Wednesday, April 23, 2014

Lebbeus Woods, Architect?

San Francisco Project: Inhabiting the Quake, Quake City, 1995
Architect is an insistent title for a show of Lebbeus Woods' work at the Drawing Center (through June 15), since he was never overly concerned with practical environments. He was trained in architecture and engineering, and taught at the Cooper Union, although apparently he never received his architectural license in New York. More importantly, his fantastic creations are often at odds with human use, evocative of the results of natural disasters such as earthquakes, tsunamis, or landslides. In all of the works in the show, hardly a person is depicted, and only then seemingly for scale. Then again, his recalcitrance at designing functional buildings helped allow him to expound on his vivid, sometimes terrifying imagination.
Photon Kite

His obsessive renderings at times recall steampunk inventions, or the literature of writers such as Jules Verne or contemporary sci-fi visionary China MiĆ©ville. They may mash together the built and organic worlds, often depicting what feels like a post-apocalyptic scape in which the machines and buildings regenerated and rose to life without, or by ingesting, humans. Many of Woods' designs looked to have accreted, or collapsed from once stable positions. Structures arc and soar away from the earth, or appear to have bubbled up from magma and cooled into edifices. 

His oeuvre is most reminiscent of the genre of sci-fi film. In fact, one of his designs influenced Terry Gilliam's 12 Monkeys enough to garner Woods a settlement. And Woods, who passed away in 2010, consulted as a designer for Alien 3. It's a shame that he never pursued a full-blown career in scenic design, where his creations could have been "built" and found immortality through CGI (bringing to mind films such as the Star Wars prequels, John Carter, and even Battleship). Never mind—they exist in his meticulous graphic work, models, and obsessive postcard-sized notebooks, fertile source material for dreams and nightmares.

Friday, April 18, 2014

Ai Weiwei in the BK

Moon Chest, 2008. Seven chests in huali wood, each 126"x63"x31.5". Photo: Susan Yung
The Brooklyn Museum's show Ai Weiwei: According to What? is a sweeping look at this provocateur's work, which has been little seen in New York on a large scale. Viewers are immediately confronted with S.A.C.R.E.D., six iron boxes—models of his remembrances from being imprisoned for eight months in China—which block some of the lobby portals. You can step onto a box to peer into a small cutout, making you a voyeur. Inside are half-scale models of Ai in his cell, with guards. It's chilling, if a bit cartoon-like.

Bowls of Pearls (detail), 2006, porcelain bowls (ea. 15"x38.5") filled with
freshwater pearls
. Stockamp Tsai Collection. Photo: Susan Yung
An installation of bicycles is on the ground floor as well; don't miss it like I did, inadvertently. The majority of the show occupies the 4th and 5th floors. There are several ambitious, large-scale installations: Moon Chest, a series of cabinets with holes that, when peered through resemble phases of the moon; Straight, a minimalist field of 38 tons of straightened steel rebar taken from the wreckage of the 2008 Sichuan earthquake; Snake Ceiling, a deceptively playful serpent made of childrens' backpacks, evoking the 5000+ child fatalities in that quake; He Xie, a mounded dome of 3200 porcelain crabs which allude to state censorship as well as a farewell dinner in advance of the dismantling of his studio; he was prevented from attending. (He served eight months in prison charged with tax evasion.)

He Xie, 2010, 3200 porcelain crabs. Photo: Susan Yung
There is a sense of disconnect throughout the show. Ai's populist ideas are at odds with the luxe materials he uses. They include Han Dynasty vases dipped in bright colors, antique wooden furniture cut apart and reassembled in different forms, building parts salvaged from Olympic domain claims, and bushels of shimmering freshwater pearls. These seductive substances are also part of the allure, for sure. Simply viewed as objects, they are beautifully crafted. But each work has a back story that gives it depth. Then there is his use of quantity as a brickbat. It is a body of work that definitely took great resources—material and labor-wise—to assemble, plus a dash of the hubris needed to create the Great Wall. 

Cube in Ebony is a 40" cube of rosewood, a dense block with a mesmerizing carved surface inspired by a small keepsake box of his father's. A couple of big doghouse-sized Teahouses made of compressed tea sit atop a floor of tea leaves, emitting an evocative fragrance. And Kippe is a rectangular stack of lustrous salvaged wood and decorative architectural elements that recall the obsessive nature of his family's well-stacked pile of firewood.
Kippe, 2006, Iron wood from dismantled temples of the Qing Dynasty, iron bar. 71.5"x112.5"x41".Collection of Honus Tandijono.
Photo: Susan Yung

Some of the photographic, video, and smaller works are vaguely reminiscent of familiar late-20th century Russian exiles such as Komar & Melamid and their more recent compatriots who wove Soviet and Russian touchstones into their art. Ai's reputation has grown as his encounters with Chinese authorities became news fodder, in addition to scandals such as lead levels in his ceramic sunflower seed field (Tate) and a vandal smashing one of the Colored Vases in Miami recently. If the former weren't comprising a vast roomful, and the latter an extremely valuable ancient vase, and both put together by a now-oppressed Chinese dissident, would it be self-perpetuating news? But it is the sum total of the opulence, scale, and personal history that does make it news, and worth seeing. Through August 10.

Thursday, April 17, 2014

Sigmar Polke—Artistic Chameleon

Supermarkets, 1976, Gouache; metallic, enamel, acrylic paints; felt-tip pen; collage on 9 sheets of paper on canvas
Liebelt Collection, Hamburg
Sigmar Polke was an artistic chameleon, moving from one medium to another, one style of painting to the next, this sphere of public discourse to that one. Organized by MOMA with the Tate Modern (London), this show is a type at which they can excel—guided not by a blockbuster or blatantly populist sensibility, but with an eye toward revealing the many layers of an important contemporary artist's work. MOMA's survey, Alibis: Sigmar Polke 1963-2010, demonstrates how extensive and deeply rooted his influence has been.

Polke (1941—2010), German, had a wry, satirical streak. Early works include a painting of a cabinet indicated by one vertical line surrounded by two dots. He also recorded things in the news, such as a seemingly incomplete raster (benday dot) drawing of Lee Harvey Oswald—an incomplete, distorted portrait of an enigma—as well as banal objects, such as socks, sausages, biscuits, and shirts, which connect to Pop Art. His eye for pattern was expressed in dot paintings, as well as compositions using patterned or textured fabric as a canvas. 5 Dots (1964) depicts five blobs on a calico background; one of the green dots with a tail becomes a balloon, immediately conjuring a sentimental context amid a pleasing abstraction. 

He absorbed influences, and no doubt emitted his own that were refracted in the work of others. His rasterized pieces summon Roy Lichtenstein; his dots, Damien Hirst. He cited Cezanne, Gilbert & George, and Malevich—hilariously, as in Higher Beings Commanded: Paint the Upper-Right Corner Black! (1969). His self-reflection materialized in studies of himself as an astronaut, a test-tube drug, and in a mock-serious diptych, glamorous lurex portraits of his palm's lines as read by a fortune teller. He connected to Fluxus with inventive elastic band rendering of a bunny; a folding-ruler composition; and in Carboardology (1968—69), an oddly riveting index of cardboard samples.

Raster Drawing (Portrait of Lee Harvey Oswald), 1963,
poster paint & pencil on paper, 37 5/16 × 27 1/2″, 

Private Collection, Photo: Wolfgang Morell, Bonn

His identity as a German found its way into his work with regularity; swastikas and military symbols recur. Potato House (1967) combines two national icons—the root vegetable and the garden shed. In this chronological installation, double-exposed photographs of mushrooms share the year 1972 with Mao, an absorbing painting representative of his complicated technique of layering multiple images, perspectives, and subjects.

Supermarkets (1976) is a prime example of his major paintings—a complex 2D layer cake of an army of Supermen clones painted atop a jammed supermarket aisle, supported by cartoon and graffiti-like characters. He would also sew several types of fabric together—canvas, sunglass-and-deck-chair-print, and pink quilting—to form a canvas, onto which he layered freighted imagery, as in Watchtower with Geese (1987).

Videos and sculptures mix in with the two-dimensional pieces. Sketchbooks and multiples show his concept and color experimentation. And his later work, such as The Young Acrobat (2000) shows a curiosity for producing intentional technical flubs—stretching or contorting an image—thereby subtly twisting the narrative context and subverting the predictable reliability of technology. The soaring atrium serves as the starting point for the 10-gallery installation; it's a fitting entree to the output of a vast imagination. On view through August 3.

Wednesday, April 16, 2014

Trisha Brown Dance Company Moves Forward by Looking Back

Opal Loop. Photo: Ian Douglas
It was just coincidence that the companies of Trisha Brown and Stephen Petronio, who began his professional career as a dancer for her, had coincidental runs at, respectively, New York Live Arts and the Joyce, just a half a block apart. But still, it was strange to walk by the Joyce, as it was filling up for the show, en route to Brown's performance, at the smaller venue. It was just another reminder of the generational shift in modern dance that has been in process for years now.

The program by Trisha Brown Dance Company was a well-chosen slate of three older works: Opal Loop/Cloud Installation #72503 (1980); Solo Olos (1976); and Son of Gone Fishin' (1981), plus Rogues, a newer duet from 2011. Each dance showed a facet of Brown's impressive canon: structured improvisation, accumulation, retrograde. The apparent ease and bonelessness of Brown's style usually cloaks the rigorous intellectual underpinnings, but Solo Olos pulls back that curtain A square dance-style caller commands the six other dancers to perform certain phrases, in reverse, and sometimes in double-reverse. It's apparent how complete their mental and physical dedication must be. 

Son of Gone Fishin'. Photo: Ian Douglas
It was a satisfying show, for sure, and it was the first in New York since Brown stopped choreographing, which was marked by the troupe's run at BAM last year and Brown's final work, if I toss my arms.... Of course Brown isn't the first choreographer to depart, but despite her irreplaceable output, she doesn't have a huge mythology built around her, like Merce, Pina, or Martha. She has always seemed like one of us, only smarter and cooler and way more talented.

As Brown and many other choreographers have demonstrated, retrograde is a highly useful creative method, but you need forward progress in order to reverse it. It may only be a matter of time before the currently assembled dancers and staff dissipate by necessity, despite fund-raising achieved and pedagogical goals set, in addition to an isolated performance project here and there. As the pioneer modern dance generation ages, there is an ominous premonition of loss, that a repertory will never be the same as under a choreographer's hand. That it will be watered down by added contemporary repertory (Graham) or simply vanish (Cunningham).

Perhaps some of Brown's repertory will surface in the newly formed vehicle of Paul Taylor's American Modern Dance. (Since that announcement, a lot of similar suggestions are going to be aired by a lot of voices.) Brown's work qualifies when measured by all three definors within the title, and is as worthy as any. TBDC's relatively small infrastructure is there to support a huge artistic achievement, so some timely external support might be just thing.

Thursday, April 10, 2014

Petronio at 30—C'mon baby, see the Locomotor

Joshua Tuason and Melissa Toogood in Locomotor. Photo: Yi-Chun Wu
Stephen Petronio's group premiere, Locomotor, is a stunning dance and a worthy milestone to mark the company's 30th year. It isn't easy to continually produce new work for three decades, especially if, like Petronio, you generally shy from narrative and gesture. That said, there are moments in Locomotor that profit from this dearth of emotion, so touching are they when finally shared. In keeping with the collaborative tradition, the beige and black geometric unitards are by haute designer Narciso Rodriguez; the soundscape, shifting from crisp clicks and church bells to shimmering drums, is by Michael Volpe (appetizingly nicknamed "Clams Casino.")

The work's premise is simple: movement, both forward and backward. In a leadoff solo, guest artist Melissa Toogood slips perfectly into Petronio's precise, demanding style that somehow requires both dangerous kineticism and stillness at the same time. The company's remaining eight dancers enter in pairs, carving arcs from and into the wings. Two men, one in front of the other, hold hands as they dart about the stage—a simple, ingenious device, and one of those "why haven't we seen this before?" moments—and pivot and loop their arms like ballroom dancers; at a point, one kneels and receives a kiss on the head from his partner. It's like they're locked into the idea of forward progression, and yet their mutual bond is as much a necessity.

Barrington Hinds, Nicholas Sciscione in Locomotor. Photo: Yi-Chun Wu
Raised legs are at right angles, feet crisply pointed, torsos bent and twisted to preset degrees off-center. The technique is modern, but with a highly classical skeleton; it can pound into the floor, but the overall effect is to instigate flight, if for a split second. Petronio's choreography is reliably exciting to watch, but his singular invention and sui generis technique are polished to a diamond brilliance here. 

Surprisingly, the most captivating move, and one that is clearly not easy to pull off with grace, is the reverse leap, which occupies the final thrilling movement. Prior to that, Nicholas Sciscione and Josh D Green—both muscular and dazzlingly fleet—partner Toogood, flinging her high, or feet overhead, flipping her around a leg rotisserie-style, pulling her from a prone position as she flutters her arrowed feet in unexpected, delicate battements. 

Petronio danced the other premiere on the Joyce program (through April 13th), Stripped. This brief solo is to Philip Glass' Etude No. 5; the visual punchline is designed by artist Janine Antoni—a headwrap of neckties, which meets a linear fate in the finale. No further spoilers. The third piece, Strange Attractors, was created in 1999; its silken pajamas (by Ghost) and Michael Nyman score are the only indications of its pre-millenial age. It showcases well the standout, eclectic company, in particular the ageless Gino Grenek and an eloquent Jaqlin Medlock. The program rightly travels forward—and backward—with gusto.

Wednesday, March 26, 2014

Humanity in the Machine

Michael Trusnovec in Banquet of Vultures. Photo: Tom Caravaglia
Marathon Cadenzas, the second season premiere for Paul Taylor Dance Company, evokes the carnival glossed nefariousness of Taylor's Big Bertha (1970) and Oh, You Kid! (1999). Those dances also come to mind when seeing Santo Loquasto's gorgeous atmospheric light string and pennant set, recalling those sultry summer nights in smalltown America where the unexpected is to be expected. The costumes define the characters by type—sailors, middle aged, vamps (which seems to be the only shading for women other than average); wigs and hairstyles play a larger than usual role.

The dance, to Raymond Scott's antic music, depicts old fashioned dance marathons. Sean Mahoney plays the white suited ringmaster inured to the dancers' suffering. He could be interchangeable with a tent preacher, snake oil salesman, or for that matter, choreographer. (Taylor's To Make Crops Grow, which preceded Marathon Cadenzas on Thursday's program, featured a similar figure in the form of Rob Kleinendorst.) Round and round the  dancers go, until they drop from exhaustion. Pullout duets and solos punctuate the monotony; Michelle Fleet, in a sleek jumpsuit, jitterbugs frantically. Sailors James Samson and Francisco Graziano toss off heel kicks and other gee-williker moves. Laura Halzack swivels her hips and bevels her feet, and gets pawed by the emcee. Finally, a depleted Michael Trusnovec wins the contest in a woozy, comic number, in which every move is rubbery, and possibly fatal. As Mahoney forced the weary dancers to keep going, I could only think of the company working tirelessly in the studio to prepare two premieres and 20 other dances for our viewing pleasure.

This season's premieres seem to have found Taylor in a nostalgic mood, reflecting on his role as an artist within the tight context of his de facto family. Seeing Mercuric Tidings (1982) and Arden Court (1981) on consecutive programs drew attention to a particularly fertile spell for abstract dances chock full of movement invention and extreme physicality. Mercuric Tidings contains devilishly quick, filigreed footwork sustained for long periods, and explosive movements that regularly punctuate the proceedings like mini fireworks. Like so many of his dances, it also has several breathtakingly lovely tableaux that crystallize out of nowhere. Arden Court is back in the rep after a deserved rest; it was last performed in New York by the Ailey Company. When it was last in PTDC's rotation and performed frequently, it was easy to take for granted the imaginative time shifts and the seemingly simple lift in which the woman locks her legs around the man's waist while pulling her torso apart from his to form a human tree. Seen anew, these small inventions are far better appreciated.

George Smallwood, Francisco Graziano, Rob Kleinendorst, and Sean Mahoney in To Make Crops Grow. Photo: Jamei Young
Two dark revivals featuring Trusnovec are reminders of how dark and sardonic Taylor can be. Banquet of Vultures (2005) is barely lit (by Jennifer Tipton) and Trusnovec, in his dark suit and red tie—the uniform of ruthless power—appears out of nowhere, ghoul-like, hell bent on utter domination of the soldier minions. His on-point timing and precise positions, the tautness with which he draws his upstretched arm like an arrow, and when he crosses his arms on his chest, tilts his head back, and channels some divine power all work to terrifying effect. The stygian setting is augmented by Morton Gould's glowering score. 

I'd forgotten how funny parts of Dante Variations can be. This study of frustrations is one of Taylor's dances that parcels out solos or duets showcasing the dancers' characteristics. The piece begins with the dancers forming a pyramid shaped tableau of still, torqued bodies; as the wheedling Ligeti organ music starts, they pulse with it, inert beings come to life from the underworld. Trusnovec whirls and darts in his quicksilver way, showing the curving arm shapes and off-kilter stances that comprise the vocabulary. Rob Kleinendorst is at his funniest, dimly aware of a length of toilet paper stuck to his foot. Laura Halzack's knees are inexplicably tied together, as are Aileen Roehl's wrists. Trusnovec and Eran Bugge face off in an angry duet, formidable foes warily circling the ring like scorpions preparing to strike. The dancers return to their sculptural tableau, hell refrozen over.

Every dance company's members develop as individual, and Taylor's moreso than many, given the huge scope of his oeuvre. On Sunday, a version of From Sea to Shining Sea (1965) acknowledged this by inviting alumni onstage for a sloppy group hug of a performance. A handful of current dancers were joined by dozens of recent and vintage departures, including Carolyn Adams, AnnMaria Mazzini, Heather Berest, Orion Duckstein, Hernando Cortez, Rachel Berman, David Parsons, Senta Driver, and current rehearsal director Bettie de Jong. Many were unrecognizable in the motley costumes which ranged from bathrobes, circus gymnasts, Super Mouse, Miss Liberty, land masses, pilgrims, etc. Lisa Viola in particular, with her surgical comic timing and blank facade, reminded us of her glaring absence. The pageant was more about sentiment and the institution than choreography and dance, which happened to bind everything together.

Fibers (1961) provided another look back at the company's roots. Two men (Kleinendorst and Michael Novak, a ringer for a young Taylor) and two women (Aileen Roehl, radiant and pliant, having a break-out season, and newish Christina Lynch Markham) become sculptures themselves with costumes of colored straps, pads, masks or face paint, and bas-relief piping, by Rouben Ter-Arutunian, also the designer of the stunning, rainbow-hued tree-like set. Taylor danced with Martha Graham, whose influence might be found in the work's Kabukian drama, stillness, sculpted poses, and the use of spacious, at times tumultuous music by Schoenberg. On a program preceded by Sunset and followed by Troilus and Cressida (Reduced) and Mercuric Tidings, we saw the full range of the choreographer's visions of poetic romance, seminal modernism, slapstick comedy, and precision machine. Mercuric Tiding is so airtight, and its speed so unforgiving, that, like a Formula One engine, it might explode with one misfire. And yet watch closely, and you can see Trusnovec slide his hands along Halzack's arms in the gentlest of gestures before once again hoisting her overhead. There is humanity in that machine.

Friday, March 21, 2014

Martha Graham, Reduced

PeiJu Chien-Pott and Lorenzo Pagano in Echo
I'm all for brevity—there is no sweeter lyric than "one hour, no intermission"—but not necessarily when it comes to reducing full-length Martha Graham dances to 20 minutes. The one-act version of Clytemnestra (1958) led off the gala evening program at City Center on Wednesday, with Katherine Crockett in the lead role. Introductory projected synopses provided the dance's basic plotlines and I suppose getting a taste of the myth is better than none at all. But with so many shorter dances to choose from, does it make sense to cut one of Graham's best-known full-length works?

Crockett stands out as the glamazon in the company, and her recent stints in acting with SITI Company no doubt have enhanced her dramatic skills. The other solo roles are so reduced in this short version that they make little impact. The six Furies, by their number, reinforce the visceral impact of Graham's style. And, as always, Noguchi's spare, sculptural set pieces resonate with the svelte, flattering womens' costumes by Graham and Helen McGehee. 

Panorama (1935) is a large group work danced here by Graham 2 and the Hellenic Dance Company. It has political shadings—the potential power of the people to bring about revolution and order, and more specifically, art's ability to effect change—but also can be a technical showcase for students or an entire large company. Clad in all red, the 35 dancers rush across the stage in small groups and through various traffic patterns; they mass, form a circle, and move in a ring, stopping to stamp a metatarsal in a kind of call to arms. Five are left onstage, and each dancer, suddenly filled with calm, strikes a different sculptural pose. The metaphorical possibilities are rich, but it could also simply be a formal exercise.

Andonis Foniadakis' Echo made its premiere on Wednesday. Narcissus (Lloyd Mayor) dances with his reflection (Lorenzo Pagano); they're observed by Echo (PeiJu Chien-Pott), who remains boxed out of their ego-fest. Foniadakis' style is quite engaging at first—swirling, cursive movement phrases that recall tai-chi for their flowing energy and logical continuity. Anastasios Sofroniou designed the knife-pleat, long skirts (that's nearly a trend, what with Ballets de Monte-Carlo's similarly pleated sheaths last week; do I hear three?) that flare out and float down like rippling sea cucumbers*, further expressing the movements' impetus. But there is little shift in dynamic, and the phrases take on a sameness. Seven shadow-like dancers in dark blue (the women wear half dresses, for some reason; the men turtlenecks) emerge from the shadows like harrowing restless spirits. Chien-Pott gets to swing her long ponytail in a circle, in a show of frustration, and Mayor and Pagano make convincing mirror images. It ended a brief, somewhat harried hour-long performance before the gala began—an odd, un-Martha-like act of dance deferring to fundraising. Not that I'm complaining.

* Post-script: A reader kindly pointed out that sea cucumbers are slug-like creatures familiar to us through Chinese banquets, not the fringy, rippling things I am picturing. So let's say, like parachutes.