Exhibition Review of Phenomenal Nature: Mrinalini Mukherjee by Hunter MA Candidate, Katherine June Scalia.
Full disclosure: I like art that makes you quiet. I prefer the museum as a place of worship over the museum as fun house. Unfortunately, I find myself trapped in the latter more often than I’d like. Mrinalini Mukherjee took me to church on Saturday, or more accurately in this case, to temple. Most of Mukherjee’s biomorphic forms are identified by their Sanskirt titles as personifications of deities and divinities drawn from Indian mythology. They are at once compelling, and demand a sense of reverent awe.
The fiber sculptures, constructed through a laborious knotting process, currently reign over the third floor of the Met Breuer. The figurative works increase in their anthropomorphic likeness, until by the end of the show you’re staring in the eyes of an otherworldly creature, wishing it would respond to your questions about the universe.
[Van Raja I (King of the Forest) 1981.]
In addition to the artist’s brilliant fiber sculptures, the retrospective (which marks Mukherjee’s overdue U.S. museum debut) includes the artist’s explorations in ceramic and bronze. The body of work leaves the viewer contemplating abstraction and figuration, nature and the divine, and how these elements intersect in supernatural ways.
There’s a chance to experience the humbling and inspiring effects of truly great art at the Met Breuer. Hurry to see this show!
Phenomenal Nature at the Met Breuer runs through September 29.
The entertainment-political-industry continues to grind its massive wheels and sharpen its edges. More than a year in advance of the American primaries for president we have just held our first Democratic debates. The news networks and movie theaters, the museums, the galleries, the streaming services, podcasts and online outlets spew opinion and influence quotidianly, fastidiously.
Suspended between panic over what the industry in unsettling homogeneity announced was an unprecedented election and the disturbing excitement of the possibilities this election brought forth, was the show held at the Met Breuer called Everything is Connected: Art and Conspiracy. It was easy to fathom at that moment that paranoia or conspiracy might be related to those socio-political circumstances, and so it seemed like the show came at the right time. Comprised of mostly American and all contemporary artists, there was hope that it could serve as a much-needed elucidation.
As the panic and excitement continue to fluctuate and intertwine, we look back at this exhibition in search for an answer.
Sarah Anne Johnson, House on Fire, 2009, mixed media. Courtesy: Sarah Anne Johnson Estate.
The psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan supposedly said that a man who is paranoid about his wife cheating on him is no less paranoid just because she in fact does. The exhibition in question, held over the unusually warm winter of 2018-19 from September 18 through March 13, focused completely on the theme of paranoia but seems to have missed Lacan’s sense of irony around the subject. As Lacan suggested, paranoia goes both ways: it can be a starting point to uncover truth, but it also characterizes the logic of psychosisand a complete disconnect with reality. The show greeted its viewers with the less fruitful end of the bargain with two portraits by Wayne Gonzales from 2001 and 1999. The first was of Lee Harvey Oswald, the notorious alleged murderer of president Kennedy; the second was of Jack Ruby, Oswald’s murderer. The former man, depicted in a close up, looks at his viewer ominously – his head tilted forward and eyes looking up, a smirk begins to form on his lips. The latter is pictured squarely in the frame from the waist up . He stares not quite at the viewer but immediately past them, his blank and passive gaze seeing neither very far nor close, his eyes almost meeting each other while his visage rests, devoid of tension. Thus, the viewer was greeted, in two portraits, with threat and stupidity.
The show developed without deviating significantly from these emotions. The paranoia depicted in it, remaining stupid, never really accomplished much outside of itself. Different versions of broad conspiracies provided the theme for the individual works shown. The Kennedy assassination served a number of different works, while a generic use of American foreign (and occasionally national) policy fueled others. It was as if we were stuck on unresolved historical episodes and unable to learn anything from them.
Few works served as an exception to this, effectively exploring what this American brand of paranoia would look like if it was a visual specimen. One example of this exception was Sara Anne Johnson’s “House on Fire.” The maquette of a typically American house allowed the spectator a view of its different rooms. By looking through its small windows one saw little surreal nightmares taking place: one room flooded with dirty water has furniture climbing up the walls, another is filled with stacks of papers from top to bottom while a lonely desk and chair sit in the middle, yet another room has strange patterns drawn over every object, walls and floors. The roof has a tree growing on one side, while the other side is on fire.
The one other maquette in the show was only superficially more ambitious. “Educational Complex” by Mike Kelleyis 8×16 ft and reproduces in white foam-core a number of existent buildings t hat house American educational institutions. Backstory aside, Kelley’s piece is less of a cathartic experience like “House on Fire” than a blank canvas for paranoia to roam free. Though the strategic cutouts into the buildings are similar in their voyeuristic beckoning to Johnson’s house, it leaves its surface open literally and metaphorically to be filled with each viewer’s own paranoid fantasies, and condones them in the act.
Jim Shaw’s installation that ended (or began) the exhibition (depending on the direction one walked through it) was more particular. Its title “The Miracle of Compound Interest” seems to suggest conspiracy as aby-product of the American economic ethos on the end of those who are not earning the interest.Its large exterior wall is a painting on unstretched muslin of an American gas station around the first half of the 20thcentury by a mountainside landscape; covering the picture is a painted-pattern-web of red threads. Through an opening in the wall, the viewer enters a black triangular room, the floor decorated in a distorted black and white linoleum pattern. Near the back wall, three human-size gnomes kneel around a glowing kryptonite-like object,surrounded by crystals illuminated with black light sprouting from the ground. The exterior of the installation acts as the face of conspiratorial tropes – the predictable web of red threads that we have all seen in B-movies and documentaries – and the kitschy interior is somehow neither revealing nor unexpected,all the while act ing as the psychic sphere behind the facade.
If Sara Anne Johnson’s house showed paranoia as a nightmare, Shaw’s (and most of the show’s exploration of it) was indulging. In most works,we were invited to experience it, whether in earnest or in jest, as a quirk of American popular culture. There was no detached recognition of either the productive or destructive aspects of the paranoid experience. Thus, the concept of conspiracy, which is not always paranoid, was cast in the shade of permanent neglect. Everything is connected, sure, but as long as it’s the result of paranoia, what does it matter?
The show took an almost perverse pleasure in navigating different manifestations of paranoia in the American imaginary in a moment where stupidity – in the form of ignorance and disinterest in the truth – inform the American quotidian so poignantly. In this context, a show about paranoia is necessarily political. An exhibition like Everything is Connectedthat explores a powerful force of the nation’s imaginary with such frivolity, is at best uninteresting, and at worst, dangerous .
Adam Green talks VR, The Museum of Pizza, and his Aladdin Universe with Hunter MA candidate Dana Notine.
There’s something that I have to get off my chest before I can start writing. I must confess that I did not visit the Museum of Pizza during its run last Fall. Part of me wants to say that I didn’t have time because I had just started a new job and gone back to school for my MA. But the truth is that I could have made time, but did not. Admittedly, I was a little turned off by “MoPi” from almost the moment it made its way into my Instagram feed. The hyper-stylized American Apparel-like ads (during which models seductively ate pizza) was reminiscent of the now-infamous posts for Billy McFarlane’s Fyre Festival. My interest in the exhibition lied primarily in curiosity for the “museum” component of the event. Visions of Instagram posts of pop-up “institutions” such as 2013’s Museum of Feelings and 2018’s The Egg House fluttered in my memory. It wasn’t until I learned that Adam Green was contributing to MoPi that I became intrigued.
I met with Adam in January to discuss his site-specific contribution to the Museum of Pizza- an installation entitled Pizza Beach. But most of all, I wanted to get his view on the changing landscape of museums. Unsurprisingly, and as conversations tend to go; we ended up discussing a lot more than what was originally intended. Prominently featured in our conversation was his 2016 film, Aladdin, during which the artist reinterpreted the classic “rags to riches” story in a digital landscape which, like Pizza Beach, was constructed in papier-mâché. The film is only one aspect of the larger Aladdin universe Green has created since discovering a bewitching lamp in a West Village vintage shop, alongside his friend and future Aladdin co-star, Alia Shawkat. Green purchased the lamp and took it with him while recording the Aladdin album in Los Angeles. The lamp became a pact Green made with himself. This pact was to follow through on an enormously ambitious film, which would take a Kickstarter campaign and endless hours of prep to realize.
Adam Green’s Aladdin was first exhibited at Foundation Beyeler in Basel, Switzerland and again at The Hole in Lower Manhattan. Soon after, Aladdin (the album) was released. Best of all, Green released his Aladdin (the film) on YouTube- making his video game universe accessible at any time, for free.
The story of Aladdin has returned to relevance this Spring due to Disney’s live-action iteration – which grossed a 207 million dollar international debut. Despite the latter’s financial prestige, Green’s Aladdin should be significantly higher on your list of films to watch. It’s rich story and phantasmagoric scenery leaves viewers in awe of the artist’s reinterpretation. From the masturbatory references of Aladdin’s 3D printing lamp (which must be suggestively rubbed to consummate a wish) to the decadently papier-mâché’d cardboard panels which render the trippy pastel-colored set as a town made of two-dimensional pixels, Adam Green’s Aladdin contemporized the legend to fit within the limitless spectrum of the internet. “The concept was what would it be like if you took the internet and plugged it into a 3D printer and just pressed “go,” Adam explains in the film’s Behind The Scenes Documentary (also on Youtube.)
Katherine June Scalia, Hunter College Art History MA Candidate.
June marked the beginning of WorldPride in New York City. And, though New Yorkers notoriously go all out during the month-long celebration (last year’s Pride March drew an estimated 2 million attendees), the energy around town this year feels especially jubilant.
Nowhere is this fervent spirit felt more deeply than in Greenwich Village. Rainbows decorate entire sections of sidewalks as flags dangle from fences, windows and streetlights. However, the vibe here is generated by more than an explosion of color. Huddles of tourists and city residents alike pause to photograph the facade of the historic Stonewall Inn. Here, in 1969, members of the LGBT+ community, lead by Marsha P. Johnson and Sylvia Rivera, fought back against police brutality.
Facing the Stonewall Inn, from the sky above Sheridan Square, passersby are granted another chance to reflect on events from the past. Coinciding with the 50th anniversary of the Stonewall Rebellion, Public Art Fund has reinstalled Felix Gonzalez-Torres’s “Untitled”, 1989. Thirty years ago, the billboard stood in this exact location, marking the Rebellion’s 20th anniversary. On Pride’s golden jubilee, the work feels like a testament to how far we’ve come as well as a reminder to continue the fight.
The large black billboard stands in contrast to the flashy imagery most commonly deployed in ad space. Aside from two lines of white text running along the rectangle’s lower third, the work offers very little visually. This minimalism is deliberate. Gonzalez-Torres wasn’t interested in attracting a quick glance generated by eye-catching design. In fact, it’s easy to imagine the stark billboard going unnoticed by those racing down 7th Avenue, an endless amount of distractions vying for their attention. And that’s okay. The work isn’t meant to be glossed over. It’s meant to be read and it’s meant to be thought about.
The unimposing lettering feels slightly small for a billboard, like subtitles on a movie still or a list of side effects caused by medication, and it demands our effort in reading it. Each phrase denotes a key moment in LGBT+ history followed by its date. The events are strung continuously together, uninterrupted by punctuation:
People With AIDS Coalition 1985 Police Harassment 1969 Oscar Wilde 1895 Supreme Court 1986 Harvey Milk 1977 March on Washington 1987 Stonewall Rebellion 1969
Interestingly, the dates (which span over 100 years) unfold out of order. Gonzalez-Torres once wrote of the effect, “I hope the public will stop for an instant to reflect on the real and abstract relationships of the different dates.”
This year, more people than ever will pass the billboard, as an estimated 4 million people are expected to attend Pride events during the month of June. It’s certain to be a rollicking good time. As you walk through Sheridan Square, take a moment to look up at Gonzalez-Torres’s testament to the fighters that came before us. The power of Pride lies in our defiant celebration of love in the shadow of an adverse history. Amongst a sea of rainbows, Felix Gonzalez-Torres’s subdued display provides a chance to reflect as we celebrate all the forms love can take.
According to Public Art Fund’s website, “Untitled” 1989, has been extended and will run through July 28. The work is presented in collaboration with The Felix Gonzalez-Torres Foundation with lead support by Google.
Kristen Clevenson, Hunter College Art History MA Candidate
Acts of Art and Rebuttal in 1971 at Bertha and Karl Leubsdorf Gallery takes as its focus the 1971 exhibition, Rebuttal to the Whitney Museum Exhibition: Black Artists in Rebuttal, mounted by Acts of Art Gallery in response to the Whitney Museum’s exhibition Contemporary Black Artists in America of the same year. In the current exhibition, the many curatorial voices—supplied by Howard Singerman, Sarah Watson, and a collection of Hunter College MA Students—have bridged the gap between documents of institutional critique and stunning examples of visual art.
Howard Singerman, the Phyllis and Joseph Caroff Chair of Art and Art History at Hunter College, sat down with Kristen Clevenson to discuss Acts of Art and Rebuttal in 1971.
Kristen Clevenson: First, I wanted to ask: what brought you to the exhibition topic?
Howard Singerman: It came out of conversations with Valerie Cassel Oliver who is a curator at the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts in Richmond. Here at Hunter, as a Goldberg Visiting Curator, [Cassel Oliver] did two weeks on making African American Art History in the museum and getting that history to stick. We were talking about Cinque Gallery. Cinque had crossed my radar in several ways, but it was like, “Okay, what is this history and why isn’t there a history of this?”
So, I proposed to teach a curatorial seminar called Spaces for African American Art in New York, 1968-1975. In the course of research for the class, I came across a letter that Benny Andrews writes to Reginald Gammon where he mentions the Rebuttal show, which I knew something about but not tons. The Rebuttal exhibition [would often only be mentioned in writing as] a paragraph or two about the response to the Contemporary Black Artists in America show, and the Whitney was at the center, the Whitney was the subject. But I came across this letter—which we now have in a vitrine downstairs—saying, “The Rebuttal show offers a chance to give art historians a handle to grasp in putting whatsoever it is that happened this time in history concerning a group of artists identified by their Black skins.”¹ So when they said this will give art historians a handle to grasp it was like, “Okay, got it!”
KC: Something I enjoyed was the use of documents in the exhibition. Oftentimes, for example in the Incomplete History of Protest at the Whitney, such archival materials are separated from the visual art, tucked behind a wall, or in a more transitional space, where you’re like ‘Oh, the history section.’ Here, the exhibition and the catalogue consciously forefront that documentation. How did you seek to weave in that history, as you tell the story of what happened 40 years ago and a bit of what has happened since?
HS: The way that the ephemera or the vitrines get set up, there are sort of multiple threads that run through it. One of the texts we read in the class was a volume called Black Art Notes.²It waspublished in 1971 by the sculptor Tom Lloyd, who was the subject of the very first exhibition at the Studio Museum in Harlem. One of the things Lloyd does shortly after is open up a community art center in Jamaica, Queens; he talks about the importance of community based art and community art centers…. and a good deal of it is about documenting the presence of Black art makers. So, it’s newspapers, reviews, magazines, invitation cards, archives. Lloyd’s guidelines for a study center was one of the touchstones for the historical section of the exhibition.
The second piece [that prompted including archival documents] was when Dindga McCannon came into the seminar, she, without being prompted to do so, brought in an archive. She brought in her old exhibition mailers, old catalogues, spread out cloth and put these archival materials on top of it.³ So, she brought in the archives and we thought “Okay.” And then, so much of the discussion—whether it was in Susan Cahan’s book (Mounting Frustration: The Art Museum in the Age of Black Power, 2016)or in our Acts of Art and Rebuttal catalogue—is the back and forth of letters.
KC: The influence of archives is something that we’ve embraced so much now, whereas galleries in the 60s didn’t have any records at all…
HS: It’s true, artists didn’t either. And it is the case, I think, that an artist like Dindga McCannon or Vivian Browne, felt the need to self-archive basically because nobody else was going to do it for them.
KC: Was there something you learned from the process of curating this exhibition that you wanted to highlight?
HS: Everything! There is a tension, to go back to something you asked in your earlier question, between telling the history as history – the history of a moment, of a movement–and exhibiting works of art. One of the things I think is really powerful in the exhibition is the Art Students League panel discussion film, and it’s a film that is seldom, if ever, seen. Richard Mayhew organized the panel and it was very political, yet the relationship between art and politics in Mayhew’s own artwork is not visible. And that, I think, is an important thing to think about. But there’s the question of how to do justice both to the artwork and the history. And how to present the artists where they have enough space that the artwork is seen as artwork.
KC: That was something I was thinking about as well. How did you choose the ten artists and their works?
HS: There was a desire to show work that was in the [original 1971] exhibition, if we could find it… But then also to show work that was historically accurate. But mostly to show work that was strong, that would hold the space, that wouldn’t be too crowded. We chose the ten artists by understanding that the original Rebuttal exhibition was quite stylistically diverse and what held the artists together was their desire for autonomy, their desire to speak together about the situation. So, it was a political exhibition, even though the works weren’t necessarily political. That’s, I think, one of the things that we worked hard to do.
Most of the time I think I should say we. I mean, Tess Thackara, one of the MA students, is the person who did all the work in the Whitney archives. All of the students who became fellows [Clara Chapin, Marie Coneys, Miles Debas, Jazmine Hayes, and Tess Thackara] interviewed the artists and crafted the biographical essays. Miles Debas went out to the Vivian Browne archives. They were engaged and they helped determine the checklist and the artists on the list.
KC: Lastly, I wanted to ask how you felt taking on this topic as someone who presents as white, especially after the critique of Robert Doty [the curator of the Whitney’s Contemporary Black Artists in America exhibition]. It was clear from the turnout at the opening of the show that Acts of Art and Rebuttal was engaged with the community that was being represented. So, I wondered, how did you go from the past to that?
HS: That is a real question and I have about three complex answers to it. One is that this is research I wanted to do, and histories I wanted to know, institutions I wanted to know. And then there’s Valerie Cassel Oliver’s suggestion that this is my work to do too. If these are questions you have about institutions, about roles, about artists, then do the work. There’s a quote that I use in the catalogue from [curator] Edmund Barry Gaither who basically says, the fact that there are Black museums and Black galleries does not absolve mainstream, white-identified institutions from doing this work.⁴ They have a responsibility to do the work too. And he says this needs to be part of general art history.
The way the catalogue essay ends, and this is something I learned, is that the same page of the New York Times that has the review of the Whitney’s Contemporary Black Artists in America and the Rebuttal—which both get dismissed in the crudest [way] possible—I mean, it’s like “they’re not very good and not very Black” is how John Canaday, the white critic dismissed them—that same page in the newspaper has Grace Cluck, the New York Times art writer, writing about the Guggenheim Museum’s cancellation of Hans Haacke’s survey exhibition because of his Shapolsky et al Real Estate Holdings work.⁵ There’s no contemporary art survey text, no writing on conceptual art, no writing on institutional critique, that doesn’t talk about the Hans Haacke work and the cancelling of the exhibition. And none of them talk about the Rebuttal exhibition or the idea of the counter exhibition as a mode of critique. But they’re on the same page. There’s some way that this is the same art history or part of the same art history, assuming we read them that way.
Interview has been condensed and edited.
Acts of Art and Rebuttal in 1971 is on display through Sunday, November 25, 2018 at Hunter College’s Bertha and Karl Leubsdorf Gallery, 132 East 68th Street New York, NY, 10065
¹Letter from Benny Andrews to Reginald Gammon, March 23, 1971. Reginald Gammon papers, 1927–2007, bulk 1960–2005. Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution. Series 2: Correspondence, 1964–2005: Andrews, Benny, 1971, 1992–2002.
²Lloyd, Tom, ed. Black Art Notes. Self-published, 1971.
³A photograph of Dindga McCannon’s personal archives presented at Hunter is included in Act of Art and Rebuttal in 1971 (New York: Hunter College Art Galleries, 2018), p. 100.
⁴Edmund Barry Gaither, “Toward Viable Participation,” The Art Gallery (April 1970): 44. “[The] creation and development of Afro-American or Black museums does not relieve major American (white) art institutions of the responsibility to exhibit and collect the art of Afro-American artists, nor of the duty to integrate them into general art scholarship […] Afro-American museums do not negate or deny the need for galleries, other museums and college and university art programs to contribute to the educational and commercial expansion of art by Afro-Americans.’”