Sunday, April 28, 2013

Chazen Museum of Art: “Backyard Dilemmas”

The first thing I see upon entering the small gallery is what looks like an old fashioned concrete laundry tub raised off the floor on steel legs. As I near it, however, it resolves into a meticulously recreated basement constructed to scale of tiny concrete blocks. A precarious set of wooden stairs, lacking a handrail is set into one corner. A window well protrudes from the opposite corner. The basement space is otherwise vacant except for the pool of water surrounding an off-center floor drain.

Water in the basement! Having recently endured a flooded basement myself, the sculpture struck a nerve. Actual water is bubbling gently from the minute floor drain, propelled by a small pump hidden underneath the sculpture. The silent seeping of water, a subtle but compelling gesture, is characteristic of the understated power of Emily Belknap’s art works.

The piece is part of an MFA thesis exhibit entitled Backyard Dilemmas: Constructed Landscapes by Emily Belknap. It is on display in the Oscar F. and Louise Greiner Mayer Gallery of the Chazen Museum of Art at the University of WisconsinMadison.

A quick survey of the gallery reveals a collection of equally meticulous sculptures (as well as two drawings) that combine the ultra-realism of scale model miniatures with an abstract sensibility. The fences that surround each “property” are all that represent an entire neighborhood. Gone are the houses, streets, sidewalks, lawns, and people that would animate the neighborhood and create of it a community.

Famous lines about “good fences make good neighbors” from Robert Frost’s poem, “Mending Wall,” briefly come to mind. But these carefully crafted fences are oriented so that they project out from the vertical wall. Although the realism is indisputable, on another level they suggest abstract constructivism—to me at least. This duality is just one way that Belknap creates tension. In a statement on the wall text panel, Belknap says, “The decision to fence a backyard is more than an aesthetic choice; it implies anxiety, a need to contain and regulate.”

On the opposite wall of the gallery is an enormous field of miniature cornstalks; its vertical axis shifted perpendicular to the wall surface, as with the fences. Each of what looks like thousands of individual cornstalks has been created by hand from twisted strips of paper. The resulting “field” simultaneously evokes an actual corn crop ready to harvest and, because it is contained within a rigorous rectangle, mirrors the grid of fences across the way.

This dialectic between straightforward realism and conceptual abstraction is constant in Belknap’s work. Emotionally, I find myself teetering between a wondrous admiration of the breathtaking technical proficiency required to create these sculptures and darker moods conjured by the artist’s vision of our own “constructed landscapes.”

For those who read my Urban Wilderness blog as well as Arts Without Borders it will come as no surprise that I am a fan of paradox. Belknap serves it up with nearly every piece. At the center of the gallery, symbolically as well as literally, is a sculpture entitled “Parking Lot.” A lone and leafless tree stands at the center of the piece. The ambiguous metaphor could be interpreted as a hopeful interjection of life into the sterile space or as the destructive constraints we’ve placed on nature by constructing such places.

courtesy Emily Belknap
In an unlighted corner of the gallery is another tabletop sculpture entitled, “Vacant Lot.” The titles are mostly descriptive. You get the picture. A vacant lot with cracked pavement is surrounded by rusting chain link fence. A few desultory brown weeds along the fence are the only suggestion of life. There is a (tiny) padlock on the only gate, but the fence has been torn open in one corner. A miniature streetlight glows faintly in another corner. The small-scale rendition of cyclone fencing alone is worth visiting this exhibit. Belknap twists each strand of wire individually and assembles each length of fence on a “loom” that she has devised for the purpose.

My favorite piece is the only one that is built to human scale. It was initially less attractive, perhaps for that very reason. At first I don’t even notice the end of a picnic table sticking out of the end wall of the gallery. It seems ordinary in the context of the extraordinary miniatures. Oddly enough, it is when I have my back to it that it becomes noticeable. I am reading the artist statement when I hear a brief, sharp thumping sound. After a few moments it repeats: thump, thump. I turn and observe a brown cardboard box, like a shoebox, on top of the “picnic table.” I walk over to it and see that a series of crude holes have been punched in the top of the box, as if someone were trying to contain a living thing inside it. Thump, thump. The top of the box rattles visibly with the noise. It is easy to imagine a bird inside raising its wings, trying to escape. This sculpture is more suggestively, and again paradoxically, titled: “Rescue.”

Belknap received a BFA from the Milwaukee Institute of Art and Design. She is the winner of the 2013 Chazen Prize, which is awarded to an Outstanding MFA Student. Her exhibit, Backyard Dilemmas: Constructed Landscapes by Emily Belknap, was curated by Bartholomew Ryan, assistant curator in the visual arts department at the Walker Art Center. The exhibit is on view at the Chazen Museum of Art through May 12, 2013.

If you live in the Milwaukee area and want a taste of Belknap's work, she is included in a group show called "Chasing Horizons" that opens at Villa Terrace this Friday, May 3. Opening is 6-8 pm.

Except as noted, the images are mine, taken in the dimly lit gallery with my point and shoot camera. To see more (and better) images of Emily’s work, go to her website.

Saturday, April 27, 2013

Happy Slow Art Day!

Happy Slow Art Day from Arts Without Borders! Here is a sculpture from the Serpentine Gallery in Hyde Park, London entitled - get ready for it... "Rock on Top of Another Rock." I kid you not. As you can see, it is in the park, near the gallery (which, sadly, was closed when I was in London.) The artists are Peter Fischli and David Weiss.

Tuesday, April 23, 2013

How valuable is photography?

"Museums Are Still Wringing Their Hands Over Photography's Importance" is the heading for an interesting blog post. The subheading reveals the theme of the article: "Even in 2013, photography's place among the "fine arts" continues to be a topic of discussion—but why?"

It's worth reading. Do do so, click here 

That article is a response to another, published in the New York Times, called "The Lens Rises in Stature." Also worth a look: click here.

© Flickr user

Saturday, April 20, 2013

London's Tate Modern

The museum is imposing; a behemoth, like a whale brought in on the tide and beached on the riverbank. Approaching it on the Millennium Bridge from across the Thames, as we did, it looms larger and larger as we near. I am reminded of the Periclean plan for the Acropolis, with its forced perspective that increases the monumentality of the Parthenon. A former powerhouse, through sheer scale and austere symmetry it commands its riverside location with a massive form. Its single oversized chimney resembles a minaret. Though more fortress than temple, it is a layered symbol of the power of art.

First impressions are powerful. While subsequent experiences may rectify false notions created by them there is no doubt that first impressions have the potential to establish a lasting bias. Museums around the world, from Milwaukee to Bilbao, have created new architectural presences in order to cash in on this effect. Repurposing an old power station is perhaps a riskier if not bolder move than new construction. Its phenomenal collection is certainly a factor, but to the renowned Swiss architects Herzog & De Meuron, who oversaw the renovation, goes much of the credit for its success (its own website claims that Tate Modern is one of the top three tourist attractions in the UK.)

The Tate’s interior is as imposing as its exterior. The famous Turbine Hall, 115 ft. tall and 500 ft. long, dwarfs all human sense of scale. Strangely enough, I find in the spectacle of its architecture and its spaciousness a connection with the National Gallery, two art museums that could not be much more dissimilar in nearly every other aspect.

There is one artist, at least, who also forms a connection between the two collections. For the most part, the Tate Modern picks up where the National Gallery leaves off. But here too I am struck by an evocative painting by none other than JMW Turner. That his work graces both museums leaves little doubt of his preeminent role in the history of Modern Art. This is not news to me, but a text panel next to the painting adds a revelation. Mark Rothko, it seems, claims to have been inspired by Turner.

Rothko, in turn, is well represented here at the Tate. I found the room full of wall-sized Rothko paintings to be every bit as spiritually alive and perhaps more moving than the overtly intentional ones at the Rothko Chapel in Houston, TX. Mark Rothko, the wall panel goes one to say, donated these paintings to the Tate in homage to Turner. OK, I’m impressed.

Turner and Rothko are both long-time favorites of mine. There are plenty of others, too, and it is fun to run across them in this new context. (There are whole rooms devoted to Lewis Baltz and Manuel Alvarez Bravo!) What I really enjoy, though, is when a museum enables the discovery of unfamiliar artists. The Tate provides such discoveries in spades.

British sculptor Cathy de Monchaux is represented by a small piece entitled Erase. With obvious reference to both male and female genetalia, a long steel bolt is enveloped in a red velvet-lined denim pouch studded with rivets and held together with a fly-like zipper. Erase is included in an extensive and excellent exhibit called “Poetry and Dream” that intends to “show how contemporary art grows from, reconnects with, and can provide fresh insights into the art of the past.” Monchaux, a contemporary artist, is shown in a context of surrealists. This is just one of several such unexpected juxtapositions that I find refreshing.

The Tate has a small gallery called Project Space that is devoted to “presenting contemporary art through a series of collaborations with cultural organisations around the world.” That in itself is worth noting. The current show of mixed media is called “Ruins in Reverse.” The theme revolves around fictive realities that mimic archeology. I feel a particular affinity for two photographers with connections to Peru, Pablo Hare and Eliana Otta.

There are two disappointments. The vast Turbine Hall is famous for its equally outsized installations, but today it is stark in it emptiness. The other disappointment is my own doing. We took advantage of the fact that the museum is open late on Fridays to spend the day outdoors, but by the time we reach the second floor jetlag kicks in. By the time we reach the third floor it is hard to appreciate the great art we continue to discover.

Minimalism gallery
It is only day one in London. We will have to return.

To read my post on London's National Gallery of Art, click here.

Images of Snow Storm by Turner, Black on Maroon by Rothko, and Erase by Monchaux courtesy Tate Modern website.

Tuesday, April 16, 2013

London's National Gallery of Art

This is the second in a planned series of stories from my recent trip to London, where I had the great fortune to see great art--and to explore several remarkable urban parklands. My first installment, an introductory story called "How wild is London," is on my other blog, Urban Wilderness. As I've said before, I find the distinctions between my interests in art and nature to be arbitrary and confining. My experiences in London provided further weight to this view, which I hope to share in upcoming installments.

The National Gallery

From our long list of London’s museums and galleries we start at the top. As one of the premier encyclopedic institutions of its kind, the National Gallery has not only a little of everything, but many of the specific works of art that inevitably appear in the art history textbooks. We are far from alone. The National Gallery is the fourth most visited art museum in the world (after the Louvre, the Met, and the British Museum, just blocks from this one.)

My first impression is not of the paintings on the walls, however, but the grandeur of the rooms themselves. Contemporary museum design leans to minimalist interior spaces with color schemes in a narrow range of white. Not here.

courtesy Wikipedia
In fact, at first glance the paintings seem incidental, under high domed ceilings, surrounded by richly colored wallpapers and ornate Neo-Classical architectural detailing. (This museum, like so many, eschews photography by the masses and so I am resorting to wiki-images in the public domain, as noted.)
courtesy WikiPaintings

My architectural reverie is interrupted; my attention arrested by a painting so familiar I quickly realize I’ve seen it much more recently than whenever it was I last studied art history. The Fighting Temeraire had a cameo appearance in Skyfall, the latest Bond movie. Bond sat down in front of it to meet Q, his tech handler. The two characters even bantered briefly about the image’s metaphorical significance. Art imitating art. Life observing same. And popular culture clothing itself in references to high culture, to the extent that term retains currency in a museum as crowded as this is. Next to the frame is a plaque that informs us that this is the most popular painting in England. Typically ironic. Like so many ground-breaking artists, Turner stirred controversy in his day with an atmospheric style that prefigured Impressionism. How fickle is public opinion!

Now alert to the splendor of the selections on the walls, I begin to quiz myself. Upon entering I scan each room and try to identify the artists before closing in on them, always on the lookout for particular favorites. Constable and Gainsborough, Ingres and Degas. It gets easier as I reach the more modern galleries where I find glorious Monets and, of course, Van Gogh and Cezanne.

courtesy Wikipedia
I’ll mention two more highlights, both notable for the surprisingly diminutive scale of the paintings as well as their brilliance and historical relevance. In fact, I almost miss a tiny version of Ingres’s Oedipus and the Sphinx. Only a few inches tall, it is hiding in a corner amongst larger works. Peering closely at it I am struck by the curious compulsion of contemporary artists to make their work gigantic.

courtesy Wikipedia
Watching the time, we consult our gallery map so as not to miss another famous masterpiece, Jan van Eyck’s Arnolfini Marriage Portrait. We thread our way through the galleries, across a connecting bridge and into the Sainsbury Wing extension of the museum. Still early afternoon, little did we know how short on time we were. No sooner did we arrive in front of it and with barely enough time to admire the meticulously rendered detail when the museum guard, responding to some cue in his ear bud, curtly began herding everyone out of the gallery. We join a startled and muttering throng converging on the connecting bridge as we realize the entire wing is being summarily evacuated. The reason is never explained.

As counterpoint to what we’ve just seen, outside the museum Trafalgar Square offers up street arts, from the political to the entertaining to the crassly commercial. Not that these are mutually exclusive, mind you!

Jan van Eyck was innovative enough with oil paint that his work is considered revolutionary and the Arnolfini double portrait has been analyzed to death by innumerable art history undergrads. Still, his work was commercial in the sense that he depended for his livelihood on commissions, as did most artists before the advent of modernism.

The chalked flags below included audience participation. In addition to soliciting donations, the "artist" invited anyone who wished to add a flag to the matrix. Chalked in the center it reads, "Peace + Love" and "Welcome to London." Amen to that!

But wait, there's more! To read my post about the Tate Modern, click here.