Sunday, March 7, 2010

Independent Art Fair 2010: Get Your Xerox "Prints," Only $150

Hucksters and suckers had a meet-up at the Independent:  The venerable White Columns was selling Xerox "prints."  (Click on photo to better see the labeling.)

According to one of the people minding this carny (as in carnival side-show scam), these are made by, "you know," lifting up the cover of a copy machine and pressing the start button.

When I visited the Independent on Saturday, almost all these "prints" had been sold.

The Independent feels edgier than Pulse.  Its open layout makes it much easier to experience the art as art, as though you're in a gallery or museum.  And it's free.

But the nicer environment can't hide the fact that most of the stuff being shown is stale.  Attacks on American consumerism, fun cheerleader outfits -- art here is lagging sadly behind the times.

Photo:  Laura Gilbert

Pulse New York 2010: Plastics and Narratives

On my way to Pulse on Thursday, I read a review in the Wall Street Journal of the Luc Tuymans show at SFMOMA.  The reviewer, David Littlejohn, suggested that art addressing modern history be judged by asking whether the artist "has something new, persuasive and productively thought-provoking to say, or has found a novel and mind-opening way to say it."

I don't know what he means by "modern history," but I think this standard applies to all contemporary art, which is in some sense contemporary history.

So I viewed Pulse's offerings with this standard in mind.  Sad to say, almost all the art was tired, superficial, and boring.

Amid all this disappointing work, a few artists truly stuck out.

It won't surprise anyone that Tilo Baumgartel lives in Leipzig.  His art is almost Neo Rauch redux, but his works on paper are so accomplished you could convince yourself that it doesn't matter.

Sandow Birk's "American Qur'an" is a years-long project of an English translation of the entire Islamic text accompanied by scenes of American life.  There's no relation between the text and the imagery -- it's not illustrations here.  I respect the artist's thinking about the relation of two cultures, and his ambition, and his updating the tradition of illuminated manuscripts.  Interesting that R. Crumb's illustrated Genesis came out last year.

 We deserve art that can make us laugh, and William Powhida creates just that.  Powhida is known for taking on the New York art world.  It's exciting to see him cast his net wider to challenge the L.A. scene.

Otherwise, there is little to be said about Pulse.  Plastic was a favored medium.  Dung hills of acrylic paint, acrylic enclosures, polyurethane, tape of different colors, cutouts from magazines and who knows what else that are coated with some sort of goo.  Plastic seems the perfect medium to characterize the word "unpersuasive."

Artists were really into their Sharpies this year, too.

(Conflict of interest note:  I once bought a Powhida print and have participated in forums he organized.)

Photos:  Laura Gilbert

Friday, March 5, 2010

Metropolitan Museum: "The Art of Illumination: The Limbourg Brothers and the 'Belles Heures' of Jean de France, Duc de Berry"

It's an eye-opener, the Duc de Berry's prayer book:  Some of the female saints are half-naked, even lascivious.

Reviews of the just-opened Met show will tell you the following: (1) Now is the only chance you'll have to see all 172 images in the "Belles Heures" at the same time.  (2) The "Belles Heures" is an acknowledged masterwork -- with microscopic details and astonishing naturalism -- by the Limbourg Brothers, who tragically died young, possibly from plague, in 1416.  (3) The "Belles Heures" is an unusual prayer book because it is so lavish and includes seven story cycles beyond the usual offerings.

The better reviews will also describe some of the Limbourg Brothers' pictorial daring:  two narrative scenes in one image, for example, or one of the very rare night scenes in medieval art.

But here's something I doubt you'll see elsewhere, because people won't believe their lying eyes:  This religious text is illustrated with some odd, unexpectedly sensual imagery.

Take St. Catherine.  Twice she's presented naked from the waist up.  The image at the top shows her in jail.  The other shows her bound to a column and tortured.  

St. Cecilia is bathing, her breasts exposed.

Consider how radical this nudity is.  In medieval religious imagery, female nakedness is reserved for fallen women -- Eve, the Magdalene, those condemned to Hell in the Last Judgment.  Virginal saints are modest.

No text requires St. Catherine to be imprisoned half-naked.  According to legend, she was thrown in jail without food, but not without clothing.  And nudity is not a necessary part of the pictorial narrative; the queen, for example, is not bringing St. Catherine clothes.

The legend of St. Cecilia has her killed while bathing, but why reveal her naked breasts when she could have easily been shown with just her head above water?  And why show St. Catherine being tortured so exposed, when her hair could have covered her breasts, or she could have been strategically placed behind the column?

Then there's a Christian being tempted by a woman moving her hand up his thigh.  Though that sight prompted St. Anthony to retreat to the desert -- and he's shown on the right, recoiling -- all the visual attention is really on the lasciviousness.

The Duc de Berry decided the Limbourg Brothers should illustrate the "Belles Heures," and one can only assume that these images were the ones he wanted to look at.  Did he pray with this book?  Doubtful -- he owned many prayer books.  It is more likely that he eyed it for his private pleasures.

These observations are an invitation to acknowledge the private aspects of the "Belles Heures," not just its place in art history, and to study other illuminated manuscripts as objects for contemplation that is personal, not devotional.

A couple of other observations:

The Limbourg Brothers are considered among the best of all European illuminators.  The glazing, the minute detail, the many colors, the gold leaf -- how did they do it?  For one thing, according to the Met curator, they "must have had magnification."  He examined each page under binocular microscopy and saw things not visible to the naked eye.

An informative video answers others questions.  The artists used quill pens, not brushes with one or two hairs.  If mistakes were made, a pen knife was used as an eraser.  The Duc de Berry could afford the best materials, and the top-quality vellum (prepared animal skin) could withstand several erasures.  The video also shows how gold leaf is applied.

But the work of the Limbourg Brothers is the swan song of this medium.  A mere ten years after they died, Jan van Eyck would paint his luminous, astonishingly detailed oil paintings on panel, and Gutenberg unleashed his printing press mid-century -- developments that placed scribes and illuminators in the background.

Photos by Laura Gilbert