Thursday, April 30, 2009

Ominous Relations: The Cocktail Party

Isaac J. Hart was accused—though never convicted—in the 1955 rape and murder of six-year-old Yumiko in what is known as “The Yumiko Incident.” Four decades later, two U.S. Marines and a sailor kidnapped and raped a 12-year-old girl. Efforts to bring these men to justice for their crimes against those two young Okinawans were stymied due to the U.S.-Japan Status of Forces Agreement. Especially heinous, the kindergartner murdered in the former case was cut up and disemboweled. In 1967, Tatsuhiro Oshiro, an Okinawan novelist and playwright, wrote “The Cocktail Party” (“Kakutera Pati”), that novel about the 1955 incident receiving the Akutagawa Prize. Loosely based on this story, new works by Futoshi Miyagi—in an exhibition of the same name—are on view at Daniel Reich Gallery through June 10.

Miyagi’s installation and the novel upon which it is inspired reflect the complicated tension of Okinawan society not only with regard to American military occupiers, but also with “mainland” Japanese. Okinawa prefecture—at the crossroads of Japan and China—is home to a distinct culture bearing Chinese, Thai, and Austronesian influences from its trading past. Spoken are Uchinā Yamatoguchi (Okinawan-accented Japanese) and Uchināguchi (the Okinawan language), the latter used in traditional cultural expressions of music and dance. This same proximity to China and Taiwan has made the island attractive to U.S. military interests: U.S. bases account for 18% of the land on Okinawa’s main island. While Okinawa makes up less than one percent of Japan’s land, it hosts two-thirds of the country’s approximately 30,000+ U.S. military forces.

Two installations, Kadena air base and Futenma Marine Corps air station, are in close proximity to residential areas. An overwhelming majority (85%) of Okinawans oppose U.S. military presence due to noise pollution, horrendous aircraft accidents, negative environmental impact, crimes committed by U.S. military personnel, and possible—though never confirmed—deployment of nuclear arms by the U.S. Under direct occupation by the U.S. military from 1945-1972, Okinawa prefecture and municipal governments have demanded withdrawal of those forces for decades—demands ignored by the U.S. and Japanese governments. Resultant anti-Japanese sentiment has encouraged the Ryukyu (Okinawan) independence movement. The sexual assault fanned voluminous protests against U.S. military presence in the mid-1990s—some of the largest in Japan’s history. Okinawa Women’s Action Against Military Violence and other groups have organized to eliminate extraterritorial rights afforded U.S. military personnel with regards to the Okinawan and Japanese courts and legal system.

In his installation, Miyagi echoes and magnifies Tatsuhiro’s account of the rape of an Okinawan kindergartner by an American soldier stationed at a military base where her father attends a cocktail party, implying the father’s post-war upwardly mobile social status (vis-à-vis socializing with the occupiers). Highlighting the cultural complexities found in Okinawa, Chinese characters also appear in the story about the tragedy. With respect to the gendered nature of the Japanese language, Miyagi was intrigued by the story’s use of “onna kotoba” (“women’s words”) to denote powerlessness and abjection and parallel chosen states of masochism and abasement in relation to race, ethnicity, and sexual orientation.

In “The Cocktail Party” Miyagi free-associates and accesses his own memories of Okinawa, with his work marked by qualities of innocence and fancy. With traditional craft such as Bingata fabric and Origami paper, Miyagi illustrates Okinawa’s cultural binaries. They also show (in a Western context) the Asian stereotype of neatly crafted childlike things for quiet subterfuge. Cultural trauma (such as wartime destruction and American military occupation of Okinawa) interweaves with personal experience: Miyagi’s own memories (told through clues in the form of objects) have the immediacy of a child’s pleasures mediated by pain, pederasty and sadomasochism. The delineation of a story like “The Cocktail Party” with incisive and sensitive angles allow for perverse irony. For instance, in the back gallery, the clothing of the offending soldier augmented by a beautiful Genet-like floral pattern is strewn on a chair and positioned across from a box of candies, a juxtaposition that parallels the artist’s own fantasy of an encounter with an AWOL American soldier who offers him a stick of Doublemint gum (a brand only available from American military bases in Okinawa). Thus, seemingly American objects become Okinawan in this context.

Viewing this installation at Daniel Reich Gallery, the viewer will first encounter a fence made of yarn, through which one escapes into an imagined Okinawa through a hole into leaving the confines of the American military base to visit Heiwa street, which offers local fare such as the three-stringed sanshin instruments (similar to the banjo and a link between the Chinese sanxian and Japanese shamisen), traditional Bingata fabric made in workshops, a drumming dance called the eisa, and American fare. Clandestine meetings across cultural, literal, and metaphorical boundaries render the jumble of barriers as ineffective as the fence of yarn in isolating and containing people. Human curiosity and furtive excitement of cultural difference conspire to encourage commingling despite social and legal sanctions. Furthermore, Miyagi’s yarn “barbed wire” also recalls the motif of traditional fishing nets.

Aspects of fluidity, diffusion, and pain come together in Miyagi’s “The Cocktail Party” in an equation of human identity construction. The installation also fuses and confuses roles, notions, and pleasures. (For instance, the Ryukyu glass, a post-war icon of Okinawan design, was initially crafted from recycled Coca Cola and 7-Up bottles after World War II.) “Transactions” between the artist and the fictional AWOL U.S. serviceman—whether illustrated with a watch or a stick of Doublemint gum—amplify patterns of racial, national, and economic privilege. Ultimately, they define those involved in the transactions. Ironically, the sweetness of Coca Cola and Doublemint represent the embittered subservience of a colonized, conquered, and ignored people.

The Cocktail Party

by Futoshi Miyagi

Through June 10,, 2009

Daniel Reich Gallery

537A West 23rd Street, NYC 10011

Friday, April 24, 2009

Richard Woods: Seeing the Forest for the Trees

While Woods has done numerous projects and commissions in New York, The Nature Show—at Perry Rubenstein Gallery through May 23rd— is the first large-scale exhibition in the United States of the artists’ work since 2002. Plywood and household gloss—utilizing traditional techniques of wood block printmaking—cover interior and exterior surfaces to create divergent graphic surroundings. This all-encompassing architectural intervention teases the boundaries of—and explores the relationships between—function and decoration.

Walking into “The Nature Show” was like walking into Paula Cooper Gallery in 1989 to see a show by Robert Gober. Woods’ vernacular in “The Nature Show” juxtaposes functionality and dysfunction and entwines the idiosyncratic with pedestrian in ways that echo Gober’s work. Like Gober, Woods can completely transform structures and spaces, engaging them with reality and fantasy. In this installation by Woods, cartoonish line drawings of flowers from his floral repeat series on a vivid orange background cover the gallery floors: Woods' signature wood panel logo series wraps the gallery walls floor to ceiling. "Reversed repeat tiles" in Woods’ new series “Song Thrush” flank window walls facing the street. The installation also features a selection of Woods' paintings, created with household paint on panels made from leftover floorboards inlayed into raw plywood. Integrated into the artist’s practice in the last few years, these paintings have become essential to his process.

Drawing upon a number of influences such as William Morris, Marcel Duchamp, Richard Artschwager, and James Turrell, Woods constantly experiments through a methodical process of formulation and finalization. Woods’ ideas sizzle when he activates a space or object. He riffs on architecture, and found objects and materials. Turrell’s perception phenomenology, use of existing grounds, primary concerns of light and space, and defiant perspective are called upon, along with Artschwager’s use of synthetic materials, exaggerated wood-grain patterns, and appropriative mimicry.

Woods is a great admirer of William Morris (1834-1896), who preferred flat use of line and color and abhorred “realistic” shading. Morris practiced a hands-on approach based on multiple aspects that Woods uniquely incorporates in his work. With their return to craftsmanship and quality materials, Morris and fellow members of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood (such as Dante Gabriel Rosetti and Arthur Hughes) altered the direction of art, architecture, and design in Britain. Socialist, poet, artist, and architect, Morris was a prescient historic preservationist who founded his own publishing company and organized guilds of designers and decorative craftsmen. Having authored a great deal of leftist literature, Morris and his Pre-Raphaelite brothers shared a love of things ranging from John Ruskin’s writings to Gothic architecture. Though tapestries designed by Morris are renowned, his efforts in later years turned to political activism.

Rife with whimsy and illusion, Woods’ work lacks a precious tone. One can walk on, touch, and exist within his installations. With makeovers of every kind commoditized, Woods captivates a view with makeovers of people’s everyday environments. And that goes for the not-so-everyday: By rendering a courtyard grounds with exaggerated cobblestones of white, black, and gray, Woods transformed the grounds of a Renaissance Palazzo at the 50th Venice Biennale. His multidimensional installations–whether in public buildings or retail institutions—culminate in contemporary and theatrical interpretations, coupled with optimistic and progressive perspectives.

The Nature Show by Richard Woods
Through May 23, 2009
Perry Rubenstein Gallery

527 West 23rd Street NYC

Friday, April 17, 2009

Conflation in Identity's Formation

[“still,” (2009), one channel DV without sound 8:44. “STILL AT LAND,” (2009), one channel DV without sound 12:45. “Don’t let me down,” (2009), one channel DV without sound 8:38.]

Abbey Williams conflates unsentimental perspectives on potential motherhood with a personal struggle to make art in her current show at Bellwether Gallery through May 9. In (STILL), Williams makes near motionless performances in a series of video portraits in which she superimposes herself over a still image insistently trying and failing and trying to equal the figure in the frame. She continues to work with video in multiple channels: images are projected side by side or layered in a single frame in an effort by the artist to contend with the flattening of time as she dissolves herself over art historical images and pop culture iconography.

Objective and subjective camera come together in STILL AT LAND (2009), which echoes and magnifies “Meshes of the Afternoon,” the 1943 experimental film directed by wife and husband team Maya Deren and Alexander Hammid. This is accomplished both in a circular narrative as well as repetition of psychologically symbolic images. Through repeated action and subtle transitions, Williams breaks viewer expectations and conveys ambivalent feelings. Originally, Deren and Hammid sought to create an avant garde personal film dealing with psychological problems along the lines of the Salvador Dalí and Luis Buñuel collaborations “Un Chien Andalou” (1929) and “L’Age d’Or” (1930). (While Deren usually receives principal artistic credit for the film, filmmaker Stan Brakhage asserts that it was largely Hammid’s creation.)

Attempting to assume literal visual semblance to become a figurative equivalent, Williams appropriates Kishin Shinoyama’s cover photo for John Lennon and Yoko Ono’s 1980 album “Double Fantasy” in 2009’s “still.” Likewise, she does this for her 2008 work “Black Hole” with “L’Origine du monde” (The Origin of the World), the 1866 oil on canvas painted by French artist Gustave Courbet. (Notably, the model in the original was most likely Joanna Hifferman, whose lover was American painter and Corbet disciple James McNeil Whistler.)

The influence of Sophie Calle is obvious in Williams’ depiction of human vulnerability with respect to examinations of identity and intimacy—down to inclusions of text. Multiple images and bodies grapple with the history of the representation of women and Williams’ own vulnerability as she uses herself as the subject and medium of this exploration in such works ranging from “(for Milos)” (2009) to “Don’t let me down” (2009). Transition’s very struggle and tedium is obvious in the first piece while more breathless struggle comes through in the latter.

On the very movement of such works as “(for Milos),” “Don’t let me down,” and “STILL AT LAND,” one finds the fingerprint of seminal choreographer and filmmaker Yvonne Rainer for whom work in those two disciplines was fraught with challenge and experimentation. Rainer’s work with the Martha Graham School, Merce Cunningham, and especially the Judson Dance Theater brought her to the bubbling laboratories of dance. Her artistic bases—repetition, patterning, tasks, and games—became standard in modern dance. The work of one of the world’s most renowned video artists is also seen in William’s works. Ulrike Rosenbach paved the way many times over in her use of video documentation and experimentation with respect to electronic images. Rosenbach crossed one boundary after another with her feminist critiques of women’s representation and formulations of women’s identity.

Meditating on the arc of the creative process via pregnancy, motherhood, fertility, and sexuality, Williams set out on this body of work in anticipation of the birth of her first child and completed the work prior to her expected due date. As does Cindy Sherman with completely different images and areas of conflict, Williams analyzes individual identity—both at the level of generated fantasies and shaped forces. Previous to (STILL), Abbey Williams’ work has been exhibited at the Tate, PS1/MoMA , The Hammer Museum, The Studio Museum of Harlem, and Hartford’s Wadsworth Antheum Museum. Living and working in Brooklyn, Williams’ work is complex in its symbolic power while holding a visceral quality. She speculates without sinking into preoccupation.

(STILL) by Abbey Williams

Bellwether Gallery

through May 9, 2009

134 Tenth Avenue between 18th & 19th Streets, NYC 10011

Single Drops: To Magnify Uniqueness

“Third Hand,” a set of 50 ink drawings by Cuban artist Diango Hernández—evolving out of his interest in the Polish artist Andrzej Wróblewski (1927-1957)—will be at Alexander and Bonin Gallery through May 2, 2009. Addressing the sense of deformity, the installation’s drawing series references one of Wróblewski’s drawings in which there is a man with a third arm protruding from his back. Handmade “mass production,” each one of the 50 drawings is a copy of the previous—done on pages torn from a 1940s German ledger book. Each is rendered unique by drops of water serving to dissolve the strict repetition of the series.

Wróblewski, one of Poland’s most prominent artists in the post-WWII era, had his education and artistic training interrupted by the brutal German occupation in which only underground courses were available to him. Having created a highly suggestive approach to figurative painting that was very individualistic, Wróblewski rebelled against the dominant colorist style and used unique spacial forms. Furthermore, he experimented in oil paintings and gouaches, created works under the influence of artists like Fougeron and the Mexican muralists, and remained open to such tendencies as Surrealism. His previously mentioned figurative formula was one in which figures were disfigured and injured with grotesque forms. Wróblewski ‘s works detailing events during the German occupation of Poland—such as executions rendered in spare, precise compositions—are exceptional for their intensity of feeling. As Stalinism and Communist orthodoxy in the Soviet bloc cast a chilling situation in the late 1940s, Wróblewski towed the official line of Socialist Realism with works cast in a darker palette—though closer to traditional realism. After Stalin’s death in 1953 and relaxation of official strictures, Wróblewski reverted back to his original approach to painting in the mid-1950s and carried on in this vein until his tragic accidental death in 1957.

Coming out of a parallel authoritarian system, Hernández was drawn to Wróblewski because, in him, he saw a “person confused and affected by a political system: confused because I no longer know how to judge the system that formed me, but at the same time deformed me.” Hernández places the ambiguity of this symbolism within his own context of growing up in Cuba. The artist states: “I don’t wonder what will happen to the political mistakes, because the mistakes are obviously mistakes that are always ready to recur again and again in different guises.” Magnifying the avenue of uniqueness in “Third Hand,” Hernández asserts that the challenge for individuals will be to become single drops.

In the 1990s, Hernández started an extended series of drawings which processed the political and economical crisis of Cuba after the collapse of the socialist systems in Eastern Europe. Such drawings functioned as a kind of political diary in which artists could transform everyday objects into utopian configurations. Hernández came to call his entire practice “drawing,” whether he meant a complex installation, a sculpture, or an accidental trace on a piece of paper. German art historian Anke Kempkes related the iconography of Diango Hernández to the narrative inventions of Cuban writer Alejo Carpentier, who rejected the “pointless” imagination of the Surrealists for their aloofness from reality. Carpentier—known for his Baroque writing style and conception of “lo real maravilloso” (marvelous reality)—was a key influence on writers Carlos Fuentes, Gabriel Garcia Márquez, and Isabel Allende. Broadly, “lo real maravilloso” holds that magical elements or illogical scenarios appear in an otherwise realistic or even "normal" setting. Besides literature, this idea has been influential in film and the work of such artists as Hernández.

In 1994, Diango Hernández co-founded Ordo Amoris Cabinet in Cuba: a group of artists and designers who focused on invented solutions for home design objects to compensate for shortages of materials and goods. (Due to privations and the lack of art supplies in occupied Poland during WWII, Wróblewski practiced the art of woodcut from 1944-1946.) Having moved to Europe in 2003, Hernández currently lives and works in Düsseldorf. Exhibited at the Bienales of Venice, Sydney, and São Paulo, the work of Diango Hernández has been the subject of solo exhibitions at the Kunsthalle, Basel in 2006, and in 2007 at the Neuer Aachener Kunstverein, Aachen.

TH-INK by Diango Hernández

Alexander & Bonin

through May 2, 2009

132 Tenth Avenue between 18th & 19th Streets, NYC 10011