Saturday, May 30, 2009

Enigmatic Delineation: The Portraits of Michael Leonard

[“Changing Room III” (2008), alkyd-oil on Masonite. “Crouching Man” (2007), alkyd-oil on Masonite. “Torso” (2008), alkyd-oil on Masonite.]

It has been 10 years since London-based artist Michael Leonard (b. 1933) has had an exhibition in New York. The exquisitely rendered figurative drawings and oil portraits (on display at Forum gallery until June 12, 2009) offer the viewer an amazing opportunity to follow Leonard’s process as his visual ideas evolve from inception to completion. Intensive and provocative, Leonard’s meditative process on human figures culminate in their palpable movement from clothed to nude. Viscerally, the viewer will feel this illumination and movement emanating from each and every canvas. Sharp “edges” envelope each image, contrasting with the “softness” of juxtaposed subject bodies.

Repetition of subjects in several of Leonard’s compositions—that appear more than once—offer the viewer a rarely seen insight into the way the artist works with his models. In her essay for the exhibition, art historian and museologist (and former director of the Graduate School of Figurative Art in New York) Barbara S. Krulik wrote: “The most important, captivating thing about these paintings and drawings is the content. Leonard reveres Degas, who held a discreet distance from his young ballerinas and bathers. Leonard replaces the dance studio or brothel with the changing room and keeps no distance from his subjects. … The male nudes are particularly powerful. They twist and turn in their cramped space so we almost feel the sinew in the tautness of the musculature. Dressing or disrobing, the models are caught in a personal activity that is rarely shared with strangers.”

Undoubtedly, there is an element of affinity with Edgar Degas (1834-1917). This is especially true with regard to inference of movement, realism, and the primacy of the figure. Leonard “betrays” this in his earlier mentioned subject repetition. Also a deliberative artist, he repeats his subjects a number of times—each time with a variance in composition, treatment, or media. In addition to Degas, Gustave Caillebotte (1848–1894) must be considered a stylistic forbear of Leonard’s. Caillebotte, a realistic painter who unwillingly found himself cast as an impressionist, presciently embraced the potential of photography as an art form. Indeed, Leonard works from photographs in a deliberation on scale, composition, and image as his works proceed with pencil or oil paint.

After years of success in the world of illustration and advertising, Leonard—with his academic background in graphic design—managed to pursue art full-time in his forties. His timing was auspicious as, by then, abstractionism’s hegemony had subsided and been replaced by a more pluralist situation. In that relatively relaxed environment—in which realist and photorealist styles came to the fore in the late 1960s and early 1970s—there was a context within contemporary art for the work of an artist like Leonard, who’s materials, style, and subjects fall along more “traditional” lines. Additionally, the ascendance of social movements at that time (particularly within the realm of “identity politics”) allowed a more hospitable reception for Leonard’s “ripped” nudes that exude primal male sexuality.

What carries forth most powerfully in Leonard’s haunting and poetic work at Forum Gallery is the tension between perimeters. Whether in “Bather Stooping Low” (2005), “Climbing Out” (2008), or “Bather With Intent” (2008) there are uncertain boundaries between dressed and undressed, prone vs. supine, and exposure vs. deception that come through as sheer movement. In the latter work, the virile, robust, monobrowed, big-gunned man drying off with a towel betrays conflict between pride and self-loathing. His vulnerability is palpable. Furthermore, the dance between light and shadows in Leonard’s work alludes to virility’s eventual demise and death’s approach.

Michael Leonard has been the subject of a solo exhibition at Yale University (New Haven) and a retrospective at the Gemeentemuseum (Arnhem, The Netherlands). His paintings and drawings are featured in the collections of the National Portrait Gallery (London), New Orleans Museum of Art, Victoria and Albert Museum (London), Museum Boymans-van Beuningen (Rotterdam), National Galleries of Scotland (Edinburgh), Arnot Art Museum (Elmira), and Seven Bridges Foundation (Greenwich, Conn.). Among his most celebrated portraits is one of Queen Elizabeth. Yet another of his portraits, “Torso Bridge,” served as a book cover for the Larry Kramer novel “Faggots.”

New Paintings & Drawings: Michael Leonard

@ Forum Gallery, 745 Fifth Avenue (@ 57th Street), NYC 10151

Through June 12, 2009

Thursday, May 28, 2009

Confluence of Alguém Me Avisou

Singer and composer Yvonne Lara da Costa—known to the world as Dona Ivone Lara—was born to a poor family in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, in 1922. Dona Ivone Lara learned to play a small string instrument called the cavaquinho from aunts and uncles who raised her after the death of her parents. Exposed to samba music by her cousin, Mestre Fuleiro, she was associated with musicians of this genre for many decades—including the Brazilian songwriters Heitor Villa-Lobos, Mano Décio da Viola, and Silas de Oliveira. A large chunk of her childhood was spent in a boarding school and she eventually matriculated from a nursing program, specializing in occupational therapy. Dona Ivone Lara worked as a social worker –largely in psychiatric hospitals—until retirement in 1977.

It was after this life transition, in 1978, that Dona Ivone Lara cut her first album. Since then she has churned out romantic sambas heavily influenced by elemental African music. Dona Ivone Lara broke through that year when Gal Costa and Maria Bethânia recorded "Sonho Meu," on which Lara had collaborated with Délcio Carvalho. That song became Lara’s greatest hit—becoming song of the year and enabling Lara to cut her second album "Samba, Minha Verdade, Minha Raíz" in 1979. During the 1980s, she recorded "Sorriso Negro" and "Ivone Lara." A number of Brazilian artists hit gold with Dona Ivone Lara’s compositions, among them Clara Nunes and Roberto Ribeiro ("Alvorecer"); Maria Bethânia, Caetano Veloso, and Gilberto Gil ("Alguém Me Avisou"); Paulinho da Viola ("Mas quem Disse que eu te Esqueço"); Beth Carvalho ("Força da Imaginação"); Mariene de Castro; Paula Toller; and Roberta Sá. She is associated with a group of composers at the Império Serrano samba school, for whom she collaborates on “sambas-enredo,” written specifically for carnival parades. Her collaboration in this endeavor has been groundbreaking for women as she was the first woman to become part of the composers’ caucus of a samba school. Among the sambas done by Império Serrano was one commemorating the resistance of the longshoremen’s union (sindicato dos estivadores ) in Rio de Janeiro.

Without a doubt, my favorite Brazilian song is “Alguém me avisou”—a Dona Ivone Lara composition. I first heard this amazing tune at a Brazilian restaurant called Canecão Rio on the Lange Leidsedwarsstraat in Amsterdam during the late 1980s. Among my favorite memories is dancing with my friend Paolo to that song in the early 1990s: Subsequent to that Paolo returned to his native Brazil, where he was murdered. Paolo knew quite a few of my comrades from ACT UP and Queer Nation and participated in our actions. I also danced to this song with an artist friend from Brazil named Plauto (who explored issues of gender construction in his work) at his party in the East Village while the Tompkins Square Park riot of 1988 raged outside --NYPD helicopters lighting up the sky.

Alguém me avisou

Foram me chamar
Eu estou aqui, o que é que há
Eu vim de lá, eu vim de lá pequenininho
Mas eu vim de lá pequenininho
Alguém me avisou pra pisar nesse chão devagarinho
Sempre fui obediente
Mas não pude resistir
Foi numa roda de samba
Que juntei-me aos bambas
Pra me distrair
Quando eu voltar na Bahia
Terei muito que contar
Ó padrinho não se zangue
Que eu nasci no samba
E não posso parar
Foram me chamar
Eu estou aqui, o que é que há *

Notably, two of the artists most associated with the song “Alguém me avisou”—other than Dona Ivone Lara herself—are the brother and sister Caetano Veloso and Maria Bethânia Vianna Telles Veloso (better known as Maria Bethânia). Importantly, they come from Bahia—the epicenter of Afro-Brazilian culture at the heart of Dona Ivone Lara’s musical influence.

Caetano Veloso, sometimes called the Bob Dylan of Brazil, is a political activist and a writer in addition to his musical endeavors. He is known primarily for his involvement with the 1960s Brazilian musical tendency called “Tropicalismo,” a fusion of Brazilian pop music with rock and roll, which influenced poetry, theater, and music in that country after a military dictatorship assumed power in 1964. Strongly influenced by the writings of Jean-Paul Sartre and Martin Heidegger, Veloso’s progressive politics did not endear him to that government (which ruled until 1985). Considered dangerous by the regime, Caetano Veloso and his fellow musician Gilberto Gil were arrested in 1969—after which they went into exile. Ironically, leftist Brazilian students were no more fond of “Tropicalismo,” than the military regime, considering it an imposition upon Brazilian music by cultural imperialism. Needless to say, Veloso’s music was often censored and banned by the government. Despite cessation of military rule and resumption of democratic government in Brazil, Caetano Veloso has remained committed. During the 1990s, he recorded music that called attention to AIDS pandemic, corruption, homelessness, and ethnic tension. Never quite as vociferous as her brother, Maria Bethânia did release a protest song called “Carcará” in 1965.

As to Dona Ivone Lara? Despite her advanced age, she continues to record and to perform before live audiences today.

[ * “Someone Told Me”: They went to call me. I am here, what's going on? I came from there, I came from there as a little boy... But I came from there as a little boy. Someone told me to step slowly on this floor. I have always been obedient, but I couldn't resist. It happened in a samba gig. When I joined to the bambas (people who belongs to the samba "tribe" or “band”) to distract myself, when I come back to Bahia I will have so much to tell. Oh godfather do not get mad. 'Cause I was born in samba, and I cannot stop. They went to call me. I am here, what's going on?]

(Translation assistance: Marcos Antonio Vedoveto)

Tuesday, May 26, 2009

Overwhelming Catharsis: In the Eye of Hunter Reynolds

[“Hurricane Wilma” (2009), photo weaving. “Real Love” (2009), photo weaving.]

“Real Love: Wilma, Hurricane Hunter” is Hunter Reynolds’ first solo exhibition in New York in five years. Since 2001 Reynolds has experienced a series of life-altering events: the September 11, 2001 attacks; substance abuse; surviving AIDS; Hurricane Wilma; a close friend's suicide; the collapse of his immune system; and four HIV-related strokes leaving his right hand partially paralyzed. This exhibition is the sum total of these events. Viewers entering the gallery will be surrounded by a series of large-format works called "photo-weavings" formed by physically sewing together hundreds of smaller photographs. Fresh and beautiful, photographic components of these pieces document the cathartic meltdown experienced by Reynolds during autumn 2005—when Hurricane Wilma destroyed his Florida studio.

Wreckage documented in this cycle of work includes Reynolds’ paint-spattered and watered damaged work from an earlier series, not to mention CD covers, paper fragments, work by other artists, and shards of broken glass thrown and bonded by the forces of wind and rain. Bits of this detritus will be on view in the gallery along with the looming photo weavings. Additionally, Reynolds will present several remote story-telling/conversation performances via Skype and a mini-documentary covering the hurricane and studio-salvage efforts by Reynolds. Such efforts to transform this wreckage and personal history evolve into various and layered testaments of survival.

While all of these elements manage to come together in a complete context, the encompassed constituent elements are never quite subdued. For nearly 30 years, Reynolds' work has engaged with gender identity, body politics, and personal histories. In the larger orbit of his work and especially in this installation, Reynolds reveals tremendous forbearance and resilience in forging aspirations and a barebones willingness to carry on—despite life’s dark and desperate turns. Says Reynolds: "Art has always been one of the tools I have used to heal myself and others and to find order in the chaos of my life, by not only telling the story through art, but by transforming myself in the process of making it, using it to rebuild my life, finding hope and beauty and a desire to be alive."

“Real Love” (2009) takes on special meaning within the larger framework of Reynolds’ installation: In 1990, British vocalist Lisa Stansfield was among a coterie of well-known artists to participate in the “Red Hot + Blue” CD that honored Cole Porter, while benefitting AIDS research at a time when government efforts were woefully deficient.

As an AIDS activist, Reynolds was an early member of ACTUP and in 1989 co-founded Art Positive, an affinity group of ACT-UP, to fight homophobia and censorship in the arts. Art Positive in New York (along with Boy With Arms Akimbo in San Francisco) were important reservoirs of resistance during the period that the NEA Four (Karen Finley, Tim Miller, John Fleck, and Holly Hughes) had their funding vetoed by John Frohnmayer in June 1990 and when the funding of a catalogue featuring the work of David Wojnarowicz (1954-1993) was defunded to the tune of $15,000. This was also during the time that artists such as Andres Serrano were attacked on the floor of Congress and a scheduled exhibition of work by Robert Mapplethorpe (1946-1989) was cancelled in June 1989 by the Corcoran Gallery in Washington, D.C. Those heady days saw tireless work by Reynolds and his colleagues who responded with agitprop and vociferous activism.

Hunter Reynolds has exhibited his work at museums and galleries widely in the US and abroad. He recently exhibited at Artists Space (New York), Mary Goldman Gallery (Los Angeles), and at Gavlak (West Palm Beach). Additionally, he has been the recipient of many grants and residencies including a Pollock Krasner Grant this year.

Real Love—Hurricane Wilma, Hurricane Hunter: Hunter Reynolds

@ Momenta Art

359 Bedford Avenue, Williamsburg, Brooklyn, NY 11211

Through June 15th, 2009

Gallery hours: Thurs – Mon 12-6 pm

Monday, May 25, 2009

Abstraction/Figuration: Nicolas Carone’s Fait Accompli

[“Untitled” (2009), mixed media on paper. “Untitled” (2000-05), gouache and pencil on paper.]

Lohin Geduld Gallery is presenting its third solo exhibition by eminent artist Nicolas Carone, who was a central figure during the heady days of abstract expressionism. Carone was a central figure in developing a visual language combining abstraction and figuration. Derived from cubism and surrealism, Carone’s images, along with those of Jackson Pollock (1912-1956) and seminal Chilean painter Matta (1911-2002), created a vocabulary of forms springing from automatism and the unconscious. In Carone’s case such automatic drawing was influenced by his competence with the human form, gained through experience in classical study. In a weltanschauung, where observation, memory, sensation, and desire combine to form a truer reality, Carone allows his unedited thoughts and fantasies to flow through the lines and shapes of dynamism and beauty. He continues to mine this fertile ground, in which drawing is the most direct mode of visual expression. This exhibition finds Carone at the height of his powers—expanding the figurative tradition with the conviction that such probing of the unconscious can lead to new perceptions and insight.

Closely associated with the development of modernism, Carone was part of the early generation of New York School abstract expressionist artists with such others as Pollock, Willem de Kooning, Franz Kline, and others, whose artistic contribution had come to the fore by the 1950s. Importantly, Carone studied with Hans Hofman (1880-1966), a synthesist who brought together traditional methods and avant-garde concepts and is an extraordinary figure in postwar American art—and who conveyed structure, relationships, and tensions related to perspective, space, and color to an illustrious group of students including Helen Frankenthaler, Louise Nevelson, Frank Stella, Lee Krasner, Larry Rivers, and Red Grooms. Yet, Carone also studied with Leon Kroll (1884-1975), who bucked many of the swirling art-world trends—and continued in a realistic vein with his landscapes while most others dove into abstraction and other modernist manifestations.

Like the late works of Picasso, Carone’s drawings present a dichotomy of Modernism and Classicism, intimacy and archetype. All forms are potentially expressive, and in Carone’s prodigious output over the past few years we find an artist breaking through to a plane of boundless possibility. His charcoal marks contain gestures of substance and meaning, forming compositions suggesting a continuum of experience without hierarchy. Taking in Carone’s works at Lohin Geduld, one is awed at seeing the work of someone who worked in the same milieu as Pollock, and who was associated with the likes of those ranging from Marcel Duchamp (1887-1968) and surrealist/neo-romantic landscape painter Eugene Berman (1899-1972) to salonnier extraordinaire Alexander Iolas (1907-1987) and surrealist painter Pavel Tchelitchew (1898-1957).

Carone’s work is represented in many collections around the world, including the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Whitney Museum of American Art, and the Hirshhorn Museum. He was awarded both the Prix de Rome and a Fulbright Fellowship.

Nicolas Carone: Abstraction/Figuration

Works on Paper

@ Lohin Geduld Gallery

Through June 6, 2009

531 West 25th Street, NYC 10001