Tuesday, April 24, 2012

JOY WHALEN: FABLES OF FORFEIT                          

TWO planets pass each other in space. The first says to the second, “You don’t look so good.” The second planet, feverish and pale, explains, “I’ve got the homo sapiens.” “Don’t worry,” says the first planet, “It will pass.”  

Our best-known visions of the future are dystopian, Brave New World, Nineteen Eighty-Four, A Clockwork Orange, and Fahrenheit 451 portray our lesser angels in a race to the moral bottom so ardent that our current dissolution seems in comparison negligible. Joy Whalen envisions another future and it is a paradise but not entirely genial. In her paradise new species abound, and strange geography sprouts. Her landscapes, if her imaginings can be so confined, possess the queer spectacle of Northern Ireland’s Giant’s Causeway––its basalt columns bound together in enormous fasces––and the grim wonder of Salar de Uyuni, the world’s largest salt flat in southwest Bolivia. Her plant-life, likewise, possesses a vivacious grandeur; vines skitter, trees gesture in peculiar postures, even her water presumes to defy gravity. Animal, mineral, or vegetable; in Ms. Whalen’s world all assume an enthusiasm unchecked by human observation and control, for her new paradise is mercifully, necessarily unpeopled. Her implication is clear: Paradise can flourish only where humans are forbidden. It is an outlook echoed in Sontag’s essay, Melancholy Objects, “Nature in America has always been suspect, on the defensive, cannibalized by progress. In America, every specimen becomes a relic.” 

IN this exhibition, “Fables of Forfeit” Ms. Whalen presents a series of works on paper, all subtle renderings in ink and watercolor. Finely crafted, they have the clarity of etchings and recall the works of the Hudson River and Luminist schools of painting, depicting the grandeur of the new world and the wonder of discovery. Her At War with Walls and Mazes, 2008, above, suggests the perilous rapture of being enveloped by a dense and variegated forest, of unfamiliar species eager for our attention.  

Raised in a religious family Ms. Whalen is familiar with biblical fables of revenge and comeuppance. After the great deluge the Lord promises never again to destroy the world by flood. Perhaps, these works put forward, the next devastation will come as humans have yet again displeased and are forever barred from Eden as nature reclaims the world with the fervid arrogance of the risen Christ. As cartoonist Walt Kelly prophesied on Earthday, 1970, “We have met the enemy and he is us.”  Paradise, however, may remain impossible. In her depictions of wild growth of a nature unchecked, mossy, flaked, and craquelured, Ms. Whalen intimates the coming war of the remaining factions of nature, craving dominance. Invasive species, climbing upon and strangling their weaker brethren reignite the contest of conflict and death. Lantana and Kudzu, the Northern Snakehead, and the Zebra Mussel attack and dominate territories much like their human counterparts. Ms. Whalen’s inventions take on lives of their own, conceivably more sinister. Even in Arcadia the struggle continues. 

Assured by the Scorpion that a sting would lead to both their deaths, and that he certainly had no wish to die, the Frog agrees to carry the Scorpion across the river. Stung midway and certain to sink taking the scorpion with him the frog, incredulous, questions, “Why?” The Scorpion offers, “I’m a Scorpion; it’s in my nature.”

Wednesday, February 1, 2012

Mercy, Mercy Me

We all remember those angry trees from the movie, The Wizard of Oz––smacking Dorothy’s hand and fast-balling apples at her and the scarecrow—they’ve been frightening children for nearly three generations––they still frighten me. A fed-up Mother Nature turning the tables on us has been a reliable plotline in horror and disaster fiction. Recently, in the global warming movie, The Day After Tomorrow, we had the weather taking revenge on us and back in the 50s, The Day of the Triffids, gave us walking, stinging, man-eating plants. In the exhibition, Vanitas, by visual artist Matthew Ohm, we have nature coming back as a ghost to haunt us for our ecological sins.

Pitzer College’s Lenzner Gallery has been turned into a garden maze, but the garden is dead and it appears to be upside down. Barren bushes hang from above and are snipped to a level just below average height, creating a lowered, skeletal ceiling. The bushes are whitewashed, and they cast ominous double and triple shadows on the wall of the dimly lighted gallery. Stooping slightly to walk under the sharp branches one has the feeling of being oppressed and trapped by nature. Then another realization occurs, the branches become roots. We are right side up after all but we are underground. The branches are the dead roots of the nature we have abused and we, hauntingly, are now buried beneath them. It seems that, in Mr. Ohm’s horror story, when all the plants died we soon followed.

In an alcove off the main gallery there is a large, spider-like branch. It spreads out to touch the walls on either side of the small room and reaches down to the floor at three different places. The various ends of the branch are sawed-off cleanly, creating the illusion that the wood continues to grow into the next room and down to the basement below. At the center of the branch, where these many legs come together, is a bald patch where another leg once grew. The many rings of this old tree are clearly visible. Above this wound hangs a plumb bob––one of those brass pendulums that surveyors and engineers use to gauge straight lines––hovering less than an inch from the naked wood. Like a sad moral to the installation in the first room here it seems that humans are still trying to bend nature to their will. All the straight lines on this branch are amputations; the presence of the plumb bob promises many more. No wonder the trees are angry.

Friday, March 25, 2011

Fantastic Voyage: Corey Postiglione

Fantastic voyage: COREY POSTIGLIONE

FROM multiverses down to strings, Corey Postiglione is a cartographer of cosmology. His flat compositions, having strayed from his youthful obsession with minimalism have retained much of its language, or more accurately, formed a dialect of its guidelines. While even the most strident adherent could not (truthfully) deny minimalism’s pictorial tension between line and shape, figure and ground, Mr. Postiglione, too young to have fully embraced the dogma, has gone off the reservation of the blocky and monochromatic and rejected the objectness of minimalism, opting instead for a more poetic, if sparse, mimesis of human vision, complete with its biological limitations and psychological deceits.

IN Lolita, Nabokov describes the wishful thinking of a short-eyes gazing furtively from his darkened window across to a neighbor’s home and the fragment of girlish flesh that appears to have escaped the defensive modesty of the drawn shade. Her thigh moving slowly titillates the viewer until it is revealed as the forearm of a man reading the newspaper. Perception once again hijacked by conception.

MR. Postiglione employs similar devices of shape in his works that often appear as a decorative lattice or a Celtic flourish but reveal themselves, upon closer inspection, as diagrams of pandemic spread or microscopic examinations of nascent pestilence. These are alternated with concentric ellipses that suggest galaxies and constellations, citing in one breath both our mortality and historical affect. This conceit, once revealed, colors his work with a distinct creepiness. Dark Passage, shown here, a lacy shadow play of nettles and nodules, brings to mind a nest of parasitic worms. His Swarm II, 2008, like an illuminated x-ray that shows a forebodingly altered anatomy, produces a distinct queasiness in the average viewer and has the power to send hypochondriacs perspiring from the gallery.

SUCH an appetite of the macabre is not to all tastes, especially when administered in the method of pattern and decoration with a soupçon of formalism, yet these works––drawings for the most part as they make use of a texture that seems natural as opposed to the contrivance of layered painting––are abstract enough to allow us to ignore their augurs. There is a tactile and optical satisfaction that returns them to the realm of abstraction divorced fully from emotion. They rely on elegant line and subtle coloration as bait to seduce the eye and draw the viewer close enough for the sucker punch. In this way the artist becomes what in literature is called an unreliable narrator. Mr. Postiglione visually offers one version then another account of his strategy, first it is form, then content, and yet again form as each work retreats to its original position.

LIKE the forearm of Humbert Humbert's neighbor it appears one thing but reveals itself as another. In Mr. Postiglione’s case we the viewer make the final transition, restoring the view to what we wish it was, the intellectual pleasure of a contemplation of beauty in it most elemental nature; rejecting the fearsome imitation and participation of the real.

Max King Cap

Tuesday, February 22, 2011



And if thine eye offend thee, pluck it out, and cast it from thee: it is better for thee to enter into life with one eye, rather than having two eyes to be cast into hell fire.

Matthew 18:9 Christian Bible, New Testament (KJV)

It is a brand of exile, outwardly elective but mortally irresistible. Unlike Marie Antoinette in her Petit Hameau, performing, with a cast of costumed courtiers, a pantomime of rustic life while only steps away from the splendor of Versailles, Todd Gray—a native Californian who grew up in the surf—is a pantheist, drawn by a more irreducible magnetism. Though fully immersed in the manufactured culture we refer to as civilization Mr. Gray is enamored of the monastic moment, a contemplation of a world (and his place in it) unveneered by the vanities of garish invention; our protestations of mortality in the form of monuments that we daily erect to ourselves, and, when seeing the works of others, constantly reconstrcuct ever more elaborately. His three large wall collages (all untitled, all 2009) in this exhibition are documentations and inventions featuring himself and the nature toward which he is drawn. Part performance and utterly earnest, Mr. Gray enacts a variety of rituals that sample equally from disparate traditions while adding his own variation. His awareness of the documentation and the struggle to reject his own gaze creates an uneasy and delicate bond between the anthropologist and the subject. Naked and lathered, Mr. Gray concocts an offering of endurance, surrender, and effacement. Though these works are photographed in the landscapes of Ghana, his second home, they are the lush twins of his Californian childhood, making his exile less rejection than embrace, a view of himself in an alternate but wholly compatible mirror. He is both Prospero and Caliban, master and slave, sorcerer and satyr; and between both personae is the storm—playing the role of evolutionary fork in the road. His foam is not a minstrelsy but a froth of the sea—a baptism and rebirth, and clouds—an ascension. These works continue his examination of nature and our sometimes ebullient, often indifferent, attitude toward it. His California Mission: Horse (2006), seen at right, presents the impenetrable looking glass that no longer projects our image, making palpable the lament of Mr. Gray’s fellow traveler, William Wordsworth, “And I could wish my days to be bound each to each by natural piety.” Max King Cap


Edward Hyde, Esq.


Conducting the Berliner Philharmoniker (in pajamas and robe on Sunday mornings in our Pittsburgh basement rec room) my father’s creased eyes betrayed the nascent glisten of rapture. This was his private time. I wanted no more to see him cry than he wanted to be seen because in all things, other than his Sunday commune with the RCA stereophonic console, he was a hard man who equated sentiment with weakness.

We are, at least the greatest number of us, wallflowers at the “Emotional Expression Ball”. We’ve even veneered this infirmity as a virtue, an emotional poker face concealing our tender and vulnerable selves. Of course, there are those who are too effusive, too ready with their emotions. We regard them with suspicion. They frighten us with their rawness, much as do the mentally unstable who sometimes accost us in the street, unnerving us with their unfiltered sentiments. We’d prefer surrogates do our emoting, employing a variety of diversions to wrench our unwilling feelings from us—sports, melodrama, and horror.

This last area—horror, fear, the bogeyman—is the subject of the exhibition, In Love With Night, that has assembled a number of compelling American and international artists to explore darkness, romance, terror, and dreams through interpretations of our physical and psychological fascination with nighttime. Featuring objects, installations, video, and photography, the works draw on contemporary and historical imagery that interprets night in both its objective and symbolic conditions, for night has remained the unguarded frontier of our dominion over the earth, or at least our little part of it, the self. Apart from the very real fears of darkness such as the concealment of danger, the propensity for accidents, and the lonely vulnerability, the night represents the unknown and the unknowable—fears of unexpected transformations, things out of balance, and secrets made known.


Guided by a belief that adoption is rather like buying a pig in a poke, some parents will endure any medical procedure and bear any expense to have a child that shares their DNA. This, of course, is eugenics by another name and suggests a naïveté that assumes biological children are less likely to turn out rotten. The Aryan Brotherhood prison gang is full of sons raised by their biological parents and the stranger/foundling has a long history of suspicion mixed with celebration—Moses, President Gerald Ford, Kaspar Hauser—but Chicago artist Jill Thompson, herself an adoptee, has created artwork for A Dog and His Boy (Dark Horse Book of Monsters, et al) that captures the chief fears of youth; abandonment, displacement, and puberty. Ms. Thompson creates a series of images that tread that tortuous path between a childish yearning for freedom and its attendant fears. The boy, adopted by a pack of hounds, is not merely a stranger; he is also of an age when uncontrollable urges make strange demands upon the body, causing it to change rapidly. Alternating between tender and terrifying Ms. Thompson’s images show the boy as fragile, in his forlorn abandonment, and ferocious, when he transforms into a ravenous and uncontrollable werewolf. The wolf in sheep’s clothing, and many other fables and fairy tales, illustrate our ancient folk traditions and religious beliefs.

According to Hamlet, “…the devil hath power to assume a pleasing shape…” (Hamlet, Prince of Denmark,
II, ii, 434-435). Such a devil is revealed in the work of Dutch artist Erik van der Weijde, who photographs the ice-skating rinks and playing fields used as hunting grounds by Belgian fiend Marc Dutroux, who kidnapped, enslaved, and tortured six young girls. The photos of recreation centers frequented by the notorious serial killer have an evidentiary appearance and without the knowledge of their significance they could easily pass for the mundane civic documentation of a neighborhood clean-up plan. That quality is precisely what makes them so distressing, the locations are resolutely nondescript. An analog of this work might be Chloe Piene’s video work, Blackmouth (2006), that shows a muddied girl, attempting to stand, as if newly foaled, and falling again into the muck. The howling girl, perhaps twelve years old, seems ambivalent of her transformation. It is a slippery path she will now follow and these earlier stumblings, she appears to know, will seem nostalgic in comparison to the world of pain ahead.


Darkness has an unfair advantage. Whether it is merely the inability to see or the influence of those mysterious and proverbial unseen forces, darkness puts us off balance. Brian Azzarello’s 100 Bullets series for DC Comics’ adult imprint Vertigo tells the story of vengeance made possible. Rather than hopelessly lashing out at loved ones or strangers 100 Bullets offers a scenario, in each installment, for genuine revenge. Illustrated with stunning economy by Eduardo Risso, 100 Bullets shows us that we have a taste, but often not the stomach, for justice. This imbalance continues with the vertiginous work of Shana Lutker, who builds and documents familiar interiors that she has never visited, reconstructing the wayward architecture glimpsed only in the illogical fragments of her dreams. Yet our dreams are often more memorable than our waking life.

Some in light, some in darkness,

That's the kind of world we're in.

Those we see are in the daylight

Those in darkness don't get seen.

This quatrain of Mack the Knife from Brecht’s Three Penny Opera could easily be the theme song for the Department of Nocturnal Affairs (DNA), a Los Angeles-based collective who, as both a work of installation and performance art, document and publicize the night animals in this pseudo-paradise we call Southern California. Unshakably on the side of the animals, DNA is happiest when nature, annoyed by our arrogance, reminds us just who’s in charge by placing a coyote in a traffic intersection, a cougar on the hill above a schoolyard.


Forgers and con artists (and sociopaths) trade upon the desires and expectations of their victims. Blinded by their eagerness to clues of deceit, the victim realizes too late the depth of their credulity and the architecture of their avid belief comes tumbling down. The fake Vermeers of Han van Meegeren, the Hitler diaries, the seemingly endless supply of pantomime scions of famous families; all produce their illusion by enlisting us as their co-conspirator to keep ourselves in the dark. Osaka artist Michiko Yao reveals her unpleasant truth slowly and sweetly. Her Samsara Pleasure Principle II, (2008), is a video installation that recalls Dutch vanitas painting and would pass admirably as a reiteration of mortality, yet the conqueror worm in this instance is a toy and the dying flowers artificial. Implied is the power of ritual and artifice to manipulate at will and an admission of its intent to keep exploiting that authority. A similar authority is referenced and exploited in the work of Inga Dorosz. Untitled (2005-2007) allows us to gaze into the infinite blackness of space, as if passing through a belt of asteroids. Based upon a discussion by two Irishman on the limits of infinity, the San Francisco-based Dorosz has built a fragment of the universe through the sly photography of homely potatoes. The revelation of family secrets­­––we all have skeletons in the closet––tend to rewrite our personal histories, putting the lie to the good old days, as Ken Gonzales-Day’s works testify. His Into Eternity (2006) discloses the twisted and unforgettable branches of our family tree, with its strange and bitter fruit.


There is a reason we take copious photographs of weddings and birthdays but almost never of deathbeds and funerals. Good times are ephemeral and need explicit evidence to be evoked. What was once euphoric is eventually diffused into a brief smile of recollection, an ever-dimming echo. Sorrow and fear, however, have an ineffaceable staying power and need no catalyst to materialize. They return with undiminished power, even fortified with repeated visitations; the blood quickens, the emotions reel and the bizarre and complex function of our humanity is put on full display—we bristle with life. This is so intoxicating that without a genuine event we are obliged to prime the pump of our soul by proxy, inventing and indulging in counterfeits that produce that same addictive delirium—the weeping, the screaming, and the trembling of the hairbreadth escape.

Max King Cap

images top to bottom
Chloe Piene
Jill Thompson
Eduardo Russo
Ken Gonzalez-Day

Tuesday, October 5, 2010


Kyungmi Shin

The devotional experience of the Gothic cathedral is a masterstroke of stagecraft; the upward gaze darkening as it rises, airily tinted by the fading light from the clerestory; the stone columns, like great trees, of a diameter five men can barely encompass, the smoking censer, the glowing cassocks, the Ave Maria…all these are manipulations of the audience experience, all evocations of future memories.

The photographs and installations of Los Angeles artist Kyungmi Shin follow a similar strategy. From her elegant and wretched 2004 work WarCuts––that excises the images of military personnel from the print reportage (that itself is dying)—a lacework of newsprint that festively curtains from its perch upon wall, to her 2007 Rich/Yellow that gives us a color photograph, large and segmented, of a forested coastline vitiated with the hastily, hand-inscribed word “rich”, a cataloguer’s brief pause before moving on to the conquest of other costa ricas; her inventions have recreated, juggled, and restaged our essential relations to our cultural hallmarks.

The urge to remake our world is an effort, in essence, to remake ourselves, a drive as old as the fable of Adam and Eve willfully partaking of the fruit of knowledge. Becoming as gods themselves was the bill of goods sold them by the wily serpent and the urge has been with us ever since. Evincing this creation of an Eden of our own is New York’s Central Park and Boston’s Emerald Necklace, completely contrived imitations of the natural world. They are utopian fantasies, egalitarian parks designed to reassure the wealthy and uplift the poor; as the rise of cities was accused of the coarsening of society such faux paradises were considered the antidote. These parks, and other works of Frederick Law Olmstead, godfather of landscape architecture, are, however, unabashedly romantic views of paradise; an arcadia of the people that never quite lived up to its promise.

Ms. Shin makes no attempt to appeal to the image of our ideal selves. Her works are an unflinching view of the world as we have made it, chaotic, relentless, and hostile to reproof. Her Babel, a two-storey cataract of photographs, refuse, and recycling is provisional architecture of the kind we are drawn to create. Confirming the gated community and the favela as diametric twins upon the circular architectural continuum, just as today’s McMansion is the verso of an A.M.E. church housed in a former synagogue, Ms. Shin’s is a fourth dimensional architecture. Valued items are eventually discarded, refashioned, then finally become fashionable again as a green commodity. The photos included in this construction (among many other ingredients) place, without judgment, the luxury construction in Dubai alongside images of Ghanaian shantytowns, as equivalencies. Her tower is the cognate object of all human endeavor, a jerry-built bulwark against obscurity.

Of Will Rogers’s famous and naïve pronouncement, “A stranger’s just a friend I haven’t met”, Ms. Shin’s view is the opposite, the currently valuable as future junk (and all of us eager packrats), a view comparable to the falsity of freshly picked flowers–– already dead but unwilling to admit it.

Max King Cap

Friday, August 20, 2010



It is Ahab’s phantom limb, that fully palpable but completely intangible pentimento of loss. It is why we love antiquing, respect our elders, and revere the crackled canvases of the old masters. A storefront, too, can display this intuition; its barren mannequins revealed as scarecrows alone in a darkened but embarrassingly public alcove. It is a territory full of poignant relics, with every direction magnetic. To navigate it we have the three artists in this exhibition, Matt Ohm, Tim Ripley, and Deborah Boardman.

We all have a homeland. For some it is an actual place with longitude and latitude, for others it exists as an amalgam of evocative smells and embroidered recollections. Some we long for, others are the milestones by which we measure our escape. Matthew Ohm, of Long Beach CA, toggles the two locations. With a freehand schematic on a plank of smooth poplar he has shown us in Wilton, Wisconsin, 2005, a vision of a forest clear-cut into glade. The stumps show their rings with the elegant economy of cartoon spirals as they diminish into a distance without horizon, without end. On further inspection we find the plank to be plywood, its fine surface merely a veneer, its image not wood inlay but mere oil paint. This is a concoction of appearances. If one is deceitful can the other be trusted? Is there even such a place as Wilton, Wisconsin? That he would just as soon hack a tree as hug one is demonstrated in Smudge, 2007, another process-oriented work that required him to cut down a bush and from it make charcoal, some of the branches supplying the fuel needed for the transformation, others becoming the end product. With this charcoal he attempts to draw from memory the bush, now consumed, that began the process of primitive, smoky manufacture.

Like the corporations and products they represent, corporate logos have a life span. Introduced, they may fail to thrive and quickly disappear. Others gain some purchase in the public mind and the merchant’s shelves and from there can hope to become indispensable to the consuming public. If successful they might attain a cross-generational iconic equity; Encyclopedia Britannica’s thistle logo has heralded the product’s Scottish origins for nearly 250 years and Procter & Gamble’s moon-and-stars insignia enjoyed 130 years of success before being retired due to preposterous attacks as a symbol of Satanism, but Schlitz beer and its florid script device has gone from market prominence as late as the 1970s to the product ash heap alongside Ironized Yeast Tablets whose weight-gain advertisements warned that, “No skinny man has an ounce of sex appeal.” North Carolina native Tim Ripley understands our consumerist passion and combines two seemingly antithetical aspects of it. On one side there is our low price obsession that has created the Wal-Mart juggernaut, on the other is the luxury goods fetish––monograms and signatures as symbols of status for which we will pay dearly. His Building (a painting) Support 2000 features both postures. Through a veil of manufactured patina we recognize Elmer the Bull (husband of Elsie the Cow, chief spokes-animal for the Borden corporation), trademark of Elmer’s Glue-All, that cheap and ubiquitous adhesive found in every home, office, and classroom. Below and above the Elmer image is the refrigerator-style font spelling out Makita, maker of sumptuously essential power tools. Both are faded images however, in transit toward the way of all worldly goods, soon to be puzzled over like the side of a weathered building featuring the muted illustration of the beer that made Milwaukee famous.

To broadcast was originally a term to describe sowing. Artisan’s signs and heraldic shields are the forebears of Donald Trump’s hair and Apple Computer’s fruit-of-knowledge silhouette, the distilling of a greater entity into a recognizable and disseminable graphic nugget. These images were and are sown widely to generate the greatest return in profit, power, and persona. Dissatisfied with the failure of the Susan B. Anthony and Sacagawea dollar coins Chicago artist Deborah Boardman has, in the tradition of eccentrics who crown themselves emperor and fashion their own uniforms, crafted her own currency of indeterminate denomination, hand-painted specie bearing the likenesses of Miami Indians instead of their more familiar 18th century counterparts. Similarly, Blue Emblem, 2003, shown above, is Boardman’s version of a regal cartouche wiped clean, an open gateway to possess and participate in a code of chivalry (self-authored), the notion of a champion (we all should have one), a wealth of heirlooms (our misplaced inheritance), and title to a romantic, if fictive, past.