Paintings

David Hammons at Hauser & Wirth

It’s been done before
This could be u

By Sola Saar

What is your authentic reaction to an art piece? What is your first impression, before reading what others have told you the work is about? The press release for David Hammons’ “Harmolodic Thinker,” a squiggly line drawing evocative of a composer’s hand motions, equally places the casual viewer, the art critic, and the student on the same plane to draw their own conclusions. It forgoes the theoretical context, the gallery’s interpretations, the artist’s educational background, the list of museums that have shown the artist’s work to lend credibility and give the art critic words to regurgitate, markers into which David Hammons, one of the nation’s top 10 selling artists, could easily play. At a certain point, don’t all press releases proffer the same format, check the same boxes of art world success? If stripped down to their main function, they feed the art market, not the artist.

David Hammons has not had a solo show in Los Angeles for 45 years, has eschewed large commercial galleries and who has long criticized the white, profit-driven art world, dedicated “Harmolodic Thinker” to the late Ornette Coleman, a jazz musician known for his spontaneity. Hauser and Wirth, a gallery with locations all over the world, would seem a surprising place for Hammons to make these kinds of statements, however the gallery’s location in the downtown arts district lends context. Hammons created a site-specific work: an encampment of tents with stenciled messages such as “this could be u” directly addressing the LA homeless crisis most visible near the rapidly gentrifying downtown arts district. Like his previous site-specific work, “Six Sites in Alexandria” in Egypt, Hammons continues to invites the viewer to deconstruct the boundaries between designated art spaces and the real world. Noticeably absent from the two gallery spaces were traditional artwork labels. Categories such as the year the piece was created, artistic medium, or a short blurb about the work, are forgone, forcing the viewer to more directly and viscerally form their own response to the work sans context.

HAMMO94651
David Hammons
Untitled
2018
Mixed media
Dimensions variable
© David Hammons
Courtesy the artist and Hauser & Wirth
Photo: Genevieve Hanson

Instead open-ended phrases were handwritten on the wall in the place of titles such as “It’s been done before,” “this reminds me of…” parodying trite phrases people throw out when evaluating art and also giving new meaning to them when placed next to David Hammons’ work.

Hammons’ tarp series dominated the bulk of the two gallery spaces and underscored the exhibition’s theme of art world criticism. Initially he painted abstract expression paintings in the likes of William de Kooning, whose work is of high value in the art market, and cloaked tarpaulin, brown paper, patchwork fabrics, and clear plastic wrap over the paintings. The covering materials are reminiscent of freight shipping materials, yet draped over the paintings like Grecian robes, allowing only slips of the paintings to show through. Often placed on the floor, they are intentionally presented as though the exhibition hanging is in process, questioning the authority of curation and “finished” presentation in these spaces.

By including artworks by artists as versatile as Miles Davis, William de Kooning, and Agnes Martin, the exhibition challenges notions of authorship and authority in art. An expansive exquisite corpse created in collaboration with poet Ted Joans, includes contributions from artists, writers, musicians, and intellectuals from around the world, including William Burroughs, Ishmael Reed, and Paul Bowles. The exquisite corpse, a game invented by the surrealists in which each person adds to a drawing to create a collaborative work, underlies a desire for communal rather than ego-driven art.

HAMMO96197
David Hammons
Untitled
2017
Mixed media
© David Hammons
Courtesy the artist and Hauser & Wirth
Photo: Genevieve Hanson

“Harmolodic Thinker” is also a dialogue with Ornette Coleman, the free jazz musician and composer who passed away in 2015. Coleman’s jazz philosophies were somewhat unorthodox but influential, especially to David Hammons. The essay on Ornette Coleman from Hauser and Wirth states:

“‘Follow the idea, not the sound.’ This statement by Ornette Coleman is an inspiration for David Hammons who reflects, ‘I was impressed with that. Follow how my ideas are put together, as opposed to whether the rainbow appears or the rain comes. I use this logic a lot. It moves in the realm of poetry as opposed to the actuality that people are used to or expect.’”[1]

With this sentiment, Hammons’ work is best taken in without the expectation of a finite conclusion of what the work is meant to convey, as with jazz or poetry, his is an art form intended to open up new modes of thinking rather than express an ideology. Throughout his decades-long career, Hammons has made art out of the ephemeral— selling snowballs on the street, or urinating on Richard Serra’s work. While neither of these concepts could be replicated at Hauser and Wirth, a single bowl of water in the place of a melted snowball with a note from an art collector who declined purchasing one of Hammons’ snowballs on the basis of it being too expensive to maintain, implies a larger problem in the art world— that it is preoccupied with the idea that art is ultimately a commodifiable object.

HAMMO91584
David Hammons
Orange is the new black
2017
Mixed media
139.7 x 40.6 x 30.5 cm / 55 x 16 x 12 in
© David Hammons
Courtesy the artist and Hauser & Wirth
Photo: Genevieve Hanson

Speaking about his installation in Alexandria, Egypt, Hammons wrote in Artforum, “I was more interested in shifting the idea of how artists think about producing art. Artists are often more interested in the act itself. I choose artworks that are ephemeral because, well, life is that. It’s such a temporary journey.”[1]

With this idea I wonder why with visual art and prose, the intent is always a finished unchanging product, whereas with poetry or music, the creation process is inherently ephemeral, open to change, and performative. As opposed to performance, a gallery space has historically been a one-way interaction between a viewer and object, but “Harmolodic Thinker” encourages the visitor to transcend beyond these distinctions by doing the work for themselves, forming a meaning not based on what art experts would want you to think, but by inciting a response you might not know existed and giving you permission to access those feelings as you would in daily experience.

Frida at the Brooklyn Museum: Appearances Can Indeed be Deceiving

Frida Kahlo.jpg

Though I love and greatly admire Frida’s work, I’ve never actually seen it in person. When I heard of this exhibit, I was really excited - I love the idea of a more personal engagement with this monument of an artist, especially because it allows a glimpse into work you can’t easily find on the internet.

This latest exploration of Frida’s legacy is currently on view at the Brooklyn Museum. Titled Frida Kahlo: Appearances Can Be Deceiving, the show is comprised of more than 300 of Frida’s personal items that were found in a somehow unexplored bathroom (??) in La Casa Azul, the artist’s former home which now operates as one of Mexico’s most popular museums. These items were discovered in 2004 and have been shown in Mexico and London. This, however, is the first time that the items are being shown in the United States. I unfortunately have no pictures of the exhibition as photography was forbidden.

Frida is one of those artists who has been elevated to the realm of myth and near sainthood-- or as we say in late capitalism, Frida has become a brand. You can find her on tote bags and keychains, she’s been immortalized as a much-protested Barbie doll (not enough unibrow), there’s a whole Hollywood biopic about her, and she even cameos in a Disney movie, “Coco.”.

Though her legacy has been explored and exploited in various ways and to various degrees, outside of the pervasiveness of Frida the brand, she remains a compelling artist because of her depth - a queer disabled communist feminist Mexican painter whose work grappled with the complexities of identity.

The thesis of this exhibition is that Frida’s multicultural assemblage of clothing was a revolutionary approach to identity construction. Though the exhibition attempts to contextualize exactly what about Frida’s approach was so revolutionary, it drops a lot of points in this argument without substantively connecting them and leans on Frida’s reputation rather than the strength of curation. In doing so, it inadvertently contributes to indigenous erasure, and completely glosses over the complexities of racial identity in Latin America. I actually found this exhibit quite offensive, especially because Frida is the introduction for many gringos to Latin American racial identity.

I’ll limit my analysis of the problems with this show to two major points. To begin, the exhibit didn’t substantively question and frame how Frida’s identity construction was informed by her elite status.

Guillermo Kahlo, Frida’s German expat father. He changed his name from Wilhelm. Similarly, Frida changed the spelling of her name to make it less German.

Guillermo Kahlo, Frida’s German expat father. He changed his name from Wilhelm. Similarly, Frida changed the spelling of her name to make it less German.

There’s mention of Frida’s German expat father, but no substantive analysis of how Frida’s attempts to formulate herself as Mexican are deeply influenced by the caste systems imposed by the Spanish in the wake of native colonization and genocide. In a nutshell, being mixed, or Mestiza, as Frida was, comes with a fair amount of material and cultural advantages. To be clear, there are class stratifications even in mestizx identity, and Frida was part of the elite. One of these material advantages, which the exhibit completely glosses over, is that Frida had indigenous maids. She acquired a fair amount of the clothing this exhibit celebrates from her maids, yet the exhibit primarily highlights the indigenous clothing and textiles that (elite) friends gifted her from their travels.

Frida’s maids would have been subject to stigma for wearing the same clothes that Frida wore to make a statement of national pride, a statement so authentic and bold it has made her a beloved figure of Mexican identity.

Rosa, a working-class mestiza woman in Puerto Vallarta who made a quesadilla so delicious I ate it three days in a row. Check out her apron - Frida is a beloved figure.

Rosa, a working-class mestiza woman in Puerto Vallarta who made a quesadilla so delicious I ate it three days in a row. Check out her apron - Frida is a beloved figure.

Though the exhibit has films of indigenous women, there is NO analysis or reference to the caste dynamics in Mexico, and this, in turn, makes the function of those films tokenizing. They show and celebrate indigenous women as symbols with no substantive engagement with the social context they existed in. To make this legible to an American racial context, this is almost (but not quite) like celebrating a slave-owning woman for her revolutionary uses of cotton that slaves picked, and then playing cute videos of the slave women to provide context.

My other huge problem with the show was about access to the work. In order to access the exhibit, you must reserve a ticket for a particular time, and you are only allowed to view the show for a limited amount of time. The exhibit then opens into a gift shop. I can’t help but think of how deeply ironic this is and how Frida, the communist, would take this display of her legacy.

My overall take? The curators at the Brooklyn Museum are attempting to make Frida legible to the white gaze, as opposed to challenging the white gaze to reconsider and grapple with the complexities of racial identity in Latin America, which is an incredible opportunity to deepen the racial dialogue in this country.

There are few Americans who make the connection that the brown skin of many (but not all) Latinx people indicates some kind of colonized indigenous ancestry. This is an overall problem with engagements with race in the United States - there is still deep fear with talking about Black/white racial dynamics, so much so that the indigenous genocide that enabled the growth of this country is rarely spoken about. As a result, there is no overarching analysis of how indigenous erasure in the States is connected to indigenous erasure in Latin America.

We are currently in the midst of a border crisis, where racially mixed people of indigenous and African ancestry (there were Black slaves in Latin America too!) are being displaced due to the US’s exploitation of Latin America’s resources. Migrants are literally being rounded into concentration camps in a continuation of the genocide this country is founded on.

Claudia Patricia Gonzales, an indigenous Central American who was shot point blank in the head as she entered the United States in 2018. She was unarmed.

Claudia Patricia Gonzales, an indigenous Central American who was shot point blank in the head as she entered the United States in 2018. She was unarmed.

Beyond this enormous conceptual oversight, which I find utterly depressing, I find this exhibit especially disappointing because the Brooklyn Museum has been making concerted strides in its engagement with the local community, which is seen most tangibly through its First Fridays, when the museum is open in the evening for an all ages party.

I interacted with this exhibit twice. The first time, I got a ticket and walked through during my allotted time slot. The second, I went to the Brooklyn museum’s First Friday with a couple of friends. I love First Friday because it’s an opportunity to interact with art in a non pretentious way, and because it attracts a much more relaxed and all ages crowd. We were slightly tipsy and running up and down the stairs, giggling and taking selfies and moving from room to room, concocting elaborate conspiracy theories about the why the Egypt ward was next to the Jaden Smith exhibit. We tried to go into the Frida exhibit, but all the doors were locked (you can at least watch Eisenstein’s Que Viva Mexico, which complements the show).

When writing this review, I spoke to a few people who saw this show at La Casa Azul and had nothing but praise. Not having seen the show in Mexico, I can’t help but think that Frida being curated by people who have more understanding of the cultural context from which she emerged would create a better show.

As this exhibit stands, I can’t really see it doing much other than validating the wanderlust and appropriative impulses of culturally confused and conflicted spectators. And for all her faults, I still think that Frida is an important figure with a lot to offer. Frida is so well-known and regarded that the curators could have used this show to challenge casual art viewers. This is a tremendously wasted opportunity. The title of the exhibit is honest, at least.

Painting the Beyond by Susan Tallman

Moderna Museet, Stockholm - A notebook page showing a watercolor version of one of Hilma af Klint’s  Paintings for the Temple , circa 1914–1915; from Christine Burgin’s  Hilma af Klint: Notes and Methods

Moderna Museet, Stockholm - A notebook page showing a watercolor version of one of Hilma af Klint’s Paintings for the Temple, circa 1914–1915; from Christine Burgin’s Hilma af Klint: Notes and Methods

Born in 1862 to a prominent Swedish family (her great-grandfather had been ennobled for services as a naval officer), Hilma af Klint was a skilled painter of portraits and landscapes who in the first decades of the twentieth century began making hundreds of strange pictures articulating the fluid relations between spirit and matter. Many have no basis in the visible world, and their early dates—in some cases years before such benchmark abstract paintings 

Af Klint was one of many artists (including Kandinsky and Malevich) drawn to the esoteric philosophies that flourished in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries—Spiritualism, Theosophy, Anthroposophy, and the like. But af Klint’s engagement went deeper than most, and she was tenacious in her pursuit of personal spiritual contact. Her greatest work, the series of 193 Paintings for the Temple, was made by channeling spirit-masters who she claimed moved her hand and planted images in her mind. She spent the rest of her life mulling over what they gave her.

When af Klint died in 1944, she left more than 1,200 paintings, 134 notebooks and sketchbooks, and more than 26,000 manuscript pages to her nephew, a vice-admiral in the Swedish navy. She also gave instructions that her work not be shown for twenty years after her death. She was lucky in her relations: the family not only adhered to the moratorium, they established a foundation to ensure that the paintings and documentation stayed together.

Read the full article here.

An Artist Rises, and Brings a Generation With Him - Patricia Leigh Brown

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Mr. Kaphar, 42, has a profound connection to the forgotten, from the slaves owned by the founding fathers to the ubiquity of African-Americans in the criminal justice system, including his own father. The recipient of a recent MacArthur “genius” award, the artist is challenging racism in a body of strong work that has entered the permanent collections of the Museum of Modern Art, the Brooklyn Museum and the Yale University Art Gallery, and was recently featured at the National Portrait Gallery. Mr. Kaphar is known for appropriating images from American and European art in order to subvert them, cutting them into his canvases to pull back the velvet curtain of history. He wields materials like tar, wire, gold leaf and nails to unearth the past’s inconvenient truths, and to shine a restorative light on those residing in the shadows.

Read the full article here.

"Gentrification 4" by Susan Yung

Gentrification 4 - by Susan Yung.jpg

Gentrification 4” is one painting in a series about the eventual "deaths" of E. Village garden's by greedy developers Along with her paintings, Susan has spent some 25 years videoing & documenting A Gathering of the Tribes's artists and printing her own Asian American poems.