Kochi Biennale Connects Cosmopolitan with Cosmic

May 4, 2015 · Print This Article

Aspinwall where grounds and abandoned spice warehouses have reincarnated as KMB. Text and photos by Lise McKean

Aspinwall where grounds and abandoned spice warehouses have reincarnated as KMB.
Text and photos by Lise McKean

 

Flying away from wintry Chicago in early February to be embraced by Kerala’s tropical night air is sensory jailbreak. And the heat gets hotter as soon as the sun rises. Kerala has a long history of foreign arrivals, of cosmopolitan culture. For millennia adventurers have come in in search of spices, riches, and everlasting glory. Wooden ships brought explorers, evangelists, and merchants across the Arabian Sea. Today the Queen Mary, container ships, oil tankers, and earnings of Keralites in oil-rich Gulf countries lubricate the local economy.

Ruler of Calicut giving audience to Vasco da Gama. Engraving  by Jakob van der Schley (1745) in Abbé Prévost, Histoire Générale des Voyages (Columbia University digital resources)

Ruler of Calicut giving audience to Vasco da Gama. Engraving by Jakob van der Schley (1745) in Abbé Prévost, Histoire Générale des Voyages (Columbia University digital resources)

 

Kerala’s ancient port of Muziris and the contemporary one of Kochi are the referents for Kochi Muziris Biennale’s (KMB) double-barreled name. Savvy art world veterans and Kerala-born Bose Krishmachari and Riyas Komu founded the Biennale and curated the first one that opened 12/12/12. This pair along with so many others in KMB’s elastic fold are transforming the landscape of contemporary art in Kerala.

L. Shankar performing at the Tripunithura Music Society

Synchronicity brought me to the 2012 KMB. It coincided with a visit to Kochi for a concert by bass guitarist Jayen Varma, who lives in Tripunithura, a place name whose rhythmic Malayalam intonation I haven’t yet nailed. Seeing the first KMB made me vow to return for the next. During my recent visit for the Biennale, Jayen’s invitation brought me again to Tripunithura where L. Shankar’s playing of his ten-string electric double violin launched the audience into outer realms of sonic space.

2_Climbing

Biennale café looking across Kochi harbor to container terminal

Journalists and cultural cognoscenti wax and wane about biennales. Knowing a sliver about what it takes to launch and repeat an exhibition on such a scale—and a little more about the idiosyncrasies of getting things done in India—the KMB is an unequivocal triumph and an organic work-in-progress. The KMB’s seriousness and sophistication doesn’t pile on the posturing and snobbery that habitually intrudes in elite globalized art scenes. In fact, KMB’s sensibility makes its harbor-side location, towering palms, and handsome heritage venues even more appealing.

Antiques store in Kochi’s Mattancherry bazaar

Antiques store in Kochi’s Mattancherry bazaar

Of necessity biennales have an exclusive element. The job of their curators is to survey, select, and compose. Nonetheless, KMB Foundation creates a welcoming and expansive sensibility for its Biennales and year-round cultural and educational programs. Unlike the ethos of commercial art expositions and assorted biennales, KMB doesn’t promote the cult of art stars or fetishize novelty and youth at the expense of community, substance, and maturity.

Wall hanging with Christian, Hindu, and Muslim images in Kerala restaurant

Wall hanging with Christian, Hindu, and Muslim images in Kerala restaurant

Bose Krishnamachari and Riyas Komu planted KMB in Fort Kochi, where roots of cosmopolitan culture run deep. Concern for the vitality of Kerala’s cosmopolitan culture and way of life gives KMB its beating heart. This makes the Biennale’s character and investigations as social, political, and activist as they are artistic and cultural. Or as the founders wrote in their curatorial statement, “Kochi’s cosmopolitanism is one that has been worn by generations in Kerala as a badge of honour even as it has led to a series of struggles, time and again, generating a curiosity about current realities, a complex one.”

Carved wooden banister at Darbar Hall, a venue of KMB 2014’s Whorling Explorations

Carved wooden banister at Darbar Hall, a venue of KMB 2014’s Whorling Explorations

 

KMB 2014 benefitted from the audacities of 2012 and the luxury of lessons learned. It housed one hundred exhibits by nearly as many artists in formerly abandoned spice workshops and warehouses, an armory turned gallery, a neglected colonial bungalow, and Darbar Hall where Kochi royalty once met courtiers and the public. Like the first KMB, this one questioned past events and their historical accounts, looking squarely and sideways at the present to imagine all sorts of futures.

Jitish Kallat, Public Notice 3 at the Art Institute of Chicago, 2010-11

Jitish Kallat, Public Notice 3 at the Art Institute of Chicago, 2010-11

Artist Jitish Kallat served as the artistic director and curator of 2014 KMB. Bad at Sports readers in Chicago may unknowingly know Kallat through Public Notice 3. His luminous installation referenced two points in time and transformed the Grand Staircase and more at the Art Institute of Chicago. Public Notice inaugurated a welcome trend at the Art Institute of exhibitions by contemporary artists from South Asia, including Zarina, Amar Kanwar, Nilima Sheikh, and Dayanita Singh.

Kallat’s 2014 KMB places Charles and Ray Eames The Powers of Ten at the  Biennale’s entrance. Film opens with a picnic in Chicago’s Lincoln Park.

Kallat’s 2014 KMB places Charles and Ray Eames’ The Powers of Ten at the Biennale’s entrance. Film opens with a picnic in Chicago’s Lincoln Park.

Kallat’s curatorial thinking for KMB 2014 takes up two sets of historical events: Kerala’s maritime history during Europe’s “Age of Discovery” and the discoveries of the Kerala School of Mathematics and Astronomy. These events spanned the 14th to 17th centuries and linked local lives and livelihoods with those oceans away.  And they gave rise to new forms of political and social relations, new ideas and knowledge about technology, geography, and cosmology. Kallat’s brainiac framing allows wide latitude for KMB artists and audiences to make their own surprising discoveries. (The name of the Biennial is somewhat misleading. KMB 2014 took place from December 12, 2014 through March 29, 2015 –Ed.)

NS Harsha, Matter, in Pepper House courtyard

NS Harsha, Matter, in Pepper House courtyard

KMB artists and their works explore unseen forces such as gravity and momentum and human inventions such as cartography, navigation, and topology, colonial oppression and resistance. Like imaginary lines that draw stars into constellations and mark the tropics and equator, threads of ideas draw KMB artworks into a conceptual and speculative universe. Match-making between artworks and KMB’s cosmopolitan heritage sites create twenty-first century synergies that point beyond the present to imagined reaches of space and time.

Michael Najjar, orbital cascade_57-46. Still from video visualization of demographics of defunct objects in orbit around the earth from 1957 to 2046. (Najjar vimeo)

Michael Najjar, orbital cascade_57-46. Still from video visualization of demographics
of defunct objects in orbit around the earth from 1957 to 2046. (Najjar vimeo)

 

The luxury of a dozen days in Kochi and a Bad at Sports deadline means I’ve been steeping in the Biennale since mid-February. I’m tempted to write about each work just to avoid deciding which ones to leave out. Fortunately omissions by me hardly matter since descriptions and photographs for all the works are easily accessed online and KMB’s catalogic tome and Google Culture’s virtual exhibition are forthcoming. Arguments about the relative merits of one or another of the Biennial’s 100 exhibits most certainly can be mounted by critics and viewers alike. My take is on the 2014 KMB as a work in itself: the relationships among individual works, sites, and themes create a syncopated rhythm of the sensual, cerebral, and aesthetic that’s pitch perfect.

Binoy Jain

Binoy Jain, Brick Landscape looking inside to his Tar Studies

KMB’s cosmopolitan and cosmic framing doesn’t stop it from being down to earth. After all it’s the offspring of bohemian India. For example, artists Bijoy Jain and Unnikrishnan C both use the earth itself for brick installations at CSI Bungalow. Other earthen works include Valsan Koorma Koleri’s sculpted landscape of laterite, mud, and baked earth at Cabral Yard, and Iqra Tanveer’s minimalist Paradise of Paradox that’s made of dust particles and light.

Benitha Perciyal, The Fires of Faith

Benitha Perciyal, The Fires of Faith

The show unites imagination with multi-sensory experience—looking and listening, touching and feeling. The often overlooked sense of smell receives the attention it deserves. Fear is a pungent installation by Sissel Tolaas that’s marked with the scent of male angst. Exquisitely set in adjoining rooms in Pepper House, The Fires of Faith by Benitha Perciyal offers a fragrant tableau that radiates piety’s ancient amber glow.

Parvathi Nayar, Fluidity of Horizons

Parvathi Nayar, Fluidity of Horizons

The Biennale’s largesse in terms of media and materials, ideas, referents, and execution means that there’s something for everyone. Regardless of what they know or don’t know about contemporary art viewers are riveted by Susanta Mandal’s bubble making sculptures, Where Have All the Stories Gone? and his squirming burlap sacks. The wide appeal of virtuoso drawing is demonstrated by the way visitors slow down to scrutinize them. Viewers show amazement and delight while taking in works that include the apparitions of Aji VN’s panoramic landscapes; intricate grayscales in The Fluidity of Horizons, Parvathi Nayar’s installation of large and small drawings and sound; subtle sketches by KM Vasudevan Namboodiri and Sudhir Patwardhan; melodic seascapes in graphite on wood by Muhanned Cader; and the sardonic narratives of Madhusudhanan’s Logic of Disappearance and Sarnath Bannerjee’s Liquid History of Vasco De Gama, self-described “diet comics” that depict Digital Dutta imagining the past.

Gigi Scaria, Chronicle of the Shores Foretold, with dredging ship

Gigi Scaria, Chronicle of the Shores Foretold, with dredging ship

Water, horizon lines, and the high seas are one of many sets of referents that figure in works across the show and provide other entry points for viewers. Chronicle of the Shores Foretold by Gigi Scaria is an enormous metal bell studded with holes and spouting water like a leaky roof during monsoon. Anish Kapoor’s growling Descension is a vortex of water spinning in a concrete-embedded steel cylinder. The force needed to move the water burned out the first motor in less than a fortnight.

Anish Kapoor, Descension

Anish Kapoor, Descension

Kapoor’s roar is echoed in Guido van der Werve’s film Nummer Acht: Everything Is Going to Be Alright. The artist walks on a white expanse in front of an ice breaking ship that’s slowly moving towards the viewer. The thudding bass of the ship’s engine and massive hull cleaving a passageway through the frozen sea vibrates the old armory and concrete benches—and rattles the bones of rapt viewers. In Navin Thomas’s long live the new flesh the menacing whish and thud of an arrow flying to land its target emanate back and forth between two larger than life archery-target speakers. The sound thunders through Pepper House and is felt long before the work is seen in the upstairs gallery.

Annie Lai Kuen Wan_Phenomenon of Time_VII

Annie Lai Kuen Wan’s Phenomenon of Times

Kallat also selected works are forceful in themselves and are witty retorts to the pounding pistons of machismo. For example, Neha Choksi’s Iceboat video—she’s dressed as an ascetic and rowing a melting boat made of ice—allows viewers to dissolve themselves in it as if gazing upon a mandala. The vagaries of time and the partiality of memory and history manifest in Annie Lai Kuen Wan’s Phenomenon of Times. A video shows her coating each page of a nine-volume history of India. Nearby is the result after the volumes were fired in a kiln: nine fossil-like sculptures flanked by wafer-thin ceramic fragments of burned up pages.

Bharti Kher, Three Decimal Points / Of a Minute / Of a Second / Of a Degree

Bharti Kher, Three Decimal Points / Of a Minute / Of a Second / Of a Degree

The horizon appears and disappears in the video Touch as artist Janine Antoni walks a tightrope that merges with the line where sea meets sky. Curiously large wooden triangles are suspended by rope on wooden frames in Bhatri Kher’s installation Three Decimal Points. Using stone architectural fragments as counterweights, the installation plays with scale, mass, and geometry while referencing historical efforts to map the skies and colonized lands and the extraordinary skill of Kerala’s master woodworkers. The work dwarfs the viewer, and in turn is dwarfed by the view out the window to gliding ships and swathes of sea and sky.

School group with Lavanya Mani’s installation Travelers

School group with Lavanya Mani’s installation Travelers

Kallat’s curatorial framing inspired artists to create works that converse with Kerala’s maritime history and a broad spectrum of approaches to art-making. Lavanya Mani’s Travelers Tales—Blueprints uses a once secret Indian technique of painting textiles along with other methods to cover sail-like canvases with stories of discovery and intrigue. Painting doyens Gulam Mohammed Sheikh and Sudhir Patwardhan dove into their own archives of techniques, ideas, and imagery to bring viewers very different but similarly monumental and probing triptychs that create new juxtapositions of time and place.

 

Pushpamala N, The Arrival of Vasco da Gama (after 1898 painting by José Veloso Salgado)

Pushpamala N, The Arrival of Vasco da Gama (after 1898 painting by José Veloso Salgado)

Pushpamala N implodes assumptions of European historical painting and depictions of foreign explorers encountering local rulers. She inserts herself with a playful left-handed flourish as Vasco da Gama in a staged a tableau of a late nineteenth century Portuguese painting. Daniel Boyd’s ensemble of works in the once royal Darbar Hall includes a larger than life piece based on an engraving of the same 1898 painting that’s the target of Pushpamala N’s riposte.

Daniel Boyd, Untitled (ZVC) – History Is Made at Night (Kochi)

Daniel Boyd, Untitled (ZVC) – History Is Made at Night (Kochi)

Unlike Pushapmala’s crisp color inkjet print, Boyd’s work in oil, charcoal, and glue on linen requires the viewer to approach and retreat until the mass of black and white shapes come into focus. When the sweet spot is found, the work reveals da Gama imposing himself upon the ruler and his court. Elsewhere, Xu Bing affixes leaves and debris on a translucent screen and uses light to create shadows that take the shape on the screen’s other side of a Ming Dynasty painting. And there’s more—the Ming Dynasty was a period when Chinese explorers sailed far and wide, including Zheng He who made seven voyages to Kerala and died there in 1433.

Sachin George Sebastian, A Dot in the Sky Is a Void Space

Sachin George Sebastian, A Dot in the Sky Is a Void Space

Kallat’s curatorial breadcrumbs also took artists on cosmic explorations. For example, with olefin sheets, ink, light, and shadow, Sachin George Sebastian’s installation invites visitors to imagine a stroll in celestial space. Either standing back to take in its expanse or walking alongside to take in its details, NS Harsha’s painting Again Birth, Again Death evokes the wonder of looking at the night sky and sensing vastness beyond our imagination.

N.S. Harsha, Punarapi Jananam Punarapi Maranam (Again Birth, Again Death)

N.S. Harsha, Punarapi Jananam Punarapi Maranam (Again Birth, Again Death)

Thanks to its dispersal throughout Fort Kochi, it’s possible to turn a corner and discover a KMB outpost. The first morning after a midnight arrival from Chicago I headed out to in search of the Old Lighthouse Bristow Hotel’s swimming pool. You see, despite staying close to a beach where fishermen walk into the sea every day, human activity makes Kochi’s warm blue waters so filthy that swimming in them is taboo. Around the corner from where I started my mission, I discovered an oasis from midmorning’s white hot light and fell into a pool of blue created by Raqs Media Collective.

Raqs Media Collective, Log Book Entry before the Storm, installation view

Raqs Media Collective, Log Book Entry before the Storm, installation view

Kallat invited Raqs to KMB and the threesome of Jeebesh Bagchi, Monica Narula, and Suddhabrata Sengupta sutured together an old house that was divided by a courtyard wall and very likely a family dispute. A large screen and video greeted visitors in the bright street front room. Blue acrylic sheets on the courtyard windows and door in the back rooms created dimmer aqueous light. A spherical helmet from an ancient diving suit rested with a ladder on the floor of a sealed-off blue lit room as if sunk to the bottom of the sea.

Raqs Media Collective, Log Book Entry before the Storm, detail of installation

Raqs Media Collective, Log Book Entry before the Storm, detail of installation

An open-ended rectangular prism of clear acrylic burrowed through the walls to connect two adjacent rooms—and created a dazzling thoroughfare for sound and light. And I happened upon all this just steps after setting out on my first day!

Local group on the ferry for a Sunday outing to Fort Kochi.

Local group on the ferry for a Sunday outing to Fort Kochi.

The way each artwork animates the historic space it inhabits and vice versa intensifies the KMB experience. But it’s the people flowing through these spaces and interacting with each other, the art, and setting that gives KMB its energy and vitality. Like the nearby bazaars and beachfront promenade the Biennale hosts a lively mélange of people. Visitors come with it as their destination or discover it after arriving in Fort Kochi. School and family groups from across Kerala arrive by bus, car, and ferry. Local college kids say they like hanging out at the Biennale. Artists, art students, and art lovers from all corners of India and overseas make the pilgrimage. A recent art school graduate from northeastern Assam said she travelled alone by train for three days to get here.

Rooting India: The Knowledge Project, a KMB collateral exhibit

Rooting India: The Knowledge Project, a KMB collateral exhibit

KMB disseminates itself well beyond its principal venues. Its distinctly designed placards, posters, and postcards and digital media are in Malayalam as well as English. They stretch into space like a banyan’s aerial roots. KMB partner and collateral exhibits popped up in crowded bazaars and along quiet streets. Chicago again made an appearance with Rooting India, a collateral exhibit curated by Tricia Van Eck and outgrowth of the Rootings collaborative formed by artists Deborah Boardman and Akshay Singh Rathore and sustainable agricultural activists.

Well in garden at Darshan Art Café.

Well in garden at Darshan Art Café.

A full calendar of performances, symposia, workshops, and a film each night of the biennale also attracts audiences to KMB venues. The KMB Foundation that mounts the Biennale also hosts a year round residency and other arts and cultural programs that go out to schools, colleges, and hospitals to bring experiences of Kerala’s traditional forms of performance, visual arts, and music as well as contemporary and experimental forms.

Gulammohammed Sheikh, Balancing Act, in Vasco da Gama Square

Gulammohammed Sheikh, Balancing Act, in Vasco da Gama Square

New generations of artists, curators, critical and creative thinkers, local and cosmopolitan art audiences are emerging through the efforts of KMB. The talented KMB cadre knows how to balance planning and improvisation. Skill and back-breaking muscle power too are in evidence across KMB with its renovated buildings and heavyweight art objects masterfully built and installed. Thanks to the acclaim for the first Biennale, more funders came forward for 2014 KMB, and hopefully this trend will continue. Yet it would be misguided to consider KMB a nouveaux riches undertaking. In fact, KMB’s accomplishments are all the more astonishing given its taut budget. KMB’s invaluable asset are the people whose ingenuity, good humor, professionalism, and all-out efforts make the Biennale possible.

Shanthamani Muddaiah, Backbone

Shanthamani Muddaiah, Backbone

In addition to its core staff, KMB wouldn’t be what it is without the participation of eager college students and recent graduates, who monitor galleries, talk with visitors, and provide all kinds of able-bodied support. These young people see KMB as their own voyage of discovery. For example, a student of modern Arabic language and literature at Maharaja College across the harbor in Ernaculum said that he didn’t know about art and was shy to speak English, but working at a KMB collateral site brought him to “art’s river of ideas and people.”

Clay sculptures at Valsan Koorma Koleri’s outdoor studio for children in Cabral Yard

Clay sculptures at Valsan Koorma Koleri’s outdoor studio for children in Cabral Yard

Children in Kerala are growing up in the bodhi shade of the Biennale. Whether they come on a school trip with their teachers or drop by with friends on Sunday mornings to make clay figures under the tall trees in Cabral Yard, they are the future of contemporary art. Mithu Sen writes about I have only one language and it’s not mine, the poetic and potent video installation she created with girls in a Kerala orphanage, “I believe language imposes a strange logic that tells us not to smell the poetry, hear the shadows or taste the light.”

Mithu Sen, I have only one language and it’s not mine, detail

Mithu Sen, I have only one language and it’s not mine, detail

 

The Biennale brings international artists and their work to India. It also brings well and lesser known Indian artists to new audiences in India and other lands. Art like wine is a matter of time, terroir, and taste. To my reckoning KMB is an ideal terroir for infusing contemporary art with spicy notes of cosmic cosmopolitanism. Start planning for 2016 and imbibe for yourself.

Mermaid-sphinx at Ginger House on shores of Kochi Harbor

Mermaid-sphinx at Ginger House on Kochi Harbor

Kerala is renowned for its generous hospitality and I’m a grateful recipient. Thank-you to Abe Tharakan, Cora Bernard at Bernard Bungalow, Jayen and Kala Varma, John Struthers, Riyas Babu, and the welcoming folks of KMB.

Art and the 2015 UK General Election

May 1, 2015 · Print This Article

Bob and Roberta Smith's Art Party battle bus. Image (c) Bob and Roberta Smith.

Bob and Roberta Smith’s Art Party battle bus. Image (c) Bob and Roberta Smith.

Something is happening in UK politics and conviction is giving way to self-expression. The Labour Party has drifted so far to the centre that tribal supporters are at least free to vote with their hearts. And if they live in Surrey Heath (Southern England) or Hackney South and Shoreditch (London), they can even vote for contemporary artists. That creative presence on the ballot paper tells us that the 2015 General Election has more to do with making points than handing out mandates to either of the two main parties.

The sitting MP in Surrey Heath is a one Michael Gove, a visual gift to satirical cartoonists but a blight on the nation’s schools. The former Secretary of State for Education has got deserved flak for downgrading art, music and drama in UK classrooms. Considering art is one of Britain’s more successful exports you wonder about the wisdom of this. The attack appears ideological, and so his longstanding opponent, artist Bob and Roberta Smith, certainly will be.

Smith, a single confusingly-named candidate, has the bit between his teeth. He has political form, having organised a 2013 conference for the Art Party. And campaign tactics include poster design, personable conversation and psycho-geographical rambles. Given that it is just five years since Gove won here with 57 percent of the vote, Smith has a losing battle on his hands. But losing battles may be all we have left at the ballot box.

Just ask Gordon Shrigley, who is standing in East London without a single policy to his name. The blankness of his campaign slate is not just refreshing, it’s a powerful critique of all government and especially this five-yearly circus in which the public are first wooed and then betrayed. As Shrigley says, “I have nothing to offer, but offer itself”. That’s honest expression, and perfect for 2015.

The fact is that in UK politics the battle lines have been redrawn to include a smaller parties, and even lone voices. Thanks to social media and digital alternatives to the mainstream media, artists and ideologues alike can amplify their voice and enjoy greater visibility than ever before. Whatever the results on May 7th, Smith and Shrigley will have pulled off viable artistic projects. With little to lose, and little alternative, why not vote for an artist?

Recent months have seen the emergence of the phrase ‘career politician’ as a pejorative phrase. So the stage is really set for lone idealists and single issue candidates to come forward and show, or at least point towards, what politics could look like in an age of real democracy. Let professional spin, party discipline and self-interested party donors go hang.

To prove the value of expressive politics, one needn’t look far. My local constituency is Brighton Pavilion on the South Coast. In 2010 we elected the UK’s first Green Party MP and few would contest the fact that our subsequent representative, Caroline Lucas, has been one of the bravest and most effective voices in parliament. She has given us a say on drugs laws, fracking and nationalisation. Greens may never form a majority government, but they get my vote as the greater of various goods, rather than the lesser of two evils.

Top 5 Weekend Picks!

April 30, 2015 · Print This Article

1. 10:00 am Monday Impressions; 11:00 am How the Outside Leaks into the Room; 12:00 ­pm Smells Like 100 Years Old; 1:00 pm The Room Is in My Eye. The Space under My Body; 2:00 pm In the Meantime, (This Place Will Be Empty after 5:00 pm); 3:00 pm An Actual Location for This Moment; 4:00 pm Few Will Leave Their Place to Come Here for Some Minutes; 5:00 pm Did You Know Who Built Your House? at The Renaissance Society

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Work by Gabriel Sierra.

The Renaissance Society is located at 5811 S. Ellis Ave. Cobb Hall 418. Reception Sunday, 4-7pm.

2. The Grass Has Eyes at Comfort Station

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Work by Heidi Norton.

Comfort Station is located at 2579 N. Milwaukee Ave. Reception Friday, 6-10pm.

3. FAMILIAR MALAISE at ACRE Projects

FamiliarMalaise_ACRE-1024x245

Work by Joe Yorty, Cara Chan, Austen Brown and Ruslana Lichtzier.

ACRE Projects is located at 1913 W. 17th St. Reception Sunday, 4-8pm.

4. Refractions at Silent Funny

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Work by Luftwerk.

Silent Funny is located at 4106 W. Chicago Ave. Reception Friday, 6-10pm.

5. Kissing in Heaven at Chicago Artists Coalition

HideousBeast_Gloves

Work by Allison Lacher, Andy Roche, Hideous Beast and Snow Yungxue Fu.

Chicago Artists Coalition is located at 217 N. Carpenter St. Reception Friday, 6-9pm.

Blind Man’s Bluff: Tom Torluemke at Linda Warren Projects

April 29, 2015 · Print This Article

Rolled Over 2010 acrylic, wood, and masonite 56″ x 96″

By Kevin Blake 

This is a recurring dream.

I am suspended over an in-ground pool of which I can only see a portion. The pool juts out of the bottom left corner of the frame–a rectangular frame. The edge of the pool makes an L shape–horizontally to the middle of the frame and at a right angle to the bottom boundary. The negative space is a surrounding sun-bleached concrete–an infinite wall contained only by the imaginary frame of the image. My limbs are sprawled out as if they are tied to an invisible force that keeps me from retracting. I lay idle just inches from the water, but I cannot touch. I cannot feel the textures. I cannot sense the temperature, though it appears to be warm–it appears to be late afternoon. It appears to be desert-like. Arid. Crisp. Cloudless. Stark.

The same external force that keeps me afloat, pulls me wildly in a spinning motion to an extreme height where I can see the pool in its entirety. As I reach the apex of this pull, it allows me a brief pause before dropping me and stopping me just inches before I hit the water. It leaves me there, in what feels like dangerous proximity to a glass-like surface. I have no physical control. No power. I can only wait to be pulled from idle and dropped again. As I plunge toward the pool, the water disappears, and I break through the powerless dream–returning to a powerless reality. I wake up with the feeling of being dropped that often plagues the dreams of many. That uneasiness. That bubble in the stomach. That rush to the brain.

The value of a dream is only quantifiable in the mind of the dreamer. It becomes something more than a dream only when a metaphor is established–and thereby attached–as the answer to an otherwise abstract experience. Like spinning around with a blindfold and trying to find people in the dark, the recurring dream becomes something more, when anticipatory and imaginative thinking creates an alteration of behavior, a change in consciousness, or a way to find things in the dark. It can become the blueprint for an artistic practice.

Natural Imaginings as if I Was Em’rynn 2015 irregular shaped painting, acrylic on paper on MDF 60″ x 53.25″

In Tom Torluemke’s latest offering at Linda Warren Projects, Blind Man’s Bluff, the artist seems to be fueled by the necessity to communicate his ideas–both to himself and to a perceived audience. Here, metaphors(capitulated by the title of the exhibition) are born in cultural experience, unadulterated thought, and dreams–they are the conduit by which this artist transmits his signals in this densely populated exhibition.

The main gallery is filled with paintings, mostly executed with acrylic paint on irregularly shaped MDF panels. This device is useful. It appears to extend his metaphor. To exemplify the oddity that is his commodity–his ideas. Torluemke’s ideas may be his bread and butter, but his ability to execute and transmute his thoughts into compelling objects, is equally evolved.

Torluemke’s metaphors come alive in works like Day Dream 2015. This decisively cut panel adopts the profile of a man–a shape that is repeated again and again to develop the edge of the painting. A surreal landscape occupies the mind. Faces form the face. Dark matter makes the shadowy abyss beyond the dream. Paint is liberally applied to these slick surfaces, making it a joy to discover the miniature paint galaxies in the depths of the work.

Day Dream 2015 irregular shaped painting, acrylic on paper on MDF 60″ x 49.5″

In the smaller gallery a more intimate but more direct version of Torluemke’s metaphor adorn the walls. The drawings are made while blindfolded, with one continuous line–details are added later. What is interesting to me about these works is less the product(though I like the drawings), and more so, the idea of creating an action born in metaphor.  If Torluemke feels like his artistic process is often like doing a frankenstein walk blindfolded in the dark, as a child does in Blind Man’s Bluff, then it is this thought, this metaphor, that has driven him to thoroughly explore and excavate this idea and all of its potential. As a dream only becomes understandable by way of syntactic dissection and cultural grounding, so too must a metaphor be broken down into its component parts for reassembly as something new. Something learned. Something useful to the pursuant.

Happy Smokers 2014 charcoal and graphic on board 32″ x 40″

There is a multiplicity in these works that contextualize the conditions under which these objects are made. I can sense an urgency. I can feel the excitement. I can see ideas mutate on the surfaces. The work seems to be in constant transition–from panel, to sculpture, to blindfolded drawing and back again. Torluemke’s process plays out like a dream as he traverses from one unexpected place to the next. There are no answers here, only snippets of dreams. Remnants of action. Links to a lineage of ideas that are constantly evolving.

By following the hunch, pursuing the dream, and unraveling the metaphor, Torluemke seems to have developed a method for finding his way in the dark.

Linda Warren Projects

327 N Aberdeen Suite 151

Chicago, IL

Gallery Y & Gallery X: Tom Torluemke, “Blind Man’s Bluff”

April 17 – June 13, 2015

Opening Reception: Friday, April 17, 2015, 6-9pm

Artist Talk: Saturday, May 16, 2015, 3-5pm

Orchard/Dirge, Observations on Fraser Taylor’s Null Space

April 24, 2015 · Print This Article

Guest post by Vanessa Gravenor

 

Fraser Taylor, Black Flowers, 2009-11 Courtesy of Threewalls.

Fraser Taylor, Black Flowers, 2009-11 Courtesy of Threewalls.

Fraser Taylor’s show Orchard/Dirge, on view at Threewalls gallery in Chicago, combines sculptures that suggest states of kinesthesis with drawings and paintings blackened to abject states. When entering the main room, one sees a cluster of metallic rods welded together to form angular shapes. These shapes both recall architectural origins but also clusters of beings: animals in a pack.

Fraser Taylor, Black Flowers, 2009-11 Courtesy of Threewalls.

Fraser Taylor, Black Flowers, 2009-11 Courtesy of Threewalls.

Austere and lustrous, the forms harken (like a hymn) back upon different artistic moments in the 20th century. Reminiscent of Russian Constructivism because of the linear and angular bisection of space, these specific forms in the sculptural installation Black Flowers recall Tatlin’s The Proposed Monument to the Third International. In this way, the work pays homage to the utopian vision of art being linked to political life.

Just as the shapes seem to construct and recall these modernist roots, they also enter into a state of entropy and disintegration by suggesting a Giacometti-style disintegration of the figure. Contextually, Alberto Giacometti was incited by an overexposure to violence after WWI. He embodied a sort of cataract gaze and was concerned with redefining seeing when sight was impossible. Fraser’s context is not post-world-wars but the AIDS epidemic in the 80’s and 90’s where he lost many friends to the disease. The exhibition write-up explains that purging of color “spoke of the wider index of loss” that all mass death brings.

 

Fraser Taylor, Scalloway, Silk-screen on canvas, 2015 Courtesy of Threewalls.

Fraser Taylor, Scalloway, Silk-screen on canvas, 2015 Courtesy of Threewalls.

In the adjacent room, there are banners that match this already precedent visual language. Again, abstract forms and ink turn to figuration. This figuration decisively recalls post-war abstraction because of the reduction of the body to pure expression, the body broken under panoptic watch, and of the individual that becomes part of industrial production.

The connection to William Kentridge seems inevitable especially in Taylor’s handling of the suited form. Kentridge animated videos use the materiality of charcoal to reference the obliterated landscape of South Africa for mining, which references the colonized body. In Kentridge’s work, human figures become landscapes only for the landscape to be erased and blotted out by the figure. There is a shiftless, transcendental character that Taylor’s work shares with Kentridge’s particularly the bannered work most recently completed (2009-11). However, Taylor’s reference is not the black body under colonial or post-colonial Africa but the black body in America. In the sculpture installation Black Flower, on view in the main space, the exhibition write-up explains that the title references African-American painter, trumpeter, and jazz poet Ted Joans who aspired to incite revolution through a manifesto written in 1968. One can see the impact of beat poetry and soul music in the kinetic movements of banners in the project space.

Fraser Taylor, Scalloway, Silk-screen on canvas, 2015 Courtesy of Threewalls.

Fraser Taylor, Scalloway, Silk-screen on canvas, 2015 Courtesy of Threewalls.

The remainder of Taylor’s work is comprised of three large square paintings all featuring a singular large inky mass. This inky mass appears to first be a negative field but shifts to become a birds eye view of a head. In one painting Peculiarities no6, there are several collaged images on the black surface. One image is a line drawing of phalluses, the other a print out of a neck, and another a pinky red color blotch. While the main bodily organ running through the show is the phallus, with some of the sculptures resembling Yayoi Kusama’s white, sterile penile sculptures, the paintings’ negativity suggests theoretical feminine or queer space. In this, I call upon second-wave feminist theory presented by Kristeva expressing how while the space of the feminine is the space of negativity it is also the space of the new. Furthering these theories, third wave feminist author Griselda Pollock describes how the space of the feminine is a radical space for encounter and con-division. Fraser’s work seems to embody a post-colonial third-space between the feminine and the queer that shifts between forms, genders, identities, and landscapes delivering the gazer somewhere inside this void-space of creation.

Fraser Taylor’s Orchard/Dirge is on view until May 23rd, 2015.