Saturday, October 8, 2011

"Contradictions" @ Mindy Solomon Gallery (MSG)


MSG, exterior view
The world remains as it was long ago, and is rapidly changing. These shifts are causing a lot of outer and inner distinctions that facilitated categorization to have imploded, melted, fusing, exploding and transforming us and the art forms of our time. In "Contradictions", the current show at Mindy Solomon Gallery (MSG), The work of seven artists who are expressing their views through pop, religious, political, and personal icons. Humor, irony, irreverence, emotional and studied analysis and mockery are their means. Russell Biles, Einar and Jamex de la Torre, Muir Vidler, Gregory Green,  Chris Riccardo and Bonnie Smith.

Russell Biles, "Final Showdown, 2011"

Russell Biles works in exquisitely detailed and crafted figurative slip-cast porcelain. "Final Showdown, 2011", shown at left, presents at 7x21x23". We see three cowboys, left hands in an authoritarian gesture, as if dictating terms to the Chinese man on the other side of the table. Their right hands are close to their Colt .45s, which was named "The Equalizer". The man on the other side of the table is speaking, and his hands are on an AK-47, the weapon of insurgents and the scourge of colonialists everywhere. Behind the cowboys are rows of battle-ready Chinese, guns pointed at the cowboys, who look familiar.

They're the Cartwrights from the TV show Bonanza. The Chinese man on the other side is Hop Sing, who in the show was their manservant. On the table can be seen a map that's aflame. Biles uses these pop icons as a ready-made, heavily encoded set of figures with their own narrative to tell the complex story of the ongoing reversal of the polarity of power between the US and China. There's humor and irony here, and the art relies on and uses the viewer's cultural baggage. Biles has been tagged as a cultural satirist, the fine arts analog of Jon Stewart, Stephen Colbert, Lewis Black, Bill Maher, Dennis Miller and others. The use of pop icons not only brings humor to the work, but facilitates viewer accessibility to complex, hard-to-confront subjects. Biles is, like many of the artists here, expanding the limits of the conventions of ceramics as a mainly decorative and formalist medium. Biles has many other works in this show. Check here: [Link]

Muir Vidler, "Haim Benyammini - The Death Metal Musician

Photographs live in a netherworld between the truth and a lie. Connected  to their referent, there's a link to the subject that may be altered, but as long as it's not entirely CGI (computer-generated imagery) is grounded, but they're also transforms of the light-reflecting or generating objects/people/scenes they depict. Muir Vidler, a Scottish photographer, understands this and uses it to great advantage. Vidler's abilities to routinely (mis)match people and the contexts they're in in wildly disparate ways result in surreal situations. His considerable human engineering abilities may have partially derived from his experiences as a chef, street entertainer and cruise ship photographer before becoming a photojournalist specializing in editorial photography with an enviable client list, and working on personal projects, during which most of these photographs were made. Irreverent, dripping with irony, blunt, and all about content (he claims that color in his pictures just happens, but I have my doubts).

[Please forgive the reflections on the glass] In "Haim Benyammini - The Death Metal Musician", our expectations are shattered. Haim has a prodigious beer gut, beard, man boobs, and looks like a Hasidic Rabbi just after a big hit on the bong in his left hand. Reportedly, it took an inordinate number of hits before Vidler felt he had the image he wanted. The incongruity here is with the role, and plays on our categories. Also note that Vidler is playing with the space and lighting to flatten out the figure with the lighting, and jamming him into the corner of the room visually creates a tension which accentuates his volume. A subtle contradiction.

Muir Vidler, "Gorana relic, Miss Net Croatia"

On the right is probably the best-known, most published Vidler picture. Initially, the long-legged (accentuated by a wide-angle lens) mini-skirted blonde beauty, whose panties are visible, grabs the eye. Instantly, that is displaced by the women behind her, all in native Muslim garb, with only their faces and hands visible and hair covered. This impossible, surreal scene was staged & taken in Lybia, during a bizarre, fake beauty contest that the recently deposed Gaddafi staged. That Vidler was one of two photographers invited there is in itself remarkable. You can see more of this remarkable series here [Link]. Some of these pictures remind me more than a little of Martin Paar's tourist series in a conceptual way, though Vidler's are far more direct, almost a visual-conceptual blunt-head trauma.

 [Personal Note: Before my tenth birthday I lived in another country, one where the freedom fighters resorted to terrorism in some cities, including the one I lived in. Back then, that was relatively low-tech, involving timed bombs inserted into garbage bins in public places or in packages left on buses. We would cross the street to avoid the potentially lethal trash bins. Several times a week we would read, see on TV or hear about them going off, killing and maiming innocents. I overheard a rich friend of my father's comment that when it came to bombs, it was best to be far away, or right next to them, the middle distances were the worst. Psychologically, there wasn't enough distance for me. The closest thing I've read to their psychological effect on me was in Thomas Pynchon's "Gravity's Rainbow".  It felt a little like that immediately after 9/11. ]

Gregory Green

Artist Gregory Green says: "...I use the language of our age, "the language of the society of the spectacle.", In order to understand his work, it is important to grasp what he is talking about above. In 1967, a French Philosopher and theoretician named Guy Debord wrote a very influential book titled "The Society of the Spectacle" [Link].

For over thirty years, Green has been focusing on pathways for personal empowerment. He has attempted to found his own nation, and reportedly has a few thousand potential citizens ready to occupy "Caroline". There was "Gregnik", a replica of Sputnik that was erected over NY (in lieu of the much more costly process of launching). Also, M.I.T.A.R.B.U., a VW Westphalia Camper hippie bus as a mobile Pirate TV and Radio station with web access, business cards for Chicago Gang members, pieces with authoritarian voices and explicit violent signifiers, and more. The artist examines the technical progress, dissemination of information, which rains like confetti amongst us, and the use of these technologies for the individual accumulation of power on a scale formerly only available to a few select nations/groups.

Gregory Green, "Biblebomb # 1907"

His is not merely an academic thought experiment. These things are not mock-ups, but functional though inert devices. There was the LSD lab that got him police attention, the bomb recipes, and the nuclear bombs. Yes, working devices without the explosives and fissile materials needed for completion, arming and detonation. In "Biblebomb # 1907", the cut-out space harbors twin pipe bombs, complete with all the wires needed to set them off. Nestled in the available space are nails designed as shrapnel to maim and kill. There is one special bit of shrapnel in there that raises the level of irony exponentially: A medal of the Virgin Mary (which here works in a manner similar to Serrano's "Piss Christ"). If you look closely towards the upper left corner of the cavity, its silver oval form can be seen. The Book is opened to Genesis, the parts about Eve being fooled by the Serpent, Adam's Fall from Grace, and Cain murdering Abel. The metaphorical implications of the two symbols here of the Bible and twin pipe bombs is sensational and spectacular. The collector Charles Saatchi thought enough of the bomb works to buy several, including at least one Biblebomb.

Part of the art lies in making the point that the information to assume power of this type lies conceptually in ancient books, like Hoffman's "Steal This Book" [Link], and considering Green began all this in the '80's, technical stuff is in the archaic institutions known as libraries.

Green grew up on several military bases, where the potential for violence and its implications of power were present.The irony of the Biblebomb is that the idea is redundant, as the Book has certainly been explosive through its existence, and used to effect carnage on a large and global scale. There is also the lingering feeling that when you look at these things, you're not really looking at a bomb. Echoing Magritte's "This is not a pipe" painting, think of this as a 3D sculptural representation of a bomb. I mean, what is an inert bomb? A mock-up? Maquette? Signifier of its whole potential self?

The work is not only about the usurping of the means of production of violence and power for terrorism, but it is also self-referential. It's about the artist using the same means to further his career and gain a competitive edge over his peers. "It is within this environment of intense activity and stimulation that today's artist attempts to function. If an artist desires an opportunity to participate in today's public discourse, he or she must find an avenue to compete with the ever-increasing volume of environmental noise and chaos.  I chose to compete directly with that volume by utilizing media and spectacle to raise the volume and range of my voice." Green has referred to himself as a "conceptual terrorist".

Einar and Jamex de la Torre, "A Dios Bavaria", detail
In this show, we are seeing almost classic, latter-day post modern work. Here's a handy link to understanding this [Link] .  Einar and Jamex de la Torre cross lines. Conceptual lines, borders, taste, religions, you name it. It began with their birth. Born in Mexico to an American mother of Danish-Mexican ancestry, and a Mexican father, their biculturality is part of their heritage. They work on both sides of the US/Mexico border, crossing on a regular basis from National City, CA to their studio in Ensenada, Baja California (Mexico).

"A Dios, Bavaria", detail

  A healthy contempt for authority is a philosophical staple in many Latin countries during the post colonial period. This extends into self-mockery, mainly to keep the ego in check and not take oneself too seriously. The brothers refer to their style as 'Baroque', and it is, but they're to what we normally think of  Baroque [Link] as Sin City is to Sun City.There is a pastiche of symbols, styles, signs cultural artifacts in an endless torretial procession of fusion and fission, sometimes in one work. In spite of the bravado and the opulence, the work is marked by conceptual fluency, and camouflaged subtlety. The latter mostly in the interplay of elements within a work. Nuclear-level Eye Candy is used to direct the viewer's attention away from sub-narratives within the work which sometimes catalyze to shift the overall meaning, all hiding in plain view.Their style is what I would call Pop-Folkoric Baroque.

Einar and Jamex de la Torre, "A Dios, Bavaria"

 This mandala-like work consists of a entral horned and bearded head, surrounded by various objects, and encircled by others. The design is cyclical. Going from the perimeter in, we see ten green triangles, with symbols in them. At the 9 and 3 o'clock positions, there are white open hands on which a blue stone rests. The other eight green triangles are no less than the Bastos suite from La Baraja Espanola, the Clubs/Wands from the Spanish Tarot deck of cards. Conspicuously missing are the Knight and King, respectively (and this is a gross simplification) power in action, and perennial power. Note the white hands on which a blue stone rests. We will return to these. The next ring is composed of fake benjamins ($100 bills). There are 24 of them, the same as the number of hours in a day. Each is also numbered with golden glass blobs, the significance of which eludes me. Inside that ring are eight oval glass cameos with flower arrangements in them. Around the head are cups. They are labeled "Loving Cups", and into them are flowing the red faceted stone tears the Devil/Horned One is crying, much like J.C.'s blood fell into the cup we know as the Holy Grail. In the Devil's eyes are the words "To God" ("A Dios"), The Devil, like us, is Fallen from Grace and can only know God through his senses. This is why the White Hands (the Hand of God) hold the bue stone, the Lapis (AKA Philospher's stone), and they are at 3 & 9 o'clock because that is the profane plane. The de la Torres are telling us we can find wisdom on our own physical plane. I see this as the inner contradiction of this work, which can be seen as a statically encoded computer of the soul, with the viewer providing the energy and moving/movable parts. This work is iconographically coherent, respectful, systemic, and even reverent. Its secrets are hiding in plain view, masterfully misdirected by the riot of colors and styles. (and there is much more I cannot go into for space & time considerations). I believe the reference to Bavaria is to another Tarot Deck.

Chris Riccardo, "Consequences
Chris Riccardo works in solid clay, and the weight, though invisible, is relevant to his art.

“They point and laugh, tease and ridicule all the while unaware of the consequences.
As important as play is to our development as adults, what effect does play have on those who cannot participate in the traditional sense of the word?"

Chris Riccardo (in blue)
He is talking about the epidemic of childhood obesity in the US. In the scultpure we see a child's see-saw with three children on it. the side with two normal-weight kids, looking shocked, up in the air, outweighed by the third, are holding on to a giraffe wood cut-out. A slender animal. The overweight kid on the ground has a pig's head to hold onto, not that he needs to. A close look at his face reveals John Wayne Gacy's clown make-up and hat. The implication is that the way obese children are treated will have consequences, perhaps in some cases, monstruous ones.

Bonnie Marie Smith, "Bellhops and Cigarette Girls", close-up

The inner world is also in transition. Each of us experiences this in different ways, some more consciously so than others, but it often emerges in our dreams. Bonnie Smith's work, she says on her website, is inspired by myth, symbol and dreams, the syntax of the inner discourse of our lives. In "Bellhops and Cigarette Girls", there's a surreal typology
of a row of small heads and bust sculptures of figures representing these two types of occupations. At the right, note there's a bellhop smoking, but what are the odds that the cig came from one of the girls?

Bonnie Marie Smith, "Bellhops and Cigarette Girls"
The figures are made of porcelain, though sometimes Smith works with earthenware as well.. They express the psychic energies of feminine development with incisiveness and delicacy. In her blog, "Smallest Stories" [Link] you discover that she is also a very good poet, and that many of these figures have their own accompanying poems. Read a few of these and you will have a much better idea of what the work and the artist are about. Beautiful stuff, and a great counterpoint to the directness an Pop influences of a lot of the other work.

Congratulations to Mindy Solomon and her small tribe of assistants and interns for a great show.

This show runs through November fifth. I encourage anyone to make the trek to see it. All of these artists except C. Riccardo had other works in this show. Hours: Wed-Sat, 11 AM-5PM. 124 2nd Ave NE, St, Petersburg. [Link]

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