Art Appreciation Marathon: Part 2 of 2 – Toronto, North Adams, New York City, Beacon

Our first art event upon returning from Europe (see Part 1 of 2) was to attend the play Helen Lawrence at Canadian Stage in Toronto. Stan Douglas, a photo-artist, and Chris Haddock, a TV writer and producer, collaborated in creating a visually and intellectually engaging stage and film hybrid set in post-WWII Vancouver.

The audience is challenged to absorb the live action of the actors, the concurrent film of their performance projected on a see-through screen in front of the stage and the distraction of the camera operators, who are also on stage recording the play as it unfolds. The production is a remarkable sleight of hand. I easily got into the story and had no problem changing my focus from the live to the projected action. The only slight distraction for me was that I would pause every now and then to marvel at how the actors’ movements on stage matched so seamlessly the projected scenery. Helen Lawrence is a wonderful piece of theatre.

Scene from Helen Lawrence by Stan Douglas and Chris Haddock

Scene from Helen Lawrence by Stan Douglas and Chris Haddock

Near the end of October we set off with friends on an art-tour road trip, travelling first to North Adams to visit the Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art (MASS MoCA). This is our second visit to MASS MoCA and we were again impressed by size of this art facility. Over 140,000 square feet of exhibition space fashioned out of a series of stunningly renovated 19th century factories – all this, set in a town of 14,000 people in the midst of the Berkshire Mountains.

A major magnet at MASS MoCA is the three floors of galleries featuring Sol Lewitt: A Wall Drawing Retrospective which opened in 2008 and will remain up until 2033.

Sol LeWitt, L: Wall Drawing 901, 1999 and R: Wall Drawing 1081, 2003

Sol LeWitt, L: Wall Drawing 901, 1999 and R: Wall Drawing 1081, 2003

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The more than 100 wall drawings on display span four decades of Lewitt’s work. This is an exhibition not to be missed as you will likely never again have the opportunity to see such a large and varied example of his genius. He is recognized as a major driving force of minimalism and conceptualism and is most famous for separating the act of conceiving a work of art from the act of executing it.

Sol LeWitt, Wall Drawing 146A, 2000

Sol LeWitt, Wall Drawing 146A, 2000

Lewitt created a schematic outline of instructions for each piece and his view is that these instructions constitute the work of art.  For him, it is the idea and not its physical representation that is his art.  For example, an illustrated index of the combinations of marks, their repetitions and placement upon the grid are provided as shown below for Wall Drawing 146A, 2000.

Wall Drawing 146A, 2000 schematic

Wall Drawing 146A, 2000 schematic

Of the 13 other artists being exhibited, the most compelling was Darren Waterston’s installation Filthy Lucre, 2013-14 which was part of his exhibition Uncertain Beauty. The creative reference for the installation was an 1876-77 work by James McNeill Whistler entitled Harmony in Blue and Gold: The Peacock Room. Waterston riffs off the tension that existed between Whistler and his patron – a disagreement over the fee and the resulting changes made by the artist to the original plan for a room in the patron’s home. Waterston presents us with a room in decay and ruin, a distorted replica of the original, providing an imaginary representation of the underside of beauty with the lustre gone from the material trappings of conspicuous wealth.

Darren Waterston, Filthy Lucre 2013-14

Darren Waterston, Filthy Lucre 2013-14

Our first stop in New York City was to visit the Cathedral Church of Saint John the Divine and Xu Bing’s Phoenix, 2008-10. Using discarded construction materials Xu Bing has created two 150 foot long phoenixes weighing in excess of 20 tons and has suspended them from the cathedral’s ceiling about 15 feet above the ground.

Xu Bing, Phoenix 2008-10, Cathedral Church of Saint John the Divine, NYC

Xu Bing, Phoenix 2008-10, Cathedral Church of Saint John the Divine, NYC

Xu Bing, a contemporary of Ai Weiwei (see Ai Weiwei: Art and Politics in China, March, 2012), is currently the head of the Central Academy of Fine Arts in Beijing. Similar to Ai Weiwei his work often speaks to contemporary social and political issues in China. Both artists have expressed concerns with how China, Beijing in particular, is changing at the expense of its history and architecture. The old is being replaced with the new with little regard for neighbourhoods and communities.

Originally commissioned to create the centerpiece of a new commercial complex in Beijing, Xu Bing lost the contract when the developers realized that the raw material for the piece was being drawn from construction waste at the complex site. Using discarded materials (feathers fashioned from shovels, crowns made of hard hats and heads formed from jackhammers) Xu Bing created an intricate and elaborate depiction of a male (Feng) and female (Huang) phoenix in flight. It is a remarkable work that tells a multitude of stories and you cannot help but be impressed with the imagination and creative skill that lie behind this installation.

Xu Bing, Phoenix detail, MASS MoCA

Xu Bing, Phoenix detail, MASS MoCA

I first saw the Phoenixes last year at MASS MoCA. I thought that its presentation there was far more powerful as the detail of the construction, the sense of flight and its crude beauty was on full display. There were no other distractions, just two massive creatures flying above your head. The Gothic structure, the pillars and the stained-glass windows of the Cathedral seem to be in competition with Xu Bing’s work and distract from it.

Xu Bing, Phoenix 2008-10, MASS MoCA

Xu Bing, Phoenix 2008-10, MASS MoCA

At the Metropolitan Museum of Art we visited the Leonard A. Lauder Collection: Cubism consisting of eighty pieces by the four stars of the movement: George Braque, Juan Gris, Fernand Leger, and Pablo Picasso. The works on display highlight the influence of Picasso and Braque in the period 1909-14 and you are able to see how each played off the other, sometimes not being able to tell the difference between them. It was interesting to learn from the gallery notes that two significant sources of inspiration for Picasso and Braque, as they moved towards their cubist style, were the fractured planes and perspectives of Paul Cezanne and the raw simple forms of wooden West African masks. The exhibition was a unique crash course in cubism and an impressive representative survey of the movement’s stars.

Georges Braque, Violin: Mozart Kubelick, 1912

Georges Braque, Violin: Mozart Kubelick, 1912

Pablo Picasso, The Scallop Shell: Notre Avenir est dans l'Air, 1912

Pablo Picasso, The Scallop Shell: Notre Avenir est dans l’Air, 1912

Art Appreciation Marathon: Part 2 will be continued.

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About George

My long-time interest in Canadian and international contemporary art has led me to write and reflect on the artists I've met, the exhibitions that I've seen and the catalogues that I've read (I've been told I'm the only person that actually reads exhibition catalogues cover to cover). My interest began in the mid-1960's when I was searching for easy credits and I stumbled upon "Art Appreciation 101", and the rest, as they say, is history...
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