Friday, June 21, 2013

James Turrell—Light Ascending

Aten Reign, 2013. Daylight and LED light. Site-specific installation, Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York 
Looking up into the Guggenheim's rotunda.
What more appropriate day to view James Turrell at the Guggenheim than yesterday, the summer solstice, with more hours of sunlight than any other day of the year? Well, basically any other day through September 25 (natural light is just a part of it); just try and get there for this transporting installation.

Aten Reign, the main artwork, occupies the entire rotunda of the Wright building, which apparently influenced Turrell's concepts for his ongoing, monumental Roden Crater, based in a volcano in Arizona. Once inside, you may not recognize the Guggenheim. The airy ground-floor lobby has been walled off to create a viewing area. Lie back on one of the encircling benches, look up, and spend as much time as you can observing the light, continually shifting hue and intensity. (As Turrell remarked, he included his favorite colors, and, like musical notes, you need them all to make music.) Additional artworks are installed in the High Gallery, just up the ramp (which is devoid of artwork), and in the Annex on 2 & 5.

The installation of Aten Reign is extremely well executed. The surfaces of the nesting oval rings that narrow toward the perfectly egg-shaped oculus are made of stretched fabric. Rounds of LEDs provide the continually phasing light. The effect is simple, humbling, and so profoundly, mysteriously moving that it feels silly trying to talk about it. Previous works by Turrell have had a similar, if muted, effect; it's magic spun from relatively simple materials and technology and, most of all, light. Perhaps part of the allure is the evanescence of light, the key material—the coaxing and sculpting of it, like some supernatural, life-giving substance tamed.

It's hard not to contrast it with the other big show that opened this week—the Paul McCarthy show at the Armory, an exercise in excess, indulgence, and the messy side of human imagination and the psyche. Both recreate certain circumstances of nature and tap emotions and subconscious feelings. The Turrell caused my to heart sing and made me want to stay indefinitely, although it demands little work. The McCarthy show, which is nothing if not demanding, made me queasy and want to run out the door. Together, they cover the emotional and cerebral gamut of the human condition.

A handful of older works by Turrell are on view, including the very cool Afrum I (White), 1967, in which projected light forms a floating cube. But you may, as I did, regret every moment I spent away from Ater Reign. Crowds may be a problem, but it's worth it.

Thursday, June 20, 2013

Ailey Premiere of Ron Brown's Four Corners

Photo: Christopher Duggan
Dance Magazine review of Ronald K. Brown's Four Corners, a premiere by Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater at the Koch last week:

Wednesday, June 19, 2013

Paul McCarthy's WS—Your Wildest Nightmare?

Of WS, the immersive installation at the Park Avenue Armory by Paul McCarthy, I can say one thing for sure: I will not soon forget it. Its scale and ambition are unquestionable, and McCarthy seemed not to have compromised the darkest of his very dark visions. Any serious interpretation of its disturbing Snow White/Walt Disney symbolism is best left to the shrinks. 

Some description of what's on view:

  • Two huge screens on each end of the Armory show the seven-hour video at the core of the installation. The footage, of which I admittedly saw a mere fraction due to time and digestion restraints, features a bachannale/orgy with Snow Whites, dwarves, and the Walt Snow character (McCarthy). The soundtrack of preverbal human communication is extremely loud and inescapable. On one end, there's a bank of theater seats where you can plant yourself if you don't mind sitting 15 feet away from an I-Max sized screen of naked dwarves doing creative things with balloon animals and food.
  • The set where the video was taped is installed in the west end of the Drill Hall; a full-scale ranch house with some open walls and window cutouts. The aftermath of the bachannale remains; it looks like a tornado hit a catering hall at Christmas time.
  • In the center of the hall, on a raised platform, sits a massive forest with gnarly, ominous trees and giant flowering plants. Nestled into the foliage is, additionally, a 3/4-scale replica of McCarthy's childhood home, of which you can only see the clean suburban exterior. Imagine approaching a strange house on Halloween, lit from within, beckoning yet off-putting.
  • Carpeted aisles lead you through the maze of woods. You will be admonished by diligent ushers to not touch the styrofoam base, which is hilarious given the context of abject avarice, physicality, and consumption.
  • Climb the stairs to the balcony catwalk, the best perspective of the huge installation.
  • Refrigerator cases on the north and south aisles hold suspicious-looking frozen food and one of McCarthy's incredibly life-like human replicants*. The fridges are pretty big appliances, but in the Drill Hall, they seem pathetically small.
  • The small rooms that line the Drill Hall contain additional videos from the artist's White Snow Mammoth, which, depending upon what's on screen, can be a respite or further discomfort. In any case, the color is spectacular, and the production values admirably high, generally speaking.
Alex Poots, new artistic director of the Armory, who organized the show with curator Hans-Ulrich Obrist and Tom Eccles, calls it a Gesamtkunstwerk, but there must be a better term in German for "realization of all your nightmares." Anyone? (McCarthy's son Damon collaborated on creating WS, along with an entire page of helpers.) All credit to the folks at PAA for allowing McCarthy free rein; at the same time, I imagine that paying the $15 admission fee for this house-of-horrors experience may not sit well with people expecting a fun day with art, as Ann Hamilton's installation was (not to denigrate the complex layers of meaning and symbols that she embedded in addition to the world's largest swing set. It's just, swings!).

* Life Cast, McCarthy's concurrent exhibition at the uptown Hauser & Wirth Gallery, nearby at 32 E 69th, includes five of these replicants, so real-looking that I seriously expected them to blink an eye or twitch. It runs through July 26, as does another H&W McCarthy show on 18th St. in a new space, which I have yet to see.

Monday, June 17, 2013

Galleries: Julie Mehretu's Liminal Squared

Fever graph (algorithm for serendipity), 2013. Graphite, ink and acrylic on canvas. 96 x 120 in.

Julie Mehretu's paintings are flat, but their many layers take on great dimensionality. They make you feel as if you're flying above the clouds, looking down at the earth with x-ray vision, or layering Google Earth map and satellite views. One layer of line drawings depicts architectural and structurally allusive elements. Another layer might have bold geometrical slashes with hard edges, suggesting direction or movement. In some paintings, hazy washes of translucent color permeate areas. And yet another layer contains inky black marks, often smudged, blurred, or erased. I wished they were in Photoshop so I could examine each layer by itself, but then part of the fun is spending time mentally isolating the layers.

Her current show, Liminal Squared, at Marian Goodman (24 W 57th) through June 22, consists of paintings and etchings done in the past three years, after the start of Arab Spring. The plans of monuments, streets, civic structures, tombs, and more, serve as vessels or ciphers to which she adds the human gesture. Compressing these various "permanent" structures with symbols of evanescent bioforms has the mind-spinning effect of great humility as well as optimism for change. Another trick: stand close to appreciate the completely contemporary combination of technology and touch; back up enough, the paintings evoke highly detailed ancient Chinese landscape paintings.

You can learn more about Mehretu in this Art:21 video, where she's working on a massive commission.

Saturday, June 15, 2013

Book rec: The Burgess Boys

I  was quite unexpectedly swept up by Elizabeth Strout's The Burgess Boys, zipping through it. I very much liked her previous novel, Olive Kittredge, but like it, the new novel's title is pretty uninspiring and makes it sound a bit oldey timey, which it isn't. It's also misleading as there is a "girl"—a sister—as well, but her detachment from her brothers is a core plot point.

The boys of the title are Bob and Jim Burgess, both Brooklyn residents—respectively a legal aid lawyer who lives relatively modestly, and a high-profile criminal defense lawyer with a more lavish lifestyle. Their sister Susan (Bob's twin) lives in the family's hometown in Maine and is the single mother of a teen, Zach. The father of the three Burgess siblings was killed in a freak accident; he left the young kids in the car and was then run over by it. The blame, accused and true, is the elusive, resurfacing and many tentacled monster throughout the book. 

In the intervening decades, Jim had always played the role of the father figure, handling family crises, or lending a shoulder or advice to his siblings, who were considered sort of losers. Jim was the only one to foster a conventionally respectable way of life, sustaining a marriage and raising kids; the other two are divorced and single. Zach tosses a pig's head into the door of the local mosque, frequented by the many Somalis who settled in town. The act is interpreted as a hate crime, but he apparently did it to impress his father, who moved to Sweden with a new girlfriend. The pig's head becomes fodder for the tabloids and local grandstanding politicians, and Uncle Jim takes it upon himself to appear at a tolerance rally and make a typically golden-tongued speech to try to sway public perception of the family and help his nephew avoid being charged. It backfires, showing up the governor who spoke directly after Jim, who didn't even stay for the governor's speech. Hate crime charges are filed, kicked up to the federal level. 

The plotline involving xenophobia and hate crimes cruises along the surface, but the public and private perceptions of the Burgess siblings become the spine of the story. Turns out a lie about Bob has been perpetuated their entire lives, dictating their relationships with one another and their families. When that lie is revealed, the equation shifts, and in a sense, dues are paid as far as they can be. It also comments on perceived success, the status quo, and how happiness comes in various forms. Strout's writing flows elegantly, and it's punctuated with funny dialogue and amusing observations, in the end deflating the myth of conventional success. Just don't let the title fool you.

Saturday, June 8, 2013

Late Model Corsaire

The Corsaire. Photo: Gene Schiavone
Check out this photo of the new pseudonymous ship in ABT's new production of Le Corsaire. Quite a bit more impressive and true to scale than the old version, which looked more like a toy boat than a pirate ship.

Some other notes about the new production which premiered in 2011 at Teatro Colon, Argentina, staged by Anna-Marie Holmes (as was the company's previous version).

  • Sets by Christian Prego make good use of the capaciousness of the Met. In the bazaar, rugs and rickety wooden bridges hang overhead. The grotto scene is from a viewpoint inside the cave looking at the corsaire on the ocean. And the huge room where the final scenes take place is decorated with huge hanging lanterns. 
  • The palette has shifted from pastels toward darker gemstone and metallic hues. Gone are the famous turquoise harem pants for Ali, now purple, which I have to admit is a bit disorienting. Medora's tutu is gold, her casual gown pale blue and beaded. Conrad still basically wears all white, for how else would we know he's the big guy?
  • The dream sequence, an endless set of variations by women and children bearing floral props, is slightly less cloying, color-wise. And Medora now simply steps into the middle of a floral hoop, rather than having to open a gate of a strange knee-high pen. It's still fairly interminable, coming just before the finale.
  • This production is not a revolutionary departure from ABT's prior production, but its more tasteful palette and new sets are a welcome change.
Cast notes:
  • Herman Cornejo, now 32, has developed into a very good romantic lead. He's always exuded an inner complexity and sensuality to add to his great naturalistic bravura technique. His arcing leaps and on-point turns appear effortless. But in this age of a so-called "arms race" in ballet (or more accurately, arms and legs race), his highest leaps look merely very good. 
  • Ivan Vasiliev danced Ali with the effortful humility required of a principal male at the top of his form wearing sparkly purple harem pants and a feathered headband. (He and Cornejo exchanged roles in another cast.)
  • Daniil Simkin is maturing in good ways, filling out and shedding some of his puppiness for yet more confidence. 
  • Both he and Vasiliev possess the kind of ballon that arrests movements at their apex. Simkin floats, Vasiliev gets a puff of energy and is more human about descending, but all this extra air time lets them both do one extra, gasp-inducing move per jump.
  • Xiomara Reyes' gifts include lightness, quickness, and a sweet expression. 
  • It would be interesting to see Sarah Lane, who danced Gulnare exquisitely, in the lead role; unfortunately I thought this many times during the ballet
  • Arron Scott danced Birbanto with thrilling verve and precision

Monday, June 3, 2013

Notebook Review: Jusin Peck's In Creases for NYCB

Robert Fairchild in In Creases. Photo: Paul Kolnik 
Notebook review of Justin Peck's In Creases for New York City Ballet
  • Shows Peck's affinity for structure, speed, and the body's capabilities
  • As he mentions in a fascinating slideshow at NYCB's website (A Choreographer's Perspective): "I've learned the most from Balanchine's work, especially with regards to structure. If Balanchine had never existed, I don't know if I would have wanted to choreograph."
  • Imagery: grids, lines, blossoming flowers, fencing moves, arrows in flight, football drills, machinery
  • Star power: Robert Fairchild valiant, charismatic, and dynamic, attacks the bold and daring shapes that Peck, very athletic, must have created on himself
  • At one point, in contrast, as the other seven dancers rush and dart about, Fairchild stands completely still, drawing the eye
  • Thrilling fun: dancers, in a circle, duck to avoid a woman's extended scythe-like leg as she revolves  
  • Christian Tworzyanski, a reliable corps member and partner, featured in sections that show off his great empathy, expressiveness, and artistic maturity
  • Hypnotic: the pianists play with barely enough light to see the score; as the lights come up, we see two women on pointe, rocking from one foot to the other metronomically
  • The movement, when quick, is thrusty and crisp and seems to hit angles and facades with precision 
  • In some of Fairchild's turns, the free leg is held low and to the back, or is swung to the side; standing knee bent. An example of the small tweaks to the classical style that make Peck's vocab stand out
  • Following Serenade by Balanchine on the program, you feel the influence of his choreography in large group sections—many moving parts meshing and working together, forming satisfying geometries, revealing surprises and inventiveness; also present is Ratmansky's light humorous touch and winking wit 

Nuts & bolts:
  • Made New York premiere last week
  • Set to Philip Glass' restless, flowing Four Movements for Two Pianos, played onstage with great finesse by Elaine Chelton and Cameron Grant
  • Costumes—elegant silver and white unitards (men) and camisoles (women) by Peck and Marc Happel

Sunday, June 2, 2013

Mel Bochner at Peter Freeman—Old School Conceptual Art in Neo Retro Soho

Theory of Syntax #2, 1971. Chalk on floor.

Peter Freeman Gallery has moved into what they call a "classic Soho space" at 140 Grand St. near Crosby, on the border of ChitownLitIt, in a space that used to house a restaurant furnishings business. After dodging the multiple street construction projects that dominate the block, you have to hunt for the front door, which looks like it's been broken into a dozen times; little handprinted signs point you to the handle. Once inside, you'll marvel at the very high ceilings and old, banged up wooden floors splashed with paint. It's actually the perfect setting for an exhibition of Mel Bochner sculptures, Proposition and Process: A Theory of Sculpture (1967-1973), essential examples of conceptualism that simply couldn't be recreated in the type of sterile concrete box so prevalent in the art world now.

Ten, 1971. Stones on floor.
There is a marvelous simplicity to the works in this show (through June 29) dealing with the most fundamental issues of being human—the expression of ideas through language and symbols, the organization of the world around us through measurement and quantification. Bochner uses stones, nuts, glass, and things from the hardware store; drawn chalk elements help tie things together. The chalk, by nature, evokes teaching, demonstration, experimentation, and in a sense, temporary authority, not to mention Joseph Beuys, whose iconic chalkboards were done around the same period. Drawn works, like Theory of Syntax #2, are irresistible for their ingenious plainspoken illustration and visual panache. Two from the Measurement series poke fun at the need to evaluate everything—a guilty-looking bunch of plants sits in front of a line-up style measurement chart, and a ladder's shadow is measured precisely.

Turn sideways, please. Measurement Plants, 1969.
Units of five and 10 refer to the human hand. Ten comprises 10 stones that spell out that numeral. It represents while it is. The ironic icing on the cake is perhaps the price list, which indicates you can have this baby for a mere $115,000. Sure, you could just get your own stones (although I will say these are pretty sweet, as small white stones go) and arrange them as such, but it will never be your idea, will it? In a weird sense, once you've seen the show and looked at the prices, you feel that much richer without having spent a dime because those ideas are now in your head. You bought them with your eyes and your time—one of the beauties of art.