Wednesday, July 2, 2008

Luis Cruz Azaceta's Museum Plans

Alfredo Triff

There is almost nothing in Luis Cruz Azaceta’s Museum Plans, his recent exhibition of mixed media at the Bernice Steinbaum Gallery, that makes one think of 1980’s New York. Certainly, there is a path one can follow in Azaceta’s stylistic transformation, from those garish, colorful, idiosyncratic self-portraits, reflecting the Neoexpressionist Geist of the Reagan years, to this more sober, abstract, less iconoclastic, nonetheless thought-provoking work of today. In the mid-1980’s Azaceta appropriated “la balsa” (the raft image), made it his signature and pursued it relentlessly.

This is before the raft became “cool” in the art of the Bedias and the K-Chos of the world. It was the right symbol for the times: The decade of Capitalist self-indulgence and excess, solipsism was in the air. Azaceta’s self-depiction was not an excuse for reverberation and self-aggrandizement (Clemente, the Italian painter being a notorious example). Instead, Azaceta made his rafter alter-ego a trademark for revolt and self-definition. What better cipher than the bearded, hirsute looking artist, quixotic, alienated nomad, paddling his way through labyrinthine loops, network crossings, fragile grids and mechanic entrails? Then, toward the mid-1990’s, as the mazes got bigger, the rafter got smaller and smaller until it got swallowed by a part-mechanical, part-digital mind-boggling system (it was not a coincidence that Azaceta decided to move to New Orleans).

This new work hints at a formal -as well as material- development. At first sight, it has a Douglas Huebler-like architectonic flavor, which can be traced back to Dada (particularly the Duchamp from 1919-1925 or Picabia’s Portraits méchaniques), or even better, a Situationist-like space, but without the hyperpolitics. In our porous, smaller post-Capitalist global village, the X-Cold War exile, becomes an existential/aesthetic rather than a political/semiotic wanderer: Revolt exchanged for suspicion, Kafkian to the core with more questions than answers.

Museum Plans looks like coded messages being sent between incommensurable paradigm-shifts (The Twentieth and the Twenty First Century). They have an anthropomorphic/topographic quality about them: Figure that Frank Gehry, Luis Kahn, Charles Bukowski, Kafka and Reinaldo Arenas have museum plans -as well as Havana and Miami Beach. In “Museum for Reinaldo Arenas,” we notice a grey and black-colored box-like apparatus with edges painted in red and yellow, showing a little sphere coming out of a conduit on the upper left hand side of the canvas. If this is the body, the green silicon-chip glued on the piece’s axis (next to a tentative sketch), would indicate the Cartesian pineal gland, the center of cogitation.

The biomorphic-looking “Museum Plan for Kafka,” hermetic and oppressive, resembles a solid-in-revolt, with its silicon chip inside a busily dot-filled colored core surrounded by conical pipes showing little eye-like bulbs. “Air Carrier” is a hybrid between Space-shuttle and Airbus, populated with tubular inner passages, cul-de-sacs, toy cars, airplanes and helicopters attached onto the painting’s surface. Finally there is “Museum plan for Edison,” sort of an archaic drum-brake-like mechanism: Three coils, one upside down, connect to a crankcase through an internal passage going all the way inside the apparatus’ brain. Aside from the obvious Dada connection, Azaceta’s rhizome-like cerebral sketches remind me of Warren Chalk and Peter Cook’s mid-1960’s drawings for Archigram, an association which in both instances, point to moments of bafflement, introspection and curiosity.

Sunday, March 16, 2008

María José Arjona at Gallery Diet

David Rohn

The current performance by Maria Jose Arjona at Gallery Diet turns out to be a striking event on several levels. The action occurs about the repeated event of blowing red-tinted bubbles against the gallery walls (and columns) whereupon they burst, leaving a blood-like splash on the wall and the floor. By the time this observer got there on opening night, the periphery of the gallery had an irregular but continuous horizontal line around its entire perimeter as the artist labored away slowly at a far end of the space monotonously lifting her bubble wand, softly blowing a burst of bubbles and watching them collide against the wall before repeating the exercise, again and again.

Turns out, the first impression of a reference to blood is no accident: when asked in a later encounter, the artist explains that yes, red is for blood and that for her the piece is about violence; And the bubbles do seem such fragile metaphors for living creatures: gently, even lovingly created, born from their (as it were ) mother’s breath , and short lived ; a mere second or few of floating existence before crashing and offering up their measure of red to the wall (or floor). Or could we consider this a poetic and meditative, even feminine counterpoint to Pollock’s drips and spurts where the trance-like state we recognize in the few and famous photos of Pollock is certainly repeated here. Maria Jose is to be congratulated no less for the rare and genuine poetry she brings to her efforts than for the sheer perseverance of the project: she performs it daily from 11 am to 5 pm –a continuity and commitment that is by no means typical in performance presentations. All too often if you miss the opening you miss the event and have to make do with a video. (This was not always so by the way). When Gilbert and George and Vito Acconci performed their landmark pieces at Ilyana Sonnabend Gallery back in the early days of Soho, they performed all day every day then too.

Repetition and violence also have a more established relationship. And alongside the sense of polite meditative sensibility of her repetitions, the clockwork activities of the factory or garment worker, the crop picker, also come to mind; maybe that intense look on the artists face reflects the face of an unskilled worker who s about to go postal; or the blank stare of the repetitious rote work of the bureaucrat in the tax department, the medical department or the war department of some monstrous government or corporate entity who is unwittingly or uncaringly contributing to our collective violence towards each other , our fellow creatures, or to our planet. And since it inevitably comes to mind, it would probably be a mistake to omit the old saying ‘I m forever blowing bubbles” as a reference in this performance. In other words, forever doing something meaningless or inconsequential. If so it s a valid irony: in the age of information we get to know all that s wrong with the world but not what to do about it. ; and in the age of artistic consumerism we get to ask ourselves whether art can anymore have any sort of social value or is it just another commodity for the rich.

Even if this may appear relatively true at the moment, it can also be argued that performance art is at least for the moment, a kind of antidote to this, much as some early minimal and conceptual art was intended to be. And then the bubble stains read back an iconic message of protest; a kind of little-girl passive-aggressive graffiti about violence and it s most obvious response: more violence For this observer, a lot of performance art, as if perpetually transfixed by the early work of Marina Abramovic and other minimalist adherents, seems sometimes repetitive in a way that isn't always very effective: the artist walking on broken glass, the razor blades attached to one s body and so forth. In this case the repetitions are effective and it is tempting to think that this is because the artist brings a sense of intense involvement and concentration to the piece: we believe in the significance of this repeated action because there s no question that the performer believes in it. And the residual mess left by Arjona’s performance is a fierce aftermath to a rather gentle and seeming insignificant activity of blowing bubbles against a wall.

Thursday, January 10, 2008


Luis Alonzo-Barkigia: Love in a Time of Uncertainty 
Steph Hurst

LOVE offers an alternative art experience by interspersing eleven works of contemporary video art within eighty-two channels of streaming pornography in the private viewing booths at Pleasure Emporium, South Beach. The art audience is meant to enter the peep booths, pay-per-minute, and surf through the porn to find the art. The exhibition can be viewed at any time, as the videos loop 24/7 alongside the smut. According to LOVE curator, Luis Alonzo-Barkigia, the exhibition is a contextual experiment. In other words, LOVE investigates the manner in which venue affects viewing experience. Collectively, the videos explore the vast spectrum of love as it parallels broad notions of art. By installing fine art within an atypical, yet video-friendly environment, the exhibition relies less on the actual art and more on the implications of venue.

In evaluating LOVE’s contextual framework, we encounter the ever-elusive porn/fine art debate. Like art, pornography is ill-suited to bright-line determinations. Because of its innate subjectivity, the debate is regressive and assessments are reduced to the lowest common denominator. At least, the function of mainstream porn is clear: to present a barrage of direct imagery to stimulate sexual arousal. Typically, porn isn’t subject to interpretation; the viewer isn’t meant to linger, but to achieve expeditiously the desired state of arousal. Art, too, aims for some sort of arousal—in fact, art is often judged by the degree of gratification it provides the viewer. The difference is that porn has an express purpose and art does not. While specific works may share the function of pornography, art (as a whole) runs the gamut of intent and isn’t limited to the psycho-sexual realm. One similarity, however, is that both art and porn entail elements of “pretend” or representation.

With a handful of singles and an open mind, I entered a peep booth at Pleasure Emporium. The floor was sticky and littered with balled-up pieces of toilet paper. Despite the seediness, the dim audio-controlled private booth is an optimum setting for viewing video art. The biggest drawback was racing through eighty-two channels to find the art before the minutes ran out. When paying-per-minute, the voyeur aims to “get off” as quickly as possible. But this isn’t the case with video art, which often requires lingering interpretation and multiple viewings. The gimmickry of the venue suppresses the dynamism of the art. Nevertheless, I appreciated the ironic parallel between pay-per-minute time constraints and the limited attention span with which art audiences typically approach time-based media.

“We’re forcing you to watch the videos in this environment,” said curator Alonzo-Barkigia. He overlooks the fact that most viewers, having willingly entered, are already open to the commercialized sex trade. Plus, once inside the booth, viewers retain total control over viewing selection and can change the channel at any moment. After feeding money into the machine, I wondered about the price of art. It’s here that LOVE brilliantly stumbles upon questions of consumption and indulgence. The commodification of creativity and sex is problematic, no matter the scale. Fine art and pornography constitute multi-billion dollar industries that cater to wildly different audiences. For a few bucks, porn is accessible on the basest level. Fine art, however, is infinitely costlier and inherently elitist. As I waited in line for more change, the cashier explained that LOVE has expanded Pleasure Emporium’s clientele. “We always get the usuals, but we’ve seen a lot of new faces since that art show opened,” she said.

Alternative venues are progressive and break the monotony of the gallery experience. “Any city, serious about art, needs to challenge the norm,” Alonzo-Barkigia said. But LOVE fails to push the contextual boundaries of art exhibition; going to a porn theatre to view fine art is gimmicky and redundant. For starters, it’s been done before. In 2002, No Live Girls, an artist collective, curated "Peepshow 28: Sexuality, Voyeurism, Eroticism, & Gender in Contemporary Video Art" at Lusty Lady strip joints in Seattle and San Francisco. Peepshow 28 tested the experience of viewing art in an adult entertainment environment by installing contemporary video in pay-per-minute peep booths. Even five years ago, it was considered gimmicky; according to former New York Times art critic, Hilton Kramer, “I think they’re kidding themselves. It’s pure box office stuff.” In a 2002 interview with No Live Girls, one of the curators, Saul Robbins, said, “We had reservations about having the viewers of Peepshow 28 pay money, because we’d like to make art for free, But then again, it establishes a type of experience.” In addressing the implications of venue-specific experience, we must first address the implications of the venue itself. Situating an art exhibit within the context of a sex shop opens a floodgate of social controversy. Notwithstanding moral and political opinions about pornography and commercialized sex, the viewer must wrestle with the hetero-normative focus of mainstream porn. Anti-porn feminists, for instance, claim that it reinforces a patriarchal system and perpetuates gender-specific dehumanization.

In his 1972 book, Violence and the Sacred, French philosopher René Girard outlines his hypothesis of mimetic rivalry—basically, that mimesis kills that which it copies, or that violence underscores that which is portrayed as sacred. Marilyn Minter’s early work (in the late eighties) featured hardcore porn imagery and was condemned as endorsement of female objectification by many feminists. However, Minter’s work employs mimetic rivalry to accentuate the absurdity of the images; much like John Currin’s paintings—here, the work contains the death of its referent. Girardian principles come to life in the work of many contemporary artists who’ve dealt with divisive sexual content—particularly adolescent sexuality—notably, Richard Prince’s Spiritual America (1983). 

The work features an appropriated photograph of pre-pubescent child actor, Brooke Shields, posing nude in a bathtub. Despite the controversy surrounding child pornography, artists like Sally Mann and Jock Sturges have lawfully persisted in depicting the minor nude. The most recent controversy surrounds Nan Goldin’s widely-circulated photograph, Klara and Edda Belly-Dancing (1998), which was seized by authorities from the Baltic Centre for Contemporary Art in September. After a month-long investigation, the Crown Prosecution Service determined that the photograph "is not indecent" and fits within Goldin’s established body of work. In light of the artist’s intent, the audience’s reaction is inconsequential to the work’s categorization.

Given the murky seams of porn and fine art—or art and design, or art and non-art— it’s natural to question the shifting reaches of period-specific social filtration. Many artists—like Jake and Dinos Chapman, Richard Kern, Robert Mapplethorpe, Andres Serrano, and Andy Warhol—have been attracted to the transgressive nature of sexual imagery. Other artists have experimented with body politics as a precursor to diminished sexual reference within cohesive bodies of work—for instance, Jeff Koons’ Made in Heaven series (1990-91), and most of the video and performative work done by Vito Acconci in the seventies. For Terry Richardson—dubbed “the magazine world’s Marquis de Sade”—who manufactures his own brand of “fine art porn,” pornography is a staple in the art-making process. But other artists have stretched beyond pornography to push art’s elastic limits as they relate to sex. For instance, Vito Acconci’s Seedbed (1971), in which the artist hid beneath a gallery-wide wooden ramp, and masturbated to fantasies he conjured about the visitors walking above him. As he masturbated, Acconci vocalized his fantasies into a loudspeaker.

More recently (and refreshingly clever) is Andrea Fraser’s Untitled, in which the artist had sex with a collector for $20,000. The sex act was filmed in a hotel room and the video was exhibited at Friedrich Petzel Gallery in 2003. According to Alonzo-Barkigia, exploring “how the ideal survives within the profane” was a curatorial objective. This is problematic because the viewer must accept the presumptions of ideality and profanity in order to appreciate the intended dichotomy. The notion that art is “the ideal” and pornography is “the profane” is extremely polarizing and negates their proposed intersection.

Joel Peter-Witkin is one artist who actually succeeds in exploiting the concept of ideality versus profanity. Other artists—like Yasumasa Morimura and Bruce Nauman—have adopted a different approach by exploring idealism in relation to non-idealism. Alonzo-Barkigia’s persistent explanations of ideal versus profane as a metaphor for “the Basel effect” and the greater art market seem like a dubious stretch. LOVE grips an ambitious conceptual palette, but would’ve benefited from narrowing its focus. Nevertheless, the exhibition boasts a variety of artistic styles ranging from prurient to esoteric. “The selection process was organic,” Alonzo-Barkigia said.

Found, by artist collective 3PQ features accelerated footage of a caveman’s mounting frustration and primitive self-expressive ability. According to Sinisa Kukec of 3PQ, the video “investigates male aggressive behavior” from a carnal viewpoint, and reveals frustration towards that pesky Y chromosome. In Alonzo-Barkigia’s own Love in a Time of Uncertainty, the artist (in a cumbersome Godzilla costume) wrangles with a live alligator. The creatures are self-referential enantiomorphs, invoking the literal projection of “monsters” within the context of internal struggle.

Maleness is manifest in beast-like form (yet again) in Cameron Platter’s How the Croc Got His Shoes: 

The scintillating video showcases Platter’s familiar comic-like animation. Ewa Einhorn’s “Towards” is also animated and contains some of LOVE’s few references to pornography. To the sounds of guitar strumming, inverted ponies float across the screen, followed by cartoon humans engaging in pony play fetish.

Kajsa Dahlberg’s FF (Female Fist) adopts a more serious approach by confronting the misrepresentation and invisibility of lesbians within the hetero-normative porn industry. Dahlberg’s video reminded me of Vito Acconci’s Porn in the Classroom (1975), in which philosophical slogans (i.e. “normative rationality” and “sociology as a skin trade”) are projected, machine gun-style, in scrawling white against a dark background. On the opposite wall, close-up images of faceless female nudes float slowly in-and-out of the frame. In the corner, on a blank gray monitor, a comical penis appears every thirty seconds to mutter something funny. FF (Female Fist) and Porn in the Classroom both employ direct text, neutral backgrounds, and minimal imagery to communicate sociolinguistic concerns.

Text, in the form of flashing red subtitles, makes an appearance in Federico Nessi’s Love for Change, wherein a male subject serenades the viewer with a romantic ballad and accompanying acoustic guitar. Raul Mendez’s L’etranger ("The stranger," below) presents similar romantic overtones with a fuzzy, red-colored depiction of a frolicsome countryside bicycle ride. 

Alonzo-Barkigia labels Daniel Newman’s Nylon & Steel as “the poster child of the show.” In Newman’s video, idyllic visions of butterflies and windmills are juxtaposed with faded images of a stripper winding around a pole, while soft classical music plays in the background. Here, the artist presents two viable and competing options, much like choosing between nylon and steel guitar strings. My favorite video in the show is Luis Macia’s Quick (below):

The entire video is two minutes long and consists of fingers peeling a stubborn price tag off a surface. It’s simple and ambiguous, but extremely sensual, all at the same time.