnar Kjartansson: God, I Feel So Bad on view, the first museum exhibition of the performance artist in his home country. The extensive exhibition ranges over time and medium, from early drawings to elaborate recent performances. Its title, selected by the artist, comes from a 2008 drawing that is on display and suggests the mood of playful pathos that finds more performative expression in other works on display. Kjartansson says: “I like that title a lot. It’s both true and ironic, precisely the way I feel everything is. Duplicity is everywhere. The works all revolve around how bad I feel and how everybody feels bad, and how you try to giggle when you face the abyss.”

Woman in E, 2016-7 

Woman in E, 2016-7 

Cue the music. The tenor of the show is struck–literally–in the live performance Woman in E. I could hear the E-minor chord, resonating through the space, when I first entered the museum. As I made my way toward it, in one of the first rooms of the exhibition, I was confronted by fluttering gold steamers. They obscured my view of the plaintive noise source. Parting the gold curtain and entering, I discovered a woman in a gold-sequined gown standing on a rotating plinth of more gold streamers. At regular but not rhythmic intervals, she struck the E-minor chord of her gold Fender electric guitar. The jolt from each note is strong and individual rather than forming a melody. E-minor has thoughtful, melancholic connotations. The statuesque presence of a women on a pedestal and the title suggest a synesthesia between music and visual art, between the works of classical composers and classical sculpture. A rotating cast of local performers enact this spectacle until September 3, when it will be replaced by another performance.

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Kjartansson is an increasingly well-known artist internationally, with solo exhibitions at the Hirshhorn Museum in Washington, D.C., Palais de Tokyo in Paris, New Museum of Contemporary Art in New York, and the Guggenheim Museum Balboa. In 2009, he became the youngest artist to represent Iceland at the Venice Biennale, and his S.S. Hangover project sailed across the Harlem Meer as part of Creative Time’s 2015 “Drifting in Daylight: Art in Central Park” exhibition. Kjartansson’s work has been said to combine theater with experiments in repetition and endurance, as a piece like Woman in E suggests. Affect can mean an instinctual reaction to stimulation rather than the result of a complex intellectual process, and it suggests the sensory and emotional realms. The works on view in the exhibition are often repetitive but always affective. The combination productively undermines, intensifies, and calls into question the relation of the one quality to the other. Does the repetition nullify the affective qualities? Or does it mount to an ever more intense catharsis? Is the work of art a saving grace or a hollow gesture?

Installation shot, World Light – The Life and Death of an Artist (2015), Four-channel video

Installation shot, World Light – The Life and Death of an Artist (2015), Four-channel video

Kjartansson himself has said: “All the longing to make something great — but it’s never great; it’s always mediocre. And I just love that. I just love it when human beings are trying to achieve something and it sort of doesn’t happen. I think it’s the ultimate human moment.” That ethos is on view upstairs, in the most complex work in the show, World Light – The Life and Death of an Artist. Filmed in Vienna in 2015 with a crew of friends and family, the four-channel video installation documents some twenty hours of an attempt to perform Halldór Laxness’s novel World Light. Against handmade backdrops, we see actors waiting, idle chatter, the rap of the clapperboard starting a scene, the performance of the scene until finished–or until a line is flubbed, a laugh erupts, and the scene begins again. Kjartansson is there too, seen in shots directing or interrupting the scene, in a trademark white tux, with hair slicked back, like a 1950s crooner. Happening concurrently on four large facing screens in a darkened room, its impossible to watch them all, much less discover the plot. The action is that of the group filming rather than the novel itself, but even that lacks a narrative arc. Rather, it shows the seemingly endless process of filming. It’s point is perhaps that flawed striving for an elusive transcendent, in this case the transformative art experience. The human realm reaches up for the exalted work of art, but it lies just beyond the grasp, like the plot of the novel for the viewer.

In the final room of the show, whose noise echoes out into the hallway where it competes with the softly throbbing E from the other part of the building, is an ongoing screening of A Lot of Sorrow (2013-14). It is a recorded performance of the band The National playing their 3-minutes song “Sorrow” for six hours in front of a live audience at MoMA PS1, and it solidifies the idea that endurance is required. The experience of watching it is like having an earworm (a song that gets stuck in your head). You kind of like it, then you tire of it, but it keeps popping back up. It begins to sound different and you start to hear all the possible nuance and inflection. Sorrow is a conceit that Kjartansson has tackled before. Is it cathartic to repeat the exploration of such full-fledged emotion? The emotive lyrics of the song become emptier, as with repetition one is reminded that they are sung by rote rather than by real feeling. It reminds how lyrics are indexical, a pointing back at some original feeling, even if they feel real when performed. And yet, to keep going, to keep singing, suggests a kind of faith in absolution, a belief in the act of singing and the artifice of catharsis as truly valuable.

On view at the Reykjavik Art Museum through September 24, 2017.

A Humble Humor: Maria Nepomuceno and Lucas Blalock at Sikkema Jenkins

Installation view, More Simply Put, Sikkema Jenkins & Co Gallery

More Simply Put, a group exhibition up at Sikkema Jenkins Gallery in Chelsea through June 30, brings together the work of artists working in different mediums and traditions but with a common aesthetic of rich color, nuance, and a love of embellishment and humor. Work by Lucas Blalock, Arturo Herrera, Sheila Hicks, and Maria Nepomuceno toy with the viewer and each other across the gallery space.

Installation view, More Simply Put, Sikkema Jenkins & Co Gallery

Together they emphasize the humor and joy of using humble materials, often from or recalling the everyday. The clearly manipulated photographic images of Lucas Blalock (above left) help the viewer see how Arturo Herrera’s multilayered paintings (above center), rather than being straightforward abstractions, assert the process of their making and recall the layers of manipulation as in Photoshop. A jumbled aesthetic of piling on more and more is paramount in three-dimensional space in Maria Nepomuceno’s sculptural assemblages (above right) but exists equally in the two-dimensional works hanging around it. Given the different generations and geographies that the artists are coming from, the coherence of the show is all the more a pleasant surprise.

Installation view, More Simply Put, Sikkema Jenkins & Co Gallery

Beaded and bulging, the sculptures of Maria Nepomuceno delighted me, recalling toys and the surreal, penetration and sexual organs; they are objects of excess and subversion rather than utility. The artist relies on Brazilian craft traditions and unexpected materials to create these organic forms, which seem to multiply out like mushrooms or spores. Made by a woman artist and incorporating craft, textile, and humble materials in her work, these funny nightmares also prod one to consider the valences of “women’s work” in today’s society.

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Photographs by Lucas Blalock contradict the evidentiary nature of photography with their patent manipulation. Reliance on recognizable Photoshop textures, flat layering, unnaturally sharp edges create impossible pictures. This tension with the real is amplified by, for example, a shadow cast at an impossible angle. These still lifes become poignant through signs like the tragi-comic message “sigh” imprinted on a balloon or a colorful jumble of erasers and pom-poms that claims another kind of art making. The images are heaped with quotidian objects and textures, highlighting the constructive nature of the image and reveling in its potential.

Non verbis, sed rebus, 2014

Arts and Crafts, 2015

The lively play with common objects in both the works of Nepomuceno and Blalock, as well as the more serious intellectual investigation that the artists participate in, is all the richer for appearing alongside one another and others in the gallery. More Simply Put is on view at Sikkema Jenkins through June 30, 2017.

Wind and Stone: Seung-taek Lee at Levy Gorvy Gallery

Seung-taek Lee, Installation view at Levy Gorvy Gallery

An exhibition at uptown gallery Levy Gorvy surveys the career of Korean proto-conceptual artist Seung-taek Lee, whose inventive careers argues for a reconsideration of the development of Korean modernism as well as some outright swooning over the sensuousness of works that embody both materiality and ephemerality at once. The epynomous solo exhibition features some 40 works by Lee, including a 1960 Non-Sculpture and several Wind paintings from the 1960s through the present. It is the artist’s first solo show in the Unites States, and well worth a visit.

Seung-taek Lee, Wind (1972/82), Rope on canvas

The works on view felt immediately accessible to me, although they arise from a particular context. Born in North Korea in 1932, Lee has been living and working in Seoul since the Korean War. In the 1950s, when Korean artists began to explore ideas of Modernism, Lee early on embraced the idea of an experimental art practice that was uninterested in abstract painting. Working largely independently, he developed a diverse practice, often influenced by Korean traditions, materials, and folk culture. He has worked in mediums ranging from sculpture to performance to land art, using materials that consciously speak to Korean identity even as his formal vocabulary easily slips into the simplified forms of a broader international Modernist paradigm.

Seung-taek Lee, Godret Stone (1958), Stones, rope, wood

Lee’s work with stones that curve inward as if they had waists, known as godret stones, are among his best known. Godret stones are traditionally used for braiding mats in a particular region of Korea. The artist was originally attracted to the stones because they were not art materials but the common tools of artisans. Through suspension and binding with ropes or wires, Lee plays with the potential for transformation–from soft to solid, floating to weighty–that these works inhabit at once.

Seung-taek Lee, detail, Untitled (1959/81)

Just as Lee can make a rock appear soft and pliant, so in his hands a rough rope can become a sinuous line for drawing on canvas. The undulating lines become mesmerizing and suggest subtle movement and depth, yet the effect is created solely through their material nature. At the same time, their placement is indexical, suggesting the trace of the gesture as much as emphasizing a particular form. In this case, rather than the artist’s hand, the curving lengths of rope are meant to give shape to the ephemeral movements of air. This interest in the elements would lead Lee to other works that traced wind or smoke through the air, such as the Wind-Folk Amusement (1971) performance, photographs of which are on view in this exhibition.

Seung-taek Lee, Installation view

Lee’s work is often talked about in terms of “non-sculpture,” an idea that the artist himself has encouraged. Just as he moved outside of traditional art materials, he has described seeking anti-concept or anti-art in his practice. Lee sees his works as creating ruptures in the discourse around art in a very direct way, and in fact considers them as a clear rejections of the traditional notion of art. At the same time, the artist very much views this experimental practice as an art practice (in contrast, say, to the portrait commissions in realist style that he has taken over the years to support himself.)

Seung-taek Lee, Tied Knife (1962) and Tied Knife (1962)

In an interview with Hans Ulrich Obrist in Flash Art in 2013, Lee said: “I would like to advise young artists to learn social science and philosophy as much as possible, because I think art is a game of high intellect; the more you understand the better the work comes out. Skills to make something perfect don’t have meaning anymore.” Lee suggests that art is the conceptual gesture rather than the final product, an approach that has shaped his long career of experimenting outside the bounds of the Korean art scene, for which he only came into recognition later in life.

Seung-taek Lee” is on view at Levy Gorvy Gallery through April 22.