Warped Histories: Goshka Macuga at the New Museum

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Detail, Of what is, that it is; of what is not, that it is not

What do a snake, curators of an international art biennial in Germany, and a destroyed Afgan palace have in common? Historically, very little. Goshka Macuga is known for weaving such disparate motifs together into photo-realistic tapestries that present semi-fictitious, complex narratives. “Goshka Macuga: Time as Fabric” at the New Museum presents several tapestry works, as well as the stage set from a video work, that highlight the performative and archival threads that undergird Macuga’s body of work.

Installation view

Installation view of theatrical environment of Preparatory Notes

The first thing the viewer sees stepping off the elevator at the New Museum is a quirky stage set featuring over-sized elements of pastiche, riffing on art history and politics (not unlike Jim Shaw’s Labyrinth... installed on the 5th Floor of the New Museum not so long ago). Like the tapestries, these backgrounds and props are largely black and white. Retaining this somber grey-scale palette from its photographic source makes an implicit claim to verisimilitude yet the objects and characters are blown up to absurd life-size proportions. Branches carefully prop up faces from a cast of characters ranging from Angela Merkela to the artist. Macuga has reinstalled this theatrical environment from a performance at the 8th Berlin Biennial for Contemporary Art, Preparatory Notes (2014). Video documentation of it is screened in the basement theater every Wednesday.

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Tapestry based on Tadeuz Kantor’s The Letter (1967)

Around the rest of the space, tapestries line the walls. They bring together intensely complicated visual–and thereby historical–manipulations onto a large scale. The tapestries, made in Brussels from large composite digital files manipulated in Photoshop, invoke a rich history. For example, Macuga, who was born in Warsaw, recreated Polish artist Tadeusz Kantor’s 1967 performance in Warsaw, then documented it, and made it into an enormous tapestry. As a medium, tapestries are outmoded wall coverings that once acted as important symbols of prestige and power, often used by rulers to tell stories about themselves. Here, Macuga uses the antiquated form to her own ends, shaping a story from the documentation of the recreation of a performance. This implicates her, and us of the contemporary moment, in the original performance. For the viewer, there is the additional pull of the fine weave and how artfully the collage registers as verisimilitude, almost seeming to be a large print rather than a woven textile until seen up-close.

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Detail, Of what is, that it is; of what is not, that it is not

Macuga’s Of what is, that it is; of what is not, that it is not is one of two tapestries that the artist created in 2012 for dOCUMENTA. She showed one in Kassel, Germany and one in Kabul, Afganistan for the duration of the exhibition. The composition reflects these two strange dueling contexts. The destroyed Darul Aman palace in the background resembles a building in Kassel. Standing people in Western clothes (the dOCUMENTA curators) look at the sitting or reclining Afgan people in front of them. The Afgans seem to look toward the center, where an enormous snake, out-of-scale but convincing, raises its head and looks out a the viewer. If tapestry has a history of filling an political function, here the series of gazes points accusingly at the viewer. This vast panorama and impossible history laid out for the viewer suggests the warping of time and historical currents created through art to bring Afganistan and Germany, past and present, art and conflict into uneasy, unsustainable relation. Only through art can you attain that suspension of disbelief, or collapse of distinction, and I would say that the tapestry argues to questionable end.

Detail, The Lost Forty

Detail, The Lost Forty

Macuga creates thoughtfully warped views of history. For more information, a great article about the making of The Lost Forty on the Walker Art Center blog details the complex production of the composite image used as the basis for the tapestry. The Walker invited the artist to spent time in their archives, which led her to the position figures from throughout its history from its founder to herself in 40 acres of pristine forest nearby, the lost forty acres of the work’s title. The article gives a sense of how carefully Macuga creates these fictional scenes with such verisimilitude and historical perversity.

“Goska Macuga: Time as Fabric” is on view through June 26, 2016.

Jim Shaw’s Americana melange at the New Museum

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The New Museum’s “Jim Shaw: The End is Here” presents a retrospective of the 63-year-old West Coast artist who frames his exploration of fringe movements and pop Zeitgeist in inquisitive, art historical terms. My main takeaway from the Shaw exhibition: more is more. Especially when you hang it salon style across big galleries and fill vitrine after vitrine with esoterica. The survey of work from the 1970s onward, on view until January 10, fills three floors.

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Seven Deadly Sins

The second floor opens with a wide range of small works from the 90s–drawings of dreams and painted reimaginings of pulpy book covers. Both tend toward the erotic and the surreal. These works lay the ground for recurring subject matter in Shaw’s oeuvre: pop rendered vivid and uncanny. However, the next room of relatively stripped down recent paintings dispelled any suggestion that Shaw’s interests could be so neatly contained.  In these paintings, the difference between loose background and tightly rendered foreground gives the dense art historical and political allusion room to breathe (as in the excellent Seven Deadly Sins pictured above and below).

Detail, Seven Deadly Sins

Detail, Seven Deadly Sins

On the fourth floor, Shaw’s collections of thrift store paintings and of religious paraphernalia are on display, allowing the visitor to see the source material for much of the artist’s subject matter and share his fascination in lowbrow and weird Americana. The bad, enigmatic thrift store paintings are an odd prism with which to view American culture and the painters’ psyche; Shaw puts himself in their category by repeatedly displaying this collection in galleries.

Thrift Store Paintings

Installation of Thrift Store Paintings at the New Museum

Perhaps most impressive is Shaw’s dizzying collection of “didactic art,” featuring tent revival banners and tarot cards, medical texts and masonic heads. The material is probably vaguely familiar to most Americans, but I certainly never examined such cultural artifacts first hand. Even here, it is difficult to do so, simply because there is so much material to take in.

Collection of Didactic Art

Installation of Shaw’s Collection of Didactic Art at the New Museum

It is nuts–both the remnants of these fringe movements themselves and the attempt to collect and classify them into some kind of sensible order. Rather than succeeding, Shaw’s collection breaks down the border between what seems crazy and what seems reasonable. It makes you question the line in the sand between lunacy, belief, and fact–although personally I will continue to draw that line at the theory of aliens living among us.

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The pièce de résistance is on the fifth and last floor. Labarynth: I dreamt I was taller than Jonathon Borosky is a show-stopping stage-set of art and culture references blurred into a surreal suggestion of narrative that one can’t pin down. Instead, one wanders among the painted backdrops, raw wood supports, and sandbags examining the imagery. Details, like the one pictured below, surprise you as you spot Colonel Sanders of KFC fame below a large eagle. Characters, seemingly derived from the tarot card set you viewed in the didactic art collection on the floor below, make an appearance as well.

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The phrase “the sleep of reason produces monsters” came to my mind while viewing the show. The artist copied winged monsters from Goya’s famous etching earlier in the show, just as he refers to Dali, Picasso, and figures in the style of the game Monopoly in his final, ambitious work. It seemed fitting for this uncanny melange of found objects and paintings and drawings, in which oddball aspects of American culture start to feel strangely familiar.

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100 Years According to “Archibald Motley: Jazz Age Modernist” at the Whitney

Motley The First One Hundred Years: He Amongst You Who Is Without Sine Shall Cast the First Stone: Forgive Them Father For They Know Not What They Do  Detail: Detail, Motley - The First One Hundred Years: He Amongst You Who Is Without Sine Shall Cast the First Stone: Forgive Them Father For They Know Not What They Do, Archibald Motley, c. 1963-72

I walked in through the back. The first painting I saw in the Whitney’s retrospective exhibition “Archibald Motley: Jazz Age Modernist” was The First One Hundred Years, a striking phantasmagoric diatribe about race relations in the United States, as you can see in the image and detail above. Archibald John Motley Jr.’s (1891–1981) last painting, it was completed in 1973 after nearly a decade of reworking. He did not paint again. While the rest of the exhibition makes the case implied by its title—Motley, a black artist associated with the Harlem Renaissance, as a jazz age modernist deserving of greater recognition—through a coherent body of work, this painting sticks out as something else entirely.

Archibald J. Motley Jr. (1891–1981), Blues, 1929. Oil on canvas, 36 × 42 in. (91.4 × 106.7 cm). Collection of Mara Motley, MD, and Valerie Gerrard Browne.

Archibald J. Motley Jr., Blues, 1929. Oil on canvas, 36 × 42 in. Collection of Mara Motley, MD, and Valerie Gerrard Browne.

Motley’s works are presented (if one were to begin at the beginning, unlike me) chronologically, first as a room of Classicizing portraits with clearly defined forms that create gravitas. Then, the exhibition proceeds through scenes of Bronzeville, the area of Chicago where Motley lived, worked, and played, to Mexico, which the artist began to visit in the 1960s. These genre scenes often present figurative groups in social atmospheres—nightclubs and city streets—and these people are largely black, or rather gradations of brown, unusual at the time and also seen in his portraits of family members. With arrestingly tilted spatial constructions and high-key color, the scenes are vibrant, pulsating with a bluesy rhythm. Motley often takes advantage of artificial light to strange effect, especially notable in nighttime scenes like Gettin’ Religion (pictured below).

Archibald J. Motley Jr. (1891–1981), Gettin’ Religion, 1948. Oil on canvas, 40 × 48.375 in. (101.6 × 122.9 cm). Collection of Mara Motley, MD, and Valerie Gerrard Browne.

Archibald J. Motley Jr., Gettin’ Religion, 1948. Oil on canvas, 40 × 48.375 in. Collection of Mara Motley, MD, and Valerie Gerrard Browne.

These works hint at a tendency toward surreal environments, but with The First One Hundred Years Motley is in starkly symbolic territory, jumping from colorful but largely Social Realist depictions to an order dictated by an internal compass. The full title of this painting is “The First One Hundred Years: He Amongst You Who Is Without Sin Shall Cast the First Stone; Forgive Them Father for They Know Not What They Do,” which begins to suggest the wallop the canvas carries. Portraits of Abraham Lincoln, Martin Luther King, and JFK hover in a blue twilight scene amid a house with a devil and a dove and a tall tree bearing a hanged man next to the Statue of Liberty. The red of a Confederate Flag and the devil stands out among the all-over blue tonality. A dark void with suggestions of features haunts the middle, reminiscent of an unarticulated Francis Bacon. In great contrast to the realism, conviviality, and safe distance of the other canvases, here Motley pulls no punches.

The First One Hundred Years: He Amongst You Who Is Without Sine Shall Cast the First Stone: Forgive Them Father For They Know Not What They Do, c. 1963-72

Archibald J. Motley Jr., The First One Hundred Years: He Amongst You Who Is Without Sine Shall Cast the First Stone: Forgive Them Father For They Know Not What They Do, c. 1963-72. Oil on canvas.

Rather than understanding The First One Hundred Years as a way of ending the exhibition with an exclamation point, perhaps this painting offers a more directly political lens with which to understand the rest of his oeuvre. The genre scenes and portraits are of course already political for creating visual representations of black culture and showing black bodies. But the manner in which Motley depicts black people is a little more difficult than that; Motley’s figures are stylized and general rather than representing particular individuals, but sometimes they verge on grotesque caricature with skin painted an unmodulated black and mouths oversized, garishly red. The labels at the Whitney propose that it is a form of irony on Motley’s part, at a time when irony was rarely seen in painting. The contention is that those in the know would understand that the artist was dramatizing stereotypes rather than taking them at face value. Titles such as “Mulatress with Figurine and Dutch Seascape” also suggest he pointedly engages with social constructs.

Archibald J. Motley Jr. (b. 1891–1981), Self-Portrait (Myself at Work), 1933. Oil on canvas, 57.125 × 45.25 in. (145.1 × 114.9 cm). Collection of Mara Motley, MD, and Valerie Gerrard Browne.

Archibald J. Motley Jr., Self-Portrait (Myself at Work), 1933. Oil on canvas, 57.125 × 45.25 in. Collection of Mara Motley, MD, and Valerie Gerrard Browne.

While I don’t have an alternate explanation than the Whitney’s, it is still a shock to see titles that refer to racial designations that would have seemed backwards in Motley’s own time and depictions that from any white painter would read as straightforward racism. In a review in the Wall Street JournalPeter Plagens writes that

Motley called himself a “blues aesthetician,” and the dualism implied by these two words is indicative of his whole career. Motley longed to create a visual equivalent of black music’s vigor, slang and dialect. As a black artist, he could be fearlessly ironic in portraying African-American life, but as an academically trained and Paris-modernized outsider, he couldn’t help but see his subjects through a distancing lens.

That dualism that makes some of his work difficult collapses in The First Hundred Years into pathos and conviction with no distance or irony. The 100 years of the title refers to the centenary since the abolition of slavery in 1865, and the history that Motley depicts since that event looks like a nightmare rather than progress. Perhaps most jarring, it feels relevant today.

Archibald Motley: Jazz Age Modernist” is up at the Whitney through January 17.