Art Papers

"Cosima von Bonin: Character Appropriation" at the Mildred Lane Kemper Art Museum (2011)


Like failure, fatigue is among the more shadowy of great authorial themes, assuming a sideline position to idées fixes more readily identifiable as writ-bold heroic. In this taught and thoroughly untypical survey of work from the last ten years, the pivotal and persistently elusive Cologne-based artist emerges as a flag-waving proponent of the nuances of exhaustion, even if her flag comes in the form of a limply dangling, over-sized bikini. This may sound misleading; a Spring Break girl-gone-wild von Bonin is not. Rather, this languid two-piece (Untitled (Bikini Loop #01), 2007) hovers over the viewer upon entering the gallery like a fractious political banner, post-rally -- its strings curling at the ends, its mid-section slumped. Glancing across the space, one then encounters a dense labyrinth of outsized objects, positioned to be at once confrontational and covetable: a stuffed lobster slumped on a ersatz-Modernist table base; a massive stuffed cartoon shoe siphoned into what appears to be the top seat of a life-guard’s perch; a pair of bald Dunlop tires behind the bars of a narrow cage; a wall of von Bonin’s signature “textile” paintings positioned on large, gift-box shaped pedestals. For all of its disorienting incongruities of scale, the space is familiar: this place looks like a store, jammed-full with glossy product. And this is where the fatigue sets in: how overwhelmingly over-stocked -- with content, with desire -- the world is, and (huge sigh) to what end.

White Mickey Mouse gloves hover in the stitched plaid ether of von Bonin’s Bubbles (2010), a series of textile paintings, appearing like a serial illustration of the artist-as-magician enacting the slight of hand that renders her work at once compulsively appealing and inscrutable to the point of reticence. Like her body of work as a whole, the series could also serve as an enlarged, soft cartoon of Keats’ notion of negative capability -- that Romantic state of productive irresolution, or “being in uncertainty," that (to Keats) characterized the highest art. Consider her exhibition titles, such as Fatigue Empire, for her comprehensive 2010 survey at the Kunsthaus Bregenz, or Juxtaposition of Nothings from this past Spring at Friedrich Petzel Gallery in New York; they are conundrums of conflicting impulses, suggesting at once relational unity (empire, juxtaposition) and complete dissolution (fatigue, nothing). While bating with seemingly accessible carrots of reference (Mickey as magician; fabric as clothing, comfort and commodity), the pieces ultimately remain slyly out of reach, resisting reductive and finite translation. As a gesture to this very mutability of meaning, hanging from the ceiling on a piece of white rope in the exhibition’s center is a microphone, poised as if to be taken up by anyone who wishes to narrate the show, or “cover it” like a familiar pop song (here, this exhibition’s title is recalled, which was taken from von Bonin’s textile painting Rock Stars (Character Appropriation), 2003, depicting the American 70s pop duo Hall & Oates). Rather than a shaggy dog tale, call this shaggy dog symbolism: work that overtly references pop cultural, art historical and socio-political sources while at the same moment recoiling from them, like a crustacean retreating to its shell. 

Similar to von Bonin’s current traveling exhibition series, Lazy Susan Series, a Rotating Exhibition, in which new pieces are presented at each venue amidst reshuffled selections of existing work, the Kemper’s survey resists the conventional taxonomic presentation model and institutional mandate to define the surveyed artist. German DJ and musician Moritz von Oswold, a collaborator of von Bonin’s since 2010, contributes ambient electronic “loops” (a term that von Bonin borrows in reference to her own practice of re-use and re-presentation) that accompany nearly every work, making a kind of siren song of consumerism that recalls the ubiquitous soundtrack that permeates any contemporary shopping experience. The artist’s hand, here, is consistently evident: audio equipment appears throughout the exhibition, piled on its own packaging or sitting on cinder blocks and construction-grade step-stools, as though just feverishly purchased then abandoned. This equipment invites a participatory dimension into the work while at the same time reaffirming it’s peculiar hermeticism; you may pick up the head phones to listen to von Oswold’s loops, or, they can be left untouched, for the artwork to revel in alone.

In viewing the exhibit’s largest work -- a life-sized stuffed chick, bloated and vomiting on itself as it straddles a massive, glossy rocket (Missy Misdemeanor #02 (The Beige Vomiting Chick, Miss Riley (Loop #02, 2006) MVO’s Voodoo Beat & MVO’s Rocket Blast Beat), 2011) -- the fatigue hits anew and with fresh resonance. Induced by feelings of over-production, excess stimuli or lack thereof, slumped in stupified stasis invoked by entrancing, repetitive beats, the chick is empathetic, resigned to its dull apathy and inability to really do more than, well, just ride the situation out.

Cosima von Bonin: Character Appropriation was on view at the Mildred Lane Kemper Art Museum, St. Louis, May 6 - August 1, 2011. This review was published by Art Papers, July 2011.

Brandon Anschultz's "Pacer" at the Contemporary Art Museum, St. Louis (2012)


Sometimes you have to tear a thing down before you can see it anew. St. Louis-based painter Brandon Anschultz has made a dedicated practice out of this occasional truth, dismantling the constituent elements of painting in order to reinvent them for himself and for the beleaguered medium’s sake. His recent solo exhibit, Pacer, may be the most lyrical synthesis of his deconstructive project to date -- engaging expressionist and procedural approaches to abstraction, impulses toward object-making, and vigorous experimentation with materials and substrates. In plotting out only a spare number of carefully selected pieces in the intimate confines of the Front Room space, a vivid conversation emerges, at once expert and frenetic, in which Anschultz’s anti-subject (painting) is eviscerated in the same breath that it’s remade.

A piece of green-tinted tempered glass sits on the gallery floor and leans against a wall; caddy-corner to it, at traditional viewing height, a stretched canvas hangs. The duo, titled Pink/Green (2012), works as one, each sharing a dimly pastel palette of loose, provisional marks that spread like rashes over their high corner regions, each exchanging complementary notes on notions of opacity and transparency. Across from this pair, at the gallery’s far end, a mass of clay-colored paint with thin strands of copper wire protruding from it, lays on the floor; above it, a copper-colored metal rod straddles the gallery’s top corner ledge, a mass of chartreuse paint dangling from its center. This duo, titled Shark/Green Wad (2012), also works in concert but to more tensile ends: one colored mass seems to threaten the other, playing on the drama of gravity or, alternately, the stealthy freedom of untethered things. Peepshow (2012) is the exhibit’s dark center. Appearing singly on the wall opposite the two diptychs, it hangs as would a conventional painting and appears as such, from a distance. Closer inspection reveals a monochrome abstraction inked on a hunk of crudely-trimmed packing foam, saturated with assorted shades of black that vaguely shimmer (foam of this variety has reflective flecks mixed into it) when it catches light. At once glam and somber, the piece anchors the candy-colored works in its midst, drawing out the formal and emotive seriousness of Anschultz’s project while retaining its signature shine.

What hasn’t been dismantled, here? Paintings move from wall to floor; positive and negative distinctions dissolve or conflate; paint appears on transparent substrates or on none at all; substrates fail to perform -- absorbing wholly the material they’re intended to host. The very status of a painting as a two-dimensional window that has little concern for its status as an object let alone an object in contingent space, is effectively disrupted. Rather, both sculptural and curatorial concerns come necessarily into play: where a piece is placed rewrites how it communicates. In Anschultz’s work, correspondence is key, and irresolution poses not a problem but an opportunity for discourse. Like the exhibit’s title itself, which suggests a person moving back and forth in contemplative rumination, the pieces reverberate off themselves, finishing one another’s sentences in rapid contagion.

The exploration of painting’s materiality is not new for Anschultz. In his 2010 exhibit Stick Around for Joy (2010 at Laumeier Sculpture Park, as part of its annual Kranzberg Exhibition Series), a similar concern for the medium’s overlap with sculpture prevailed. Pieces were sculpted out of plaster, which was then painted; one piece consisted entirely of several years’ worth of paintings ground down to wood chips, appearing as a massive pillar (in a clear plastic trash bag). Pieces also engaged the environmental nature of the exhibition space -- which was once a residence -- and rested on window sills or bore vague resemblances to staircases.

It’s Pacer’s spare and understated confidence that raises it to a new level of conviction in this ferocious quest for reinvention. Like the music from which Anschultz often borrows his titles (Pacer is a 1995 album by the Amps; Peepshow is a 1988 album by Siouxsie and the Banshees), there’s a cool anthemic quality to the rhythms at play in his work and their spacial orchestration. And unlike most formalist projects, something personal emerges from this constant challenging of the medium: the work may unfurl in the rawest of ways, but a meticulous art vigilantly directs the process.

Brandon Anschultz's Pacer was on view at the Front Room of the Contemporary Art Museum St. Louis, March 22 - April 22, 2012. This review was published by Art Papers, July 2012.

"Adrian Kellard: The Learned Art of Compassion" at the Museum of Contemporary Religious Art (2012)


In palpably physical carved and painted wood assemblages that include both wall-hanging tableaux and free-standing sculptures, artist Adrian Kellard (1959-1991) synthesized an astonishingly disparate array of histories, personal realities and modes of art-making with masterful and fearless dexterity. Working-class, Irish-Italian, gay, and devoutly Catholic, Kellard, whose brief career is reviewed in this intimate and affecting retrospective, presents himself not only as an absolute whole but a powerful inevitability, for whom the deficiencies of identity politics and institutional religion caused little compromise in his exuberant and radically faith-driven craft.

Poised to mark the 20th anniversary of Kellard’s death at age 32 to AIDS-related causes, this exhibit also presented an occasion to revisit a perhaps lost strain of inquiry begun in the heady froth of the Reagan-era art world. Echoing the title of MOCRA founder and curator Fr. Terrence Dempsey’s dissertation, that query examined the “re-emergence of spiritual and religious concerns in American art of the 1980s." It was during Dempsey’s dissertation research -- a project which later became MOCRA itself -- that he first discovered Kellard’s work, which was included in a capacious 1985 group exhibit at New York University’s Grey Art Gallery, Precious: An American Cottage Industry of the Eighties, curated by Thomas W. Sokolowski, former Director of the Andy Warhol Museum and then-director of the Grey Art Gallery. Sokolowski, who himself was exploring new approaches to religion in art, put Dempsey in contact with Kellard as well as Kellard’s mentor, pioneering installation and collage artist Thomas Lanigan-Schmidt -- also a working-class, gay, devout Catholic included in Precious. Arguing for a new sense of overt religiousity in an adamantly secular age, Kellard and Lanigan-Schmidt, along with other artists working in this milieu, pursued an antidote to what was perceived as spiritually bereft, market-driven art as well as 20th Century Modernism’s more oblique and perhaps rarified evocations of the nebulously “sublime”. 

More than two decades later, Kellard, here, not only re-surfaces as a key piece of this significant alternative history -- whose momentum, directly and indirectly, was radically hampered by the AIDS pandemic -- but appears freshly as a remarkable artist in his own right. In Prayer of the Faithful in Ordinary Time (1988), a red-and-white checker-pattern curtain parts to reveal Jesus, haloed in bright yellow and orange beams, praying under the star-riddled light of the full moon. Characteristically integrating the everyday with the otherwise lofty, the moon being gazed upon is in fact a store-bought plastic clock, its hands marking the agitated passing of earthly time. Lovers (1986) engages a similarly hybrid approach; Jesus again appears, now cradling a portrait of the recumbent artist, while a looming Christ-figure, crucified, dangles two construction-grade flood lights from his palms. The central scene is brightly lit, while a populous, night-time city proliferates around them: a finely etched series of high-rises, tenements and neighborhood churches, rendered in the manner of a woodblock printer (as all of Kellard’s imagery is), framing the couple and scaffolding the crucified form. Each row of windows is an intricate pattern piled on top of other patterns, and dimly primary-hued like newspaper-printed comics. Time is always of concern, as a reminder of something fundamentally common and as a critical exigency to heed. In St. Francis screen (1985), the saint is carved in a pose quoted from Giotto’s painting, St. Francis Preaching to the Birds (1297-1299), in the context of a hinged-room divider, the third panel of which is a functioning calendar. Not only were Kellard’s days marked by this piece, his apartment was bisected by it: his art, so closely linked with his faith, was hand-etched in the stuff of daily life and formed a space for him to fit absolutely within.

Kellard’s own brief life went as follows: raised amid a family of nine in a two-bedroom apartment in New Rochelle, Kellard was among the first class to enroll in SUNY Purchase’s fine art program. Though he left the program after only two years, he studied with printmaker and illustrator Antonio Frasconi, who trained him in the art of woodblock printing, a technique which would be incorporated in all of his subsequent work. Similarly, Lanigan-Schmidt, his SUNY Empire State program-appointed mentor, shaped his use of found materials and approach to spiritual and autobiographical content. In his eight-year and compactly meteoric career, Kellard’s work appeared in six solo and more than twenty-five group exhibitions, but has since rarely been shown. So, what is the importance of it now? Irascible, irrepressible and boldly honest, Kellard’s work not only communicates a plain sense of humanity but a brave and uncluttered sense of self. It may be that our current moment is marked by as much conflict with identity and meaning -- spiritual and otherwise -- as its not-so-distant predecessor, making this story as pertinent as ever.

Adrian Kellard: The Learned Art of Compassion was on view at the Museum of Contemporary Religious Art, St. Louis, September 24 - December 11, 2011. This review was published by Art Papers, January 2012.

Jessica Stockholder's "Grab grassy this moment your I’s" at Laumeier Sculpture Park (2011)


Jessica Stockholder’s maverick galvanization of painting, sculpture and installation by way of Ikea and Home Depot has long been her stock accolade, but she’s overdue as many gold stars for the inventive poetics of her approach and her pioneering role in the current and now popularly anthologized “unmonumental” aesthetic. Grab grassy this moment your I’s, a survey of recent work by Stockholder on view in the Museum Galleries at Laumeier Sculpture Park, redresses these fresh historic gaps by pairing her sculptures with a new suite of mordantly elegant poems by Mary Jo Bang, and reacquainting the viewer with her distinctly expert and earnest art. Stuff, in Stockholder’s work, speaks at once to the basely utilitarian and evanescently abstract, while also creating an associative visual lyricism quixotically limned in the buy-in-bulk market. By paralleling her sculptures with Bang’s poems, which were inspired by but not directly allusive of the pieces on view, a symmetry emerges between the function of disparately assembled objects and the slipperiness of words in verse.

There is no irony, here, when an up-ended yellow-green lamp holds, in the bowl of its palm-leaf shade, its own lit bulbs, a yellow plastic whiffle ball and a yellow dish washing scrubby, in a title-less (not “untitled”) 2006 sculpture. A dangling orange extension cord powers another lamp -- a lavish chintz piece with a pale, faux island as a base and a pale faux palm as its neck; it sits upright, illuminating a white wall on which two white plastic cooler lids hang, both brushed with swatches of teal paint. White paint covers the end table on which the island lamp stands; white paint also coats half of a wooden frame, emptily bracketing the other palm-themed lamp. Motifs repeat -- white and white; teal and teal; yellow scrubby and yellow whiffle ball; two tropical lamps -- but they never function as metaphors. This is Stockholder’s masterfully self-hewn grammar: things are what they are and what they seem -- changing merely in proximity and relation to one another, often in both echoic and contradicting ways.

While the absurdity of island lampshades coupled with cooler tops and whiffle balls certainly smacks of playfulness, these assorted items in their sculptural context lack a sense of acerbic, winking satire or larger, cultural allusion. This is where it becomes clear how Stockholder’s work remains distinct in this new age of assemblage art: while current practitioners, like Rachel Harrison for example, share similar penchants for painterly and sculptural hybridity and consumer-grade materials, their project invests more worth in the included objects’ social status, resulting in a more conceptual project with direct socio-political commentary. In Stockholder’s work, if a commentary exists, it’s diffuse and in regard to the emotional life; indeed, her work is shaped by the culture of big-box stores and heedless consumerism, but a specific, prosaic agenda is absent. As such, Stockholder serves as an importantly intuitive forbear to this current strain of more object-prioritizing, and perhaps more Duchampian and capitalistic, collaged sculpture. 

Once Stockholder’s expressive immediacy is grasped -- where, for instance, a lime green bucket will be jammed with a stuffed-full yellow bag and then loosely draped with partially painted-upon fake fur -- one begins to understand the nature of its trenchant poetry. Bang’s poems draw out this important aspect of Stockholder’s practice, wherein a personal “I” lyrically reports on her state of being. As one of Bang's poems states, “Think of me as a plant stand turned animal. / Something to hold, or be held”. By coupling such words with Stockholder’s sculptural assemblages, their assorted parts begin to speak powerfully of the vicissitudes of interior experience. As the exhibition title suggests, an urgently ecstatic version of “seize the day” is invoked in the work, underscoring the importance of the immediate, as it is so often rooted in our own domestic and private spheres, and here fabulously re-erected as a vivid, abstract stage in Stockholder’s hands. 

Jessica Stockholder's Grab grassy this moment your I’s was on view at Laumeier Sculpture Park, St. Louis, Feburary 12 - May 29, 2011. This review was published by Art Papers, May 2011.

What's the Use? Eliza Newman-Saul & Wonder Koch at Snowflake Gallery (2011)


“It is very hard to be simple enough to be good,” wrote Emerson. For most contemporary Americans of the consumptive, maximalist ethos, this seems anathema to the pursuit of today’s top-selling brand of “good.” Wonder Koch and Eliza Newman-Saul’s two-person exhibition What's the Use? casts a resigned shrug of a vote for mass cultural throwback in a collection of pencil-drawn sinking ships and limp, hand-stitched flags, suggesting in material and sentiment alike that less ought to be more by now, as the situation has already gone to hell. Presenting what they describe as “a study of insufficiencies—both personal and global,” the two artists craft a kind of Romantic letter to a highly disinterested world, using traditional handicraft and drafting tools in practiced post-media fashion to “softly subvert” the reigning idols of bombast and brash confidence, memorializing instead their capacity for error in defeatist archetypes.

Koch’s Red Flags, 2011, combines twigs, chips of wood, the odd coupon, and other sidewalk detritus into minute poles with crumpled flags. The flags themselves come in every variety of red and serendipitously pathetic: a deflated red balloon, a torn-off swath of red gingham table cloth, a mass of indistinct red woven stuff. The small items are jammed into the gallery wall, creating a dim haze of alarm. Surrender, 2011, reassembles torn-out white stripes from American flags to make a frayed white whole stating “you win” in overlaid lower case letters, with an inverted “y.” A medieval banner flag hangs in the gallery window, its block letters proclaiming “It’s Too Late” to the wearied neighborhood beyond, while a bright teal flag in the gallery’s center simply asserts “Problems” in large font, the assertive thrust of the word broken in half by a hyphen.

Between these diaphanous alerts is Newman-Saul’s series of five large-scale pencil drawings, To My Dear Impotent World, 2010. Each piece depicts a massive ship nose-diving into dark waters. The imagery looks vaguely archival, suggesting Titanic-scaled failed ambition. The drawings divert interest from their rendering to a sense of glorified gloom. From a distance, each ship appears photo-realistic. Yet, close inspection reveals an awkwardly generalized approach: tonal shades are colored in with heedless marks, palm and finger smudges left un-erased in the vast white negative spaces. Nothing here is precious, they seem to say, particularly when it’s all a bust. Marking the series’ end, a video of a man scouring the Coney Island beach with a metal detector flickers on the wall, the footage grainy and slowed-down to a pace that feels like an idly rocking boat. An ambient score accompanies the video, alternately resembling the washed-out sound of tides or a more lilting variety of television static. Another emblem of futility, the man’s quest is as likely to yield treasure as someone attempting to purify the ocean with a Britta, while his dogged, if dazed, persistence speaks like a colloquial translation of a Beckettian plot.

Newman-Saul’s practice has little to do with drawing, let alone any other traditional media, as she most frequently uses video and live performance to stage mock-seminars, pantomimed speeches, and other ersatz educational scenarios to relay that least objective variety of knowledge — the personal narrative. Most broadly, it’s an oeuvre dedicated to epistemological inquiry, which makes the return to one of the most fundamental means of crafting an artwork — pencil and paper — a complex choice, particularly when the depiction symbolizes inadequacy. What have I, and what have we, learned?, she asks. The ships, then, tender a polyphonic response, at once a return to fundamentals — beauty, rendering—and a critique of more contemporary promises made by art itself and society at large.

Similarly, Koch’s work has been primarily conceptual—and reliant on video and performance as her default media—with an explicit political agenda tempered by confounded attempts at communication and action. Earlier pieces extend a perhaps infinite performance as a “volunteer member of the cabinet” and include proposals for a re-constituted constitution, in which the current “cumbersome” apparatus of the US government is streamlined into a single, lone executive power; flying buttresses for FEMA trailers, to provide both Gothic beauty and support; and a massive Imperialist Fantasy Flag that reflects US foreign policy goals and includes stars for the 194 nations. In the context of these wry commentaries, Koch’s individual flags here become a distillation of a laundry-list of ideological choices, from their distinct return to the handmade to internalized politics that turn the broader notions of patriotism, stake-claiming, and surrender into daily, personal acts.

It’s the exhibition’s reductive simplicity, then, that produces its poignant cogency. Like the act of returning to pencil, paper, cloth, and needle, it resonates like a frank summons for a return to humanistic fundamentals. Yet, the summons is not writ-large; rather, it’s a postcard, scrawled with unlabored sincerity and as succinct as the one once sent by Newman-Saul's grandfather: “Fire Sweeps Horwell Today, Thursday Dec 9, 1915. Our hotel is gone. Loss is great. What's the Use.”

What's the Use? was on view at Snowflake Gallery, June 18—August 1, 2011. This review was published by Art Papers, September 2011.