Thursday, February 26, 2009

Metropolitan Museum of Art, 1000 5th ave at 82nd streetArt and Love in Renaissance Italy. through Feb 16

Metropolitan Museum of Art 5th Ave. at 82nd Street

Usually when you think about Renaissance Italian art you think about religious and mythological art, and more often than not art commissioned by the Catholic church. One of the things that's unusual about this show is that it consists solely of privately commissioned, primarily secular paintings and objects. There are a number of beautifully crafted wedding gifts and dowry objects from wealthy families, like jewelry and ceramics. There are also quite a few childbirth trays, which sound like something an obstetrician might use, but are actually wooden trays that have images painted on one or both sides and are used to commemorate a birth.

the paintings in the show are mostly portraits of couples on the eve or just after a wedding, or in some cases children, or parents and their children. The quality of these vary a bit, but there are some masterful works by big names like Lorenzo Lotto, Dominico Ghirlandaio, Bronzino, Georgione, Titian, and one amazing double portrait by Fillippo Lippi that may be the best thing in the show. There's also a strange and haunting painting of a woman from Loranzo Di Credi.

One gallery is dedicated to paintings commissioned to decorate the "camera" or bed chamber , which I guess was a common practice among rich horny people at the time. A lot of these works are not up to the same level as those in the rest of the show, but there is one Botticelli which is actually part of a larger series that's absolutely stunning.

A lot has been made of the erotic art in this show, but it's a relatively small part of the exhibition and fills only two rooms with prints and ceramics. It seemed to me a lot more comic than sensual, partly because most of the other works in the show uses images of flowers or fruit and vegetables as discreet symbols of fertility and sex, and it's pretty amusing to see in this section how those symbols are replaced with actual genitals. The other reason I thought it was funny is that "the renaissance" by definition is the rebirth of classical thought and culture, so you don't really think of crotch shots and giant dismembered penises. By today's standard these works are pretty tame though, so if you're looking for something Mapplethorpian you may be disappointed. Actually there are two wonderful Titian's in the last gallery that I thought were far more sensual than anything in the "erotic" section. These paintings seem somehow to magically turn paint into flesh through some wild libidinal alchemy. I'm not sure how he did it, but I guess that's why he's an old master.

MOMA/ Marlene Dumas Dec 14-Feb 16

While Ms Dumas has become quite well known in Europe and is seen as an important painter This is the first major US exhibit of the artists work. I'd heard a good deal about her and I've seen individual pieces in person and even more in reproduction, but I'd never seen an actual exhibition of her work before. After seeing room after room of her paintings and drawings I have to say I really don't get what all the fuss is about.

The curator decided to hang this show according to theme as opposed to chronology , which I usually think is a bad idea, but in this case the artists work has changed so little over the twenty-some years the show covers that it doesn't seem to make any difference. She has a very distinctive style, where she uses thin stains of paint complimented with thicker dry brush marks. She also likes to place pale white figures against dark black backgrounds, or dark black figures against white grounds. These are fairly unoriginal stylistic decisions she seems to have arrived at early on, and never deviated from.

The human figure is really the primary focus of her work, usually the female figure, but there are also a lot of babies and a few men (usually being tortured). There's also a lot of nudity, with a lot of violent and sexually charged images that can only be described as superficially expressive. Even more so are her titles. One example is a 1995 painting of a nude middle aged woman entitled "Magdalena (out of eggs out of business)". Like her paintings, it's not subtle but not very powerful or thought provoking either. Her compositions are oddly cramped and centralized, I guess to show the body as an unnaturally compressed or repressed entity. The faces are frequently flattened out, with mask like distortions. Her ink drawings are better because she doesn't have to deal with color (which isn't her strong suit), and the bodies become runny improvisational puddles of ink on the white paper.

The whole "body politics" issue and how it relates to painting is something that's been handled much better in the past. I'm reminded of Francisco Clement, or Francis Bacon, or even John Currin who are/were much better painters than Ms Dumas, and whose work isn't weighted down with all her tired feminist baggage.

If she were a 20 or 30 something year old artist having her first solo show I wouldn't be as critical of her work, but she isn't. I kept thinking as I walked through the galleries of the potential behind what she was doing. Maybe if she more directly addressed the history of how women and women's bodies have been depicted in painting, or if her depiction's of them were more original or idiosyncratic, or if there were some evocative narrative between the bodies then the work might be more interesting. These are issues she's going to have to deal with as an artist, but she's going to have to get past her complacency as a painter first.

MOMA/ Pipilotti Rist Nov 19-Feb 2

MOMA, 11 West 53st

And now for something completely different. On the second floor of the MOMA is a video installation by an artist I'd never heard of, but the show's closing soon so hurry up. Pipilotti Rist is a Swiss multimedia artist who has turned the second floor atrium into a wildly hypnotic cathedral/opium den. Visitors are encouraged to take off their shoes and sit or lie on the iris shaped (looked like an oval to me) sofa in the middle of the room, while a slow motion video is projected on three of the atriums walls. Strange mantra-like humming music is played as the visitors are treated to an ocean of color and light. We see human bodies, flowers, dirt, day glow pigs, worms, and floating green strawberries moving slowly across the walls. Many of these natural forms turn into big abstract blocks of color. A lot of the images are immersed or floating in water. Water, in fact seems to be a major theme in this work, and it adds to the relaxing womb like quality of the installation. Some have suggested that the oval shaped sofa creates the feeling of being in the middle of a giant vagina. I didn't get that, but I wasn't really looking for it either.
The thing that really struck me about Ms Rist's installation is how much fun it is. I saw a lot of children running around laughing and a lot of adults collapsing on the floor and rolling around as if tripping on some psychedelic drug. This idea of art as hallucinogen is an interesting one, and one that has a strong historical precedent. You can find it in Blake, and Bosch and later in a number of the surrealists. Today you can see it in a few of Rist's contemporaries like Philip Taaffe, Fred Tomaselli and Matthew Barney. There's a school of thought that believes art is supposed to take you out of your conscious mind, and into your subconscious or unconscious or into some elevated spiritual state. In a way Rist uses these unconventional means to explore one of arts great conventions. In this sense Ms Rist's installation serves the same function as an early renaissance religious icon. It's both a catalyst for spiritual enlightenment and a child friendly peyote trip.