Summer Summary 2015

Contemporary and Old Art Reviews

Summer Summary 2015

Postby CAP » Thu Sep 10, 2015 12:59 pm

After taking a break over summer to work on my own stuff, I thought I’d ease back into writing with a quick roundup of exhibitions for the past few months or so. Not too much research, just a few observations. I was vaguely keeping an eye on things or maybe they just sort of seeped through while I toiled mightily in my studio – well virtual studio, if we count Photoshop as a studio, with its ever present online temptations. Is it any wonder I work so slowly? That said, I always forget how much harder it is to make pictures than write about them. Both are hard but switching between the two seems to involve completely different parts of my brain, so that there’s always an agonising period where the mental gears just grind and nothing gets done. Generally it takes a couple of weeks, sometimes longer, while my little neural networks stumble around, trying to remember where I want to go. It was worse when I did my Masters and had to switch within a week from theory to practice and back. I used to get really stressed. Even now, I look back and shudder. :shock:

Basel Faulty Versus Venice as Menace

As usual over summer the main action lies with art fairs, biennales and museum shows. Private galleries kind of go into a holding pattern of stock shows and try-outs. And since this is a Venice Biennale year, we had the usual face-off with Art Basel, grand curatorial concept versus frantic sales hype, meaning versus money, the masses versus the rich. The difference this year was underlined by curator Okwui Enwezor’s old-school Marxist platform and choice of works with an explicit political message, not to mention inverted racism. Talk about hypocrisy. Enwezor is the first African to direct a Ven-Bi, a boast in itself implicitly racist. Predictably, critics tended to find the whole thing a little heavy-handed and preachy and focussed instead on national pavilions, which had their own, more arcane political agendas. In Basel there were the usual grumblings about elitism – which galleries were invited and which not – and according to Kenny Schachter’s report, how much of the work is already re-sales or flipping. Schachter boasted that he can easily place ‘consignments’ with any number of galleries at Basel rather than apply for a space himself, since reliable quality, or saleable items are in short supply given the array of galleries present. 282 galleries participated this year, with a distinct pecking order concerning area and placement and each paid between fifty and eighty thousand U.S. dollars for the privilege. Do the maths. Clearly, Basel is extremely profitable for the organisers, first and foremost.

Art Basel is top of the range as far as art fairs go but there are more and more cliques of dealers banding together and staging their own smaller art fairs around the world, pooling resources (including clientele) refining aesthetics in a bid to nurture sales, bolster reputations. Some see this as the beginning of the end for private galleries, which are just too expensive to maintain all year round for only a dribble of visitors, a smattering of sales and publicity. But Schachter slyly puts his finger on another problem. It is not just the primary market that is being undermined by the brazen art fair. Galleries are resorting to safe names and a tacit secondary market in order to underwrite their investment in a booth at a prestigious art fair. So the secondary market – auction houses in the main – is also being undercut by the quick and dirty approach. We’re unlikely to see Monets or Titians changing hands at art fairs, but those long auction lists of lesser collectibles – the bulk of their business - may start to get whittled away as collectors-turned-dealers find quicker and less expensive venues. The thing about Basel is that that kind of money is there, all the biggest collectors and their richest friends. Is it any wonder dealers are soon scratching around for blue-chip or proven investments? That the same artists feature in multiple booths?

Is it any wonder you are not going to make any real discoveries there? The place is all about enhancing reputations, not starting them. For new stuff you have to look to lesser fairs, laissez faires. Going through the list of galleries, it’s hard to spot any conspicuous absentees, hard to believe Basel is too fussy. New York galleries or galleries with a branch in New York dominate, with London and then Berlin filling out the podium places. There are surprising inclusions, like a gallery from Reykjavik and one from Johannesburg and then there is only one from Canada (Vancouver) none from Australia, New Zealand, Indonesia, The Philippines, Argentina or Chile. Maybe the timing is wrong for the southern hemisphere. Whatever, Schachter’s dreary list of ‘quality’ artists – Wool, Kelley Walker, Stingel, Fischl, Franz West, Rondinone – also tells you what’s wrong with market tastes. They’re too superficial, crude and indulgent. No one wants to argue the merits of these artists at art fairs because no one knows how. And ultimately it doesn’t make any difference to them. It’s like asking a stock broker to explain the maths behind predictive transactions. They’re just interested in the liquidity of value, the prestige and the parties. Basically they’re just following orders.

The Doig of Venice

Bobbing up in a corner of the Ven-Bi (The Palazzetto Tito, to be exact) was a show of new works by Peter Doig, given rapturous reception by his British fans. It would be hard to think of a contemporary artist further from Enwezor’s grim agenda, (except perhaps John Currin). Hard to think of an artist more at home at an art fair, given his astonishing prices at auction. But this show was not part of the main programme, obviously, but rather the contribution of the Fondazione Bevilacqua La Masa, who specialise in small solo shows at this venue. We’ve rubbished Doig a number of times on WWR and again the stuff strikes me as wishy-washy, an awkward blend of holiday escapism and symbolist voodoo. If only there was some real voodoo amid these tropical caprices! But Doig lumbers on with the lazy photo tracings, the feeble drawing that has always plagued his figures, leaving him to rain down a deluge of washes for his sins, to drown them in surging fields of faded colour, a vague location for the dislocated, unconvinced. Sometimes I think Doig and Dumas would make a good team: he with the settings, she with the figures. On the one hand I have a sneaking admiration for his waywardness, the fact that he really doesn’t fit in, on the other hand when I actually look at the pictures, they just don’t work. He’s too hesitant or confused, wants to be loose in composition, but tight in drawing, to be literal and lush in setting yet symbolic or emblematic in character. The indecision is grating.

Albert Oehlen: Use-by Date Expired?

The other big noise over summer was the Oehlen survey at the New Museum, NYC – Albert Oehlen: Home and Garden, curated by director, Massimiliano Gioni. In Germany there were grumblings that at just 27 paintings spread over two floors, the show scarcely did the artist’s career justice. And compared to the monster survey of Sigmar Polke at MoMA in 2014, it is a surprisingly modest offering, but compared to Polke (Oehlen’s early teacher) his oeuvre is actually far more straightforward, far less complex or compelling. And while Germans would doubtless like to see him as a continuation of the same project, a central plank for German painting, I couldn’t discover any substantial engagement by German critics for his survey in Vienna in 2013* or the smaller show at the Wiesbaden Museum in 2014. I started to research the Wiesbaden show (The 5000 fingers of Dr. O – showcasing his ‘finger paintings’) last year and then wondered just what was going on, apart from the usual Gagosian-engineered overexposure? How come no-one was excited anymore? Then, the more I looked at the paintings, the more of a dead-end the whole layering of thin gestures over ink-jet printing, inverted Expressionist figuration (with a heavy nod to Baselitz) or hard edge geometry, seemed to be. The aging prankster looked just a little predictable, more than a little tedious.

The trouble with such a maximalised approach to painting is that it has nowhere else to go, no sub-themes or sustained allusion, not even experiments with novel materials and supports, as with Polke or say Schnabel. The work is trapped in serial negation, endless off-hand options as layers, artfully negotiated. As a project it looks to have peaked between 2000 and 2005. American critics like Terry Myers like it because they see it as reviving Abstract Expressionism and undeniably Oehlen has a real touch with gesture, unlike Kippenberger or Polke. The effect is a bit like de Kooning overwriting Rauschenberg or Rauschenberg using inkjet printing and allowing more drawing. And while this ties the artist to a very respectable pedigree, a tradition even, it also signals a watershed. Significantly, younger artists interested in abstraction are not satisfied with his coy dabbling and probe Minimalism more knowingly. Artists interested in stylisation are not satisfied with half-hearted Expressionism, even in mockery. By 2015, 27 works is probably enough to sum up his career.

* - The closest is probably Manfred Hermes' review for Frieze (de) - so tragically wide of the mark in describing the context for Oehlen's development, it's an act of mercy to overlook it as serious appraissal. :x
* - I later found Leon Hösl and Michael Wonnerth-Magnusson's review on the http://www.terpentin.org site, interestingly titled Insecurity Behind A Facade of Virtuosity. They reach a somewhat wordy conclusion, at least in English translation, but significantly, the two Swiss critics (I'm assuming they're Swiss, on a Swiss site) are already lodging substantial qualifications to the artist's career arc. ;)
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