Sunday, November 18, 2018

Douglas Messerli | "Stubborn Beauty" (on Merion Estes' show Unnatural Disasters)

by Douglas Messerli

Merion Estes Unnatural Disasters, curated by Howard N. Fox / Los Angeles, Craft and Folk Art Museum, September 30, 2018-January 6, 2019, the openings I attended were on September 29th and September 30, 2018

You must see this piece, on the artist Merion Estes' Unnatural Disasters, which opened in September at the Craft and Folk Art Museum in Los Angeles (an increasingly important museum in a city with many great institutions), as an appreciation rather than a review, particularly since it was curated by my companion, Howard N. Fox. I already did review a smaller show of her work in Hyperallergic Weekend in March of 1917.
      As I mentioned in that earlier writing, Estes, an early participator in the Art and Decoration movement, uses store-bought patterned fabrics made in Africa, Indonesia, and Japan, applying acrylic paint to many of them, while adding collaged art, or decorating them with stencils, glitter, and other materials, resulting in wild swaths of color which almost always first present themselves as objects of utter beauty—and, no, you can’t get away from that word in observing her works! So intensively complex are her resultant images that it is truly difficult to separate the wonderful original fabrics from what she has applied upon them. As Constance Mattison describes Estes’ artworks:

                  …They are rapturously beautiful, employing dazzling aesthetics…

    Yet at the same time while the eye takes in the pleasures of these works, Estes’ art, upon closer observation, presents a kind of paradox. When we begin to make sense of what Fox calls these 
“waving flags for beauty,” we begin to perceive something else is going on, that the almost Edenic-seeming natural worlds which she presents us of that world contains something wrong. For example, in the stunning featured painting, Cooling Trend (from 2017), we perceive that the yellow, coral, red, and green patterns that make up most of this work are representations of climate heating, a landscape filled with dragons, black ravens, several suns that seem to be reproducing small microbes like a contagion of cancer. The only truly hopeful element of this work is a narrow white swath in the very center of piece, where tiny minnows seem to be happily surviving in the “cooling trend.” In short, the very vibrancy of this piece belies the sad truth of the oceans’ and rivers’ destruction.

     Other works are more obvious in their straight-forwardness. If one might first notice the lovely elephants marching through the veld in Desolation Row (2013), we also immediately recognize the terrifying human-like image of a dead tree that dominates the work and, even more, horrifyingly, the collage of flames into which the miniaturized pachyderms are destined. In between them lies a frighteningly black-laden cloud of footprints, bones, and other fragments that suggest the end of such former beasts’ lives.  
       Similarly, if the lovely waters of Storm Watch, with their swirling blues, reds, and yellow ochre, we quickly recognize these as noxious waters threatening the already skeletal ship in the upper right, a vessel flanked by a phalanx of ravens set across dark oranges and almost sickening yellows. Yes, this is also a beautiful work on first sight, but we realize that for any humans in this scene, the storm is nearly over, and like the crew of The Flying Dutchman, the sailors and the passengers may already be dead.
       As Max F. Schulz writes about her work, while Red Tide (2003), with its pinkish reds, bands of blue, and almost cartoonish yellow blob with black eye-like features, might at first appear a bit like a dizzying mix of sprightly imagery:

                  The painting depicts the yearly bloom of phytoplankton, a single mic-
                  roorganism, which reproduces daily through cellular division to create
                  massive populations that can stretch over thirty-miles in places. The
                  extraordinary life force of this annual explosion of algae for several
                  weeks or more each year on both California and New England coasts
                  [more recently on the Florida coast] perversely sucks up the ocean’s
                  oxygen and blocks the lower depths. The result is massive death of
                  fish trapped in waters under the bloom.

 As Fox writes of the almost electrifying Smithereens (2012):

              The surface is a visual explosion of energy: a latticework of flame-like
              reds and oranges suffuses the upper portion of the picture, as spider-
              like black spikes, evoking smoke and ash, interpenetrate the “flames.”
              The lower portion depicts bulbous, swirling waves [they are pieces of
              printed fabric collaged onto the painting’s surface], referencing the
              tsunami that destroyed the power plant and precipitated the nuclear
              catastrophe. The marine life that perished due to the disaster is repre-
              sented by the dozens upon dozens of fish eyeballs staring out from the
              painting; those ocean inhabitants might well have survived the
              tsunami of the Fukushima disaster, but they did not survive the radi-
              ation and toxins released into the habitat. Their eyes stare out at us like
              witnesses to a guilty misdeed.

     If Estes’ works are, in some senses, beautiful depictions of the natural world—and they truly are—we have now come a very long ways from the 19th century male-dominated Hudson River School painters. No, Dorothy, we can never ever return to the wheat-fields of Kansas.
     This artist’s works present us with not just a paradox, but represent a kind of conundrum: how to see the beauty in the very destruction of the world around us, or, perhaps more accurately, how can we find in the complete devastation of our planet any beauty?
     Perhaps by using the very fabrics upon which she presents her concerns, Estes has found a kind of deep beauty created by human hands, minds, and visions that project a world far more wiser than the one in which we live.
     I have now been to see this show three times, and each time I have been immediately wowed by the stubborn beauty of her work, and yet have teared up for the messages that these amazingly- alive images convey. Why Estes’ remarkable work is not better known, I cannot comprehend. It seems necessary, almost, if we are to survive.

Los Angeles, November 18, 2018
Reprinted from Art Là-bas (November 2018)

Friday, September 14, 2018

Douglas Messerli | "A Sculpture of the Small Writ Large" (on Richard Deacon and Sui Jianguo


Richard Deacon and Sui Jianguo, Los Angeles, LA Louver Galley / I saw this show with Howard N. Fox on September 6, 2018.

If upon entering the splendid new show at LA Louver Gallery in Venice, “Richard Deacon and Sui Jianguo,” it might appear that there is something jarringly oppositional between the objects—which have been positioned throughout the downstairs and upstairs gallery to represent a kind of dialogue—upon more careful looking and thinking one quickly begins to see links in the art that become richer as one explores them.
       The British artist Deacon first encountered Sui on a visit in China to create a proposed sculpture. Sui, who had sat on the committee which had selected Deacon, quickly became friends with the visiting artist, and they bonded in that 1999 meeting, realizing their affinities despite the sometimes radically different appearance of their own works.
       As in Fold in the Fabric 7 from 2018, Deacon’s works have often involved a piecing together of wooden or metal parts that link up the works many elements, often made up of similar size, to create a broader gestural-like work, which demonstrate the very process of how the art was created. By setting these often-rough-hewn objects of wood or metal upon polished wooden tables of his own creation, moreover, Deacon frames the art within the context of their own podiums, making us even more aware of their hand-made formations.

In one of the best works of the show, Size Is Everything #3, its title spells out in the artwork’s curvaceous-like exclamation—not unlike his famed After, the gigantic articulated wooden worm from 1998—through the method of its creation. We witness through the articulation of this beech and elm-wood construction how it must have come into existence by the assemblage of the smaller wooden struts that Deacon has skillfully epoxied together. The marvelously expressive alphabet-like figure—a bit like an emphatic emoji—is made possible only because of the lesser constituent parts.
      Similarly, the large stainless steal painted work, New Alphabet GHI (2018) is a product of various shaped metal constructions linked intricately together to create a language-in-motion and depth that becomes larger than life.
      If upon first viewing Sui’s work it might appear to consist of huge bronze abstract cuttings in the manner—without the human bodily references—of an artist like Rodin, we gradually perceive that a grand gestural piece (larger by far than most individuals) such as Planting Trace I (2014-2016) is actually based on a small clay model that shares the imprints of the artist’s hand working the material, implanting the imprint of his own skin, and then using 3D scanning that magnifies the images into cast bronze. What appears to be a gigantic gesture of winnowing away a block of metal is actually the small motion made through the very smallest elements, clay rolling across the hand,
      The smaller metal works, such as Planting Trace—Island 1 (2018), Planting Trace—Constellation 10 (2018), and “Planting Trace—Matter 5 (2018), all beginning in the same manner and cast into bronze or created from galvanized photosensitive resin 3D printing, present textures that link the human body at a the most minimal level into jewel-like objects that seem abstractly inspired. Like Deacon, Sui often constructs his own small flat, reflected metal bases which pose as a frame for the art.
      In this profound show, Sui was a true revelation for me, and shown within the context of his friend, Deacon, I gained a new comprehension how truly “size is everything,” that even the smallest gesture when writ large, can become something of amazing beauty.

Los Angeles, August 7, 2018

Monday, March 19, 2018

Douglas Messerli | "Bitter Earth" (on Alison Saar's show Topsy Turvy at LA Louver Gallery)

by Douglas Messerli

Alison Saar: Topsy Turvy at LA Louver Gallery, Venice, California. I saw the show with Howard Fox on March 17, 2018

Los Angeles artist Alison Saar is at her very best in her new show at LA Louver (opening March 28th), using the character of Topsy from Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin as a connecting link between the galleries’ sculptures and paintings.
      Saar’s Topsy, however, is not simply the contrarian, “wicked” rabble-rouser of Stowe’s book, but becomes, through her mop of braided hair, a mythical figure who challenges the white slavery owners of the South, joining others on an exciting voyage, paralleling that of Jason and the Argonauts, to retrieve the Fleece of the Golden Ram, before transforming herself into a Medusa-like figure and joining an entire army of smaller Topsys hiding out in the cotton fields. In the 16 sculptures, drawings, and paintings of this show, Topsy becomes a black heroine threatening patriarchal ideas and seriously challenging male privilege—in short setting the world, as the show’s title suggests, “Topsy Turvy.”  Even W. S. Gilbert, the so-called “king of Topsy-Turvyism might have taken great delight in this kind of vision.
       Unlike Stowe’s novel in which the other major character, the golden-haired Eva, who, if we recall, offered as she was dying, a lock of her flaxen hair, in this version the warrior-like Topsy refuses to be tamed, in Topsy and the Golden Fleece, for example, standing, all in black, with her wild braids spiking out of her head like branches, as she holds a sickle closely to her chest, while in her right hand grasps the locks of golden hair not as a gift but more like the spoils of war.
      Similarly, in The Wrath of Topsy, the iconic figure allows her heavily braided hair to rise up like Medusa’s snakes, fiercely daring anyone to come near her, even though the wood, ceiling tin, bronze and tar-covered figure represents only her head.
     Yet there are milder visions of her as well, as in the wooden figure of Bitter Crop, (calling to mind Dinah Washington’s This Bitter Earth) which reveals her as a kind of curvaceous nude figure tempting heterosexual males.
      In High Cotton (study) she joins others like her, eerily hiding in the dark, tufts of cotton sticking out of their heads as a mode of non-detection (Saar reported that slaves would often hide out in the cotton fields by placing tufts of cotton on their heads). And in the show’s central work, Topsy joins up with an army of small girls, each about 3-5 feet tall, who announce their identities through the plantation tools they carry, Rice (sickle), Cotton (bale hook), Indigo (hoe), Sugar cane (machete), Tobacco (tobacco knife)—all with branches of cotton upon their heads, as if trying to become invisible within the crop so central to Southern plantation life. This work says more about slavery and slave’s modes of surviving than almost other any work I’ve encountered. No stereotypical abandoned dancing, singing, and drinking here: these munchkins are surely “wicked” in their intentions of bringing down the hierarchies which they have had to endure. And you can only wish them the greatest of success.

Los Angeles, March 18, 2018