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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Cornelia Parker’s PsychoBarn Plays On Incongruity and Cliche on Met Roof

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Psychoanalysis, barns, Hitchcock, and Hopper: Cornelia Parker’s contemporary art installation Transitional Object (PsychoBarn) is the latest in the Met’s Rooftop commission and, as has been true of other projects in the space, it struggles to achieve the nuance that the artist’s creates in the rest of their work despite its ambitions. As the title suggests, Parker drew on the Americana of the red barn and Hitchcock’s Bates Mansion in the 1960 film Psycho to create this 30-foot-high structure, which also references the lonely homes painted by Edward Hopper.

Edward Hoppe, House by the Railroad, 1925

Edward Hopper, The House by the Railroad, 1925

British artist Cornelia Parker is known for her incredible installations combining science, violence, the force of nature, such as Cold Dark Matter, which froze an explosion into bits of broken matter careening apart from a lit central point. This installation at the Met lacks that kind of dynamism, and replaces scientific overtones with psychoanalysis. Psychoanalysis is often maligned as a fuzzy pseudoscience, Perhaps similarly its hard to put my finger on whether Transitional Object (Psycho Barn) is the real thing. It’s certainly slippery.

Bates home as seen in Psycho, 1960

Bates home as seen in Psycho, 1960

The viewer first has the iconic impression of a seemingly full-sized house perched atop the cavernous terrace of the Met, as incongruous as Dorothy’s house in Oz, yet the intensely solid presence is revealed to be an illusion as the viewer walks across the terrace. The house facade is only that–it is open at the back, displaying sandbags, cavities, and metal supports of its construction. This mimics how Psycho was filmed–using only two facades and one camera angle to create the infamous scenes of the Bates house high on the hill. The artist plays brilliantly with incongruities of scale. Although certainly not small, perched on the Met’s large roof deck the structure appears miniaturized, and the backdrop of skyscrapers behind Central Park increases the dislocations of scale and place.

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Significantly, the artist went to great lengths over the materials for the structure. Rather than the plywood of a stage sets, Psychobarn was built out of recovered historic red barns from the country. The idea of the red barn implies a wholesomeness that contrasts with the horror of the Bates home and the loneliness of Hopper’s houses, adding to the incongruity of scale.

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To me, it recalls Rachel Whiteread’s 1994 House, a concrete cast of a row house in London scheduled for demolition that exhibited the ghostly presence of what was. Whiteread’s House figured as the indexical sign of absence and loss, rather than referring to cinematic illusion as Parker does here, but both are equally unreal. The uncanny affect in both cases are the result of a presence both familiar and strange, particularly in relation to domestic architecture, which often becomes the locus of the uncanny.

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Certainly the structure vacillates between two poles–that of solid and flat, reality and illusion, foreboding and wholesome, large and small. This dynamic equilibrium is a kind of mental construct as the viewer accommodates both aspects at the same time while sharing the terrace with it. Such a stance recalls the full title: Transitional Object (Psychobarn) is first labelled a transitional object. A transitional object is a term from psychoanalysis used for objects that children rely on as they separate from their parents (for example, a security blanket). It suggests that the viewer is in the process of becoming, and the perhaps the horror and comfort of the American psyche write large is visualized here. Yet for all the invoked clichés and allusions to the uncanny, the structure never dominates the large terrace, and its lack of dark depths denies the viewer a psychological entrance point.

Phone Tag: Interview with Ezra Tessler

This Furtive Burg, Ezra Tessler

This Furtive Burg, Ezra Tessler

For the this iteration of Phone Tag, Chase Westfall connected me with the Brooklyn-based painter Ezra Tessler. Ezra is a painter who received his MFA from Bard College in 2015. He recently showed his work at ZsONA MACO contemporary art fair in Mexico City with Páramo Gallery. His work often deals with the nature of painting and image-making itself, and how it might expand the sphere of what painting can do in the world. Not realizing how close we live to one another in Brooklyn, we Skyped one recent morning, discussing Ezra’s recent paintings, navigating teaching and making work in New York, and somehow balancing life concerns at the same time.

Phone Tag is a generative interview format, where I ask each participating artist five questions (plus others as the discussion meanders). At the end, I ask him or her to introduce me to a working artist whose attitude and work they find interesting and inspiring, who I then interview with the same five questions.

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This Furtive Burg (alternate view), Ezra Tessler

This Furtive Burg (alternate view), Ezra Tessler

LW: What are you working on now?

ET: I just came back from Mexico where I was in a two-person booth at MACO with Barb Smith, a sculptor who did her MFA at Bard with me. I worked on two bodies of work for that show. One group was a kind of three-dimensional painting, something I’ve been working through for a number of years. I wanted to do more than just makes “pictures.” I didn’t want to make paintings as images just to be consumed on the Internet. So I’ve been thinking about a kind of parity between the surface of the painting and the structure of the painting, a possible non-hierarchy between those two things. I’ve been making paintings where the structure is sort of equal to the surface. For example, there are the paintings I make that use clay and oil, these sort of pictorial landscapes. So there’s a pictorial space to them but they come off the wall at angles. Between the pictorial space and the physical space of the painting is this idea that they would create a sort of third experience of space for the viewer. If the cheesiest way to think about a painter’s aspirations is that he or she would like to move the viewer, these paintings try do that in the simplest possible way, they do it by literally making you move around the painting.

I had been thinking a lot about Cézanne, and the ways in which an apple looks like it’s about to jump off the canvas but also looks like its flat and dead. I like that idea of two distinct things—still and in movement, coming and going, falling apart and forming at the same time. Ideally these paintings feel like they’re coming and going at the same time.

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Installation, Bard MFA Thesis Exhibition

LW: But you’re often working with more abstract imagery. So not like an apple…

ET: Exactly. I just finished grad school, during which I constantly battled a perceived struggle between figure and ground. I think a lot of my mentors came from a generation of painters still thinking in immediate ways about Abstract Expressionism and this idea that a painting should be an artifact of a series of battles the artist plays out on canvas. For me the culmination of grad school involved getting rid of the figure and making the painting the figure, oftentimes resorting to abstraction or pattern or stripe, things that in some way offered a field. The embodied field allowed – temporarily – to get past this idea of a figure-ground dichotomy. Those paintings present a clear pictorial landscape but ideally they could also subvert a presumed way of looking at a painting. The idea that you could hold two subject positions of being still and in movement…of coming and going…has some political possibilities. An identity position in which you were able to be both still and moving. I’ve been thinking about what the implications might be, however slight.

The second body of work paired the 3D work with these Delacroix sketches I’ve been thinking about for a long time. Delacroix’s sketches show Christ on the Sea of Galilee. He’s asleep and the disciples are crowded on the raft and reeling in terror at the storm. Christ wakes up and scolds them. Van Gogh and others seemed particularly struck by these sketches. There’s one at the Met that’s quite striking. I’ve been looking at this painting for a long time and thinking about this idea that a painting could be both a source of comfort and but also a source of exposure or risk. I was thinking about the analogy of raft, as an analogy for painting, for the studio, for larger political positions. The paintings that came out of this long process alternate between stains and images so that they move between abstraction and figuration.

Now that those are done, I’m excited to try to push further. I’m curious to see what’s next.

Still in the Tempest II, Ezra Tessler

Still in the Tempest II, Ezra Tessler

LW: You mention Delacroix and Cézanne. Are those influences? Are your influences mostly painterly?

ET: They’re artists whose work I’ve spent a lot of time looking at and thinking about. They come up a lot in my own teaching with students as well.

But I would answer your question in two ways. One influence is the teachers and mentors whose work and lives I respect. A lot of the teachers I most respect offer examples for how to live a good life that engages a community–people like Nancy Shaver, Amy Sillman, Monika Baer, A.L. Steiner. People who offer models for life as an artist.

But also a lot of the work I think about and look at now is work that is very different from the work I do. For example, Sondra Perry, who you’ve interviewed. Or, I just saw a talk at MACO by Jenn Rosenblit, who gave an amazing panel talk. So much of my own work comes out of questions of social justice. Why make art of a particular kind and for whom? What is ethical work, what do qualities of generosity and empathy mean? The artists I respect most are artists who think about that and who force me to think about that further. Painting is a medium that perhaps doesn’t allow for such an opening up. I’m definitely a studio rat, but I find that challenges brought by non-painters to be ones that I want to engage in, the ones I think about most. People like Adrian Piper and Andrea Fraser, for example—even though a connection to a painting practice is tenuous, largely because painting so starkly embodies the problems or contradictions they challenge. I’ve also been thinking a lot lately about painters who work in three dimensions like Moira Dryer and Ralph Humphrey, for example, who really pushed parity between structure and surface.

LW: You mentioned being a studio rat, and maybe that is typical of a painter. So what’s an ideal day in this studio?

ET: A typical day involves getting to the studio early with my dog, Zalea, and spending all day there. I spend as much time as possible in the studio. I usually get right to work. My studio has always been very chaotic but it’s important to me to have a lot of work going at one time. I wake up excited to get to the studio and when I get there I’m equally excited to work, whether that means putting down a new layer of paint, sanding away an old layer, or riffling through books and images.

LW: If you have that many projects going, is it helpful for you to be able to jump from one to another?

ET: This has been the challenge. Deadlines often bring about an editing process. For example, there were two bodies of work that went to this show in Mexico but I had been working on a number of bodies of work leading up to it. As the deadline got closer, work got winnowed out. In the end, I make a lot of decisions in the editing process outside of the studio. Especially because paintings get dealt with in the studio in such dumb and absurd material ways.

Installation, Zona Maco

Installation, Zona Maco

LW: When did you first start thinking of yourself as an artist?

ET: This is a challenging question. After college, I worked in human rights for several years, I did doctoral work, and only after that did I do an MFA. But the entire time I was doing that other stuff, I was painting and seeing work and reading about work. But it was always a balancing act. There came a certain point when I thought: “When am I going to make the jump?”—as if it required a large decision to change my life to enable it. But I looked up one day and was spending all my free time in the studio making work, so it sort of happened naturally that I started to think of myself as an artist. Simply because I was making work.

I had been working in these other worlds that in my mind were connected to the studio but for other people weren’t connected. For me, it was very clear why I was involved in human rights but also keeping up a studio practice, or doing a doctoral program and painting, but for other people it wasn’t so clear. I had probably been worrying too much about that category of an official artist.

LW: I ask the question because for me it took a long time to call myself a writer. When did you start painting? As a child? Always?

ET: Always, always. When I was in the womb, my mother—who was not a professional artist—was going to the Barnes museum on the weekends and taking classes with Violette de Mazia. My earliest memories are of going to the Barnes Museum and the Philadelphia Museum of Art, or looking at books of the Ashcan school with my grandfather.

Heather and Lore, Ezra Tessler

Heather and Lore, Ezra Tessler

LW: You live in Brooklyn now, and I take it you’ve been in the New York City area for a while. My final question is whether it’s better to be in a big city like New York where it’s tough and expensive but there’s a major art scene, or to be in a smaller, quieter place where you can maybe focus on making?

ET: Several friends have brought their graduate student classes from outside of New York for studio visits and I always get the question ‘Should I move to New York City?’ It’s such a personal question though. A number of friends have moved upstate or out of NYC so they can live cheaply and have a bigger studio, and that makes a lot of sense. But the answer seems clear to me right now–it’s where I have a community of people. For me, that’s most important—to be talking about and looking at art and fighting things out in the studio with friends and studio visits. Right now almost everyone I know is in New York… people who offer a source of comfort and challenge in the larger project of making work. For me, the most important thing is to have the ability to make the work as much as possible and to have a community.

It’s also such a personal decision how one participates in the art world and which art world you participate in, because obviously there are many art worlds inside and outside of New York City. Sometimes when NYC gets to be a bit much I think about people like Nancy Shaver, Martin Puryear, Dana Hoey, and other artists who I respect a lot and who have moved upstate and built a life that seems conducive to making work and community. But I’m still building my life here and it’s hard to want to give that up.

LW: Yeah, absolutely. This has been great. Thank you for participating.

ET: Thank you.