I am glad: A view into the Hungarian neo-avant-garde at Elizabeth Dee Gallery

Endre Tót, Very Special Gladness Series – I am glad if I can read Lenin, 1971-76

Tongue-in-cheek is an excellent strategy for flying under the radar while drawing your audience in, as both artist and viewer share the knowledge that the intended meaning differs from that of the surface. “I am glad if I can read Lenin” is just such a deadpan statement from artist Endre Tót in the 1970s, part of a series of black-and-white portraits of himself with captions that explore the gladness of advertising, picking his nose, standing in a public square, holding a sign, or scratching his butt. Happiness–or the sarcastic recollection of it–over performing basic actions highlights the restrictive atmosphere of the times. Of all the artist’s conceptually driven works, these wry skewerings of the limited room for personal agency under the Socialist Hungarian state point most directly to the context in which Hungarian artists worked in the 1960s and 70s. Paradoxically this limiting context also created a freedom from commercial incentives and a camaraderie that is abundantly on view in a group exhibition currently up at Elizabeth Dee in Harlem.

Installation view, With the Eyes of Others, Elizabeth Dee Gallery

With the Eyes of Others,” a survey of Hungarian neo-avant-garde art at Elizabeth Dee offers a balanced and broad presentation of work made during the 1960s and 70s, work that often seems as fresh and complex today in the context of a New York gallery as it did when it was made some 50 years prior in Budapest. The neo-avant-garde refers to the second wave of Hungarian artists who pursued radical artmaking strategies, from the 1950s through to the regime transition in 1989, drawing on the historical strength of the avant-garde of 1920s and 30s. The 1960s and 70s became a high point, mythologized today around an aging generation of counter-culture figures who, with the regime change, found themselves re-categorized on the permitted and, indeed, lauded side of the art scene in Hungarian society. While such a focus might seem like a historical niche, the works on view compellingly make the case for their international connections, linking back to American artists such as Robert Smithson, as well as charting specific territory related to making art under a repressive government that officially supported Socialist Realism as part of its cultural policy. Here, instead of positive, monumentalizing depictions of everyday life that glorify Socialism, you find a wealth of avant-garde artistic strategies designed to resist such placid narratives.

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The most arresting works on the ground floor are large, hard-edge abstractions, in painting on canvas but also on metal or in tapestry. Ilona Keserü’s incredible, well-preserved tapestry recalls painterly abstraction in a craft medium as well as traditional Hungarian folk designs for graves. István Nádler’s painted abstractions recall earlier avant-garde figures such as Malevich as well as the Hungarian Lajos Kassak in their geometric manipulations of space and planes that still recall the touch of the hand. Ágnes Berecz points out in her review in Hyperallergic, although there are clear connections to abstract artists working in the West as well, “what makes the exhibited works unique is their often veiled yet inescapable politics.” The political import of these abstract works, pointedly not Socialist Realist, contrasts greatly with Western ideas of abstraction as a withdrawal from politics, as notably promoted by art critic Clement Greenberg in New York.

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Upstairs, a fantastic but dense group of conceptually driven works are on view, representative of the many figures who were important in the Hungarian art scene during these decades. Work by Katalin Ladik, Miklós Erdély, and others finds a performative use for photography, documenting actions that could not easily be shown in Socialist Hungary. An exception is Tamás Szentjóby’s 1972 action Sit Out/Be Forbidden, documented here by three grainy black-and-white photographs that show a long-range image of the artist sitting in a chair on the street, having put his belt around his mouth. The artist did so knowing that the act would be considered subversive by the vigilant Hungarian police. Accounts differ as to whether police arrived before or after Szentjóby left, an example of how mythmaking has grown among this now-legendary group of artists, who have been canonized as artists of resistance. In contrast to this confrontational attitude, consider the more lighthearted resistance of Endre Tót, who employs the phrase “I am glad” frequently in his works. While the tactics used differed from artist to artist, the unofficial art scene was united in its pursuit of radical avant-garde strategies, and the many methods were all valid tools in the hands of artists looking for new forms of expression. While in places like New York, camps formed around different artistic styles, Hungarian artists, perhaps united by a common enemy, were a fairly close group.

László Beke, Handshake Action, Balatonboglar, 1972, Gelatin silver print, 21 1/4 x 15 3/4 inches

The work tucked just under the stairs, László Beke’s Handshake Action, a conceptual photographic grid documenting artists shaking hands at the summer getaway of Balatonboglar in 1972, speaks to that dimension of the works on view: they were made by a tight-knit avant-garde art scene interested in forming connections with the outside world. This grid marks the meeting of Hungarian and Slovak artists, a rare large gathering that stressed the solidarity of the Hungarian scene and its desire to be in contact with the art world outside of Hungary. This desire is likewise seen in the mail art of the period and the devout perusing of major art world periodicals such as Artforum. Despite real limitations, Hungary was not a closed circuit, and many of the artists on view had meaningful if limited tours in Germany and other European countries, at times also exhibiting there. However, with no commercial market to speak of and limited exhibition opportunities, work was made for oneself and one’s friends were the primary audience. The intellectual drive to experiment and create formed an atmosphere of surprising freedom within a repressive context. “With the Eyes of Others” provides the best gateway to into the complexity of the Hungarian neo-avant-garde that New York is likely to see for some time.

On view at Elizabeth Dee gallery in Harlem through August 11.

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.

Indirect and Unsettling: “False Narratives” at Pierogi Gallery

Nadja Bournonville, A Collection of Small Grey Stones 2012, Analog C-Print, Edition #3/3 + 2 A.P., 29 x 23.25 inches

Nadja Bournonville, A Collection of Small Grey Stones, 2012. Analog C-Print, Edition #3/3 + 2 A.P., 29 x 23.25 inches.

A lady in a dress the color of a Madonnas, its rich folds of blue against the crumbling texture of a pale wall. Her hands clasped in a lady-like manner in her lap. Her tissue thin grey medical mask awkwardly covers the front of the face, where there should be sight. This photograph by Nadja Bournonville and its blinded subject opens the excellently strange group show “False Narratives” at Pierogi‘s new Lower East Side location, appropriately enough as it thematizes the potential for brokenness, puncture, and error beneath a deceptively smooth surface. Bournonville’s body of work takes the invention of hysteria as its subject matter, asserting that Dr. Jean-Martin Charcot largely created the disease with the technological aid of photography in the Pitié-Salpêtrière Hospital in Paris at the end of the 19th century. Bournonville represents the spectacle of this endeavor in poetic images of the anonymous female restrained by science and studies of playful pseudo-medical machines that recall the work of Eva Kotatkova.

Tavares Strachan, Dislocated remnants from simultaneous events, Providence, RI, (Broken windows diptych), 2010, Plexi-glass, glass, plastic, wood, metal, 34.5 x 39 x 6 inches each panel

Tavares Strachan, Dislocated remnants from simultaneous events, Providence, RI, (Broken windows diptych), 2010. Plexi-glass, glass, plastic, wood, metal, 34.5 x 39 x 6 inches each panel.

The detailed backstory, rooted in the imagined violence of another time and place, that underlies Bournonville’s photographs resembles the approach taken by Tavares Strachen in his pair of matching windows set into the gallery wall. Strachen’s duplicate white-framed windows were created with precise breaks and the gallery floor is littered with broken glass below. He modeled them on a specific window in a disused industrial building in Rhode Island. There, the artist actually replaced existing windows with matching broken ones. This discreet gesture for noone becomes immediately visible in the gallery space. Paradoxically, while the work becomes more clear, it also becomes less pertinent to the viewer, far removed from the original context. Yet the work takes on new meaning in the gallery space, accentuated by the title that refers to it as a diptych. Painting has long been credited with providing a view onto an imagined vista; here, the cracked glass presents only the gallery wall and the dim reflection of the peering viewer’s face.

Brian Conley, Decipherment of Linear X (X-Ca-Bc-006), 2004, Archival digital print, Edition 2 of 5, 20 x 13.5 inches

Brian Conley, Decipherment of Linear X (X-Ca-Bc-006), 2004. Archival digital print, Edition 2 of 5, 20 x 13.5 inches.

One can more easily draw a formal similarity between Bournanville’s photographs and the “Linear X” body of work by Brian Conley. Both present strong photographs in delicate palettes emphasizing texture and nuance. Both track down obscure paths with rigour: Bournanville, a historic medical and cultural phenomenon, while Conley applies his investigation of Linear X markings as if he were a scientist studying remnants of an ancient language rather than the stray markings of a beetle that he found on a stick in the woods. Conley’s work expands across the room with a glass vitrine featuring loose pages and a display of the artist’s book on the subject (which mimics a scientific volume), a corner of huddled sticks, and photographs and plaster molds along the walls. Conley’s premise, rooted in a known lie, is on one hand futile as a way of knowing the world and on the other creates an intriguing parallel universe.

Installation view of Brian Conley's work

Installation view of Brian Conley’s work

Roxy Paine, Meeting, 2016. Birch, maple, epoxy, apoxie, LED lights, acrylic light diffusers, enamel, lacquer, oil paint, damar varnish, paper, steel, aluminium, stainless steel; 130.25 x 97.5 x 58.5 inches

Roxy Paine, Meeting, 2016. Birch, maple, epoxy, apoxie, LED lights, acrylic light diffusers, enamel, lacquer, oil paint, damar varnish, paper, steel, aluminium, stainless steel; 130.25 x 97.5 x 58.5 inches.

Unlike these other works, rich in backstory, Roxy Paine’s diorama offers you no such guidance. Instead this fabulously constructed miniature beckons you from the far wall as you walk in, brightly lit as if by fluorescent light and featuring a prototypical American conference room. It brightness and skewed perspective to create the convincing illusion of scale hurt my eyes up close as I tried to mine its details to learn more. The scene is resolutely banal and rejects any narrative. Empty spaces maintain a psychological resonance when presented to a viewer looking in, or at least an air of expectancy. It highlights the dourness of industrial grade carpet, overpowering fluorescent lighting, stained ceiling tiles, the cold metal of folding chairs, and middling hot Folgers coffee, but to unclear purpose. By similarly indirect means as the other artists in the show, Paine tells a story, only his is seemingly without a plot or characters.

Nadja Bournonville, Medical Machines #5, 2012, Analog C-print, Ed. of 3, A.P. #1/2, 8.75 x 11 inches

Nadja Bournonville, Medical Machines #5, 2012. Analog C-print, Ed. of 3, A.P. #1/2, 8.75 x 11 inches.

Enigmas and ruptures smoothed over by a cool perfection make for a surprisingly cohesive summer show from the disparate group of artists. Catch it while you can. Pierogi has regular gallery hours through the end of July and then by appointment through August 12.