evan moffitt

Month: November, 2015

SARAH AWAD

Diane Rosenstein Gallery, Los Angeles

DRFA_Sarah Awad_Pied-à-terre_2015_Oil and Cel-Vinyl on canvas_72 x 84 inches

Published in Art in America, November 2015

Sarah Awad’s paintings are sluices barely holding back a flood of Fauvist color. An emerald canopy bursts through an indigo grate. Dark leafy smears clash with splashes of fluorescent lime. Warring daubs of crimson and cornflower capture the full flame of a desert sunset.

Awad’s previous work was a lively and lucid play with odalisques and other motifs from classical painting. But for the twelve medium-sized paintings and six small works on paper in “Gate Paintings,” her fourth solo show, Awad has turned her gaze to ornament. In each painting, she renders a front-yard fence with broad strokes of oil on a canvas coated with matte Cel-Vinyl. The airy garden glimpsed through the subtle suggestion of a grid pulls the viewer from the pancake flatness of the Modernist plane into a semblance of spatial depth.

When depicted shut, a gate is a formal device that encourages the eye to look beyond its bars. As a grid it makes the painting flat; as a portal it gives it dimension. Pied-a-terre (all works 2015) spans two canvases, a small square attached to a larger rectangle, and the gate seems to swing across the joint. One can almost imagine the posts painted in the work’s right side cresting a low brick wall that hems the stoop of a Brooklyn brownstone. Exuberant gestural strokes accrue as the playful, repetitious curlicues of ornamental ironwork. There’s a surprising amount of movement in Awad’s vision of a static object that is designed to limit movement. Each whorl twists off its rigid frame like a wiry hair stubbornly resisting the grid’s comb. This unruliness peaks in Blue Hour, where the lattice of a metal fence swaddled in crepuscular purple snarls like an errant kudzu vine, twisting in rusty tones at the painting’s lower lip.

In Studio @ 9, the door to Awad’s own studio is split by shades of ochre and cobalt. The screen door, a ubiquitous feature of L.A.’s industrial art spaces, allows light to pass in one direction. Its surface catches afternoon sun, turning opaque to passersby while remaining transparent to those inside. At night, interior light casts a glow on the sidewalk; the solid barrier becomes a translucent membrane. In the painting this transmission of light acquires a palpable presence. The sun’s full swoop is frozen in chromatic contrast.

In The Poetics of Space, French phenomenologist Gaston Bachelard said of the word “door” that “through meaning it encloses, while through poetic expression it opens up.” The same could be said of Awad’s gates and their relationship to the history of painting. If Awad felt fenced in by the opposition of abstraction and figuration, the works in “Gate Paintings” managed to escape this constricting narrative by refusing to commit to either style. As much as the paintings seduce with surface beauty, they invite us to break through the picture plane and enter a garden of possibility.

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HOWARDENA PINDELL

Honor Fraser, Los Angeles

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Published in Frieze, Issue 175, November-December 2015

Howardena Pindell made the collages in her first West Coast solo show at Honor Fraser using the simple medium of hole-punched painted paper. Colourful chads are affixed to thin wire or string armatures that form delicate grids on the surface of museum board backings. Many hang from tiny daubs of glue in seemingly random arrangements, like a child’s dashed fistful of rainbow glitter.

For most of her 40-year career, Pindell eschewed figurative art in favour of abstraction, partly to undermine the market’s aesthetic expectations of ‘black contemporary art’. As a result, critics considered her work insufficiently political; but her politics reveal themselves upon close study. Pindell’s visual preference for details over generalities is an aesthetic corollary to her belief in the value of human subjectivity. In her abstract collages, identity is atomized: vibrant dots, like unique human individuals, refuse to fully bond in the service of a whole. Each numbered form demands precise attention. Pindell has said that she chooses her numbers randomly. Rather than direct the eye outside of the frame, they draw it towards each labelled paper particle. The tension between compositional unity and singular detail gives the small, layered works a formidable yet lively presence.

While making her earliest collages, Pindell served as the Associate Curator of Prints and Illustrated Books at MoMA, New York. Hole-punch scraps are a natural medium for someone accustomed to bureaucratic paperwork. But Pindell’s brightly hued chads seem to tremble on their threads like tiny flapping flags. Neither static nor flat, they stretch out towards the viewer as dynamic sculptural objects. In Untitled #27 (2003), for instance, razor-thin black paper circles jut out from their board backing like a bed of mussel shells on the belly of a seafront pier. The dense composition in Untitled #42 (2004–05) recalls a frozen flurry of red and white blood cells. In Untitled 6F (2008–09), a collage with the contours of a cumulus cloud, each cut-paper disc, coloured with an iridescent watercolour wash, seems, despite its resolute flatness, to shimmer like the scale of a rainbow trout.

On her travels in Africa, Pindell was inspired by the layered detail in indigenous costume and scarification. In many West African cultures, refined bodily adornment offers the wearer a means to communicate with spirits. Pindell was drawn to this idea of aesthetic transcendence, which she felt was absent from the cold conceptual concerns of Western contemporary art. The body is a space on which the free play of decorative ornament produces surface tension, like the wire frames on which she layers paper.

Pindell’s subdued politics sharpened in a series of ‘video drawings’ on display. Storms of arrows drawn in marker pen brew over photographs of paused television footage like a football coach’s notes on offensive plays. Indeed, many of the images show athletes in strained poses: linemen mid-tackle, sprinters bowed at starting blocks. Pindell has called the drawings formal exercises that break down the material structure of images by underlining the movement of figures. More than mere pictorial analysis, though, the drawings have a sharp, dissecting power. In one drawing, white faces cheer on two black boxers trading blows. Their heads folded inward, we cannot identify either man, but it is clear they have been thrown together in order to tear each other apart. The arrows emphasize the centripetal pressure of their violent embrace. In this context, the black bodies of Pindell’s chosen athletes seem less heroic than sacrificial.

Aside from the darker subtext of her video drawings, Pindell’s works are ultimately uplifting. With sparkling colours and animated arrangements, she highlights the parts of us worthy of attention. The result is a confetti-like celebration of life’s dazzling diversity, one that always begs a closer look.

THE BROAD: BEYOND THE VEIL

Los Angeles

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Published in Apollo, November 2015 

In Los Angeles, cultural institutions are carved from dry earth by billionaire scions. With the opening of his $160 million museum this month, real estate mogul-turned-philanthropist Eli Broad became the latest addition to a list that includes Armand Hammer, J. Paul Getty, Norton Simon, Gene Autry, and Frederick Weisman. Known simply as “The Broad,” the museum houses 2,000 works acquired over five decades behind a sparkling new façade on Grand Avenue, designed by Elizabeth Diller of star firm Diller Scofidio + Renfro. It is the latest addition to the architectural pastiche of downtown’s Bunker Hill, a formerly dense Victorian neighborhood razed in the 1960s to make way for a civic acropolis. Diller’s design, a jewel-box cased in concrete, is an apt metonym for the institution’s treasure-chest philosophy, marking both its strengths and limitations.

Diller describes this approach as “the veil and the vault.” A porous, alabaster-white curtain of angular incisions—slanted panels of cast glass fiber reinforced concrete (GFRC)— lifts seamlessly at two entrances. The panels filter diffuse yet surprisingly natural light into an expansive third floor gallery. The cavernous, womblike lobby marries organic fluidity with the obdurate modernist material of polished concrete. Cool yet subdued, it offers respite from the sun that bakes the downtown asphalt. Curving walls and ceilings give the impression of a cresting wave, the building’s monumental mass almost ready to come crashing down. Unusually for an art museum, the entire collection is housed onsite in a vault visible through two picture windows in a central stairwell. A pedagogically popular conceit in new museum design, the windows offer viewers a glimpse of the real-time storage and lending programs that will define The Broad, like a physical declaration of the institutional transparency to which the museum, at least in theory, aspires. It’s an appreciated but voyeuristic touch, like a glass-paned diorama in the queue for a space-age Disneyland ride.

The conditions of The Broad’s unveiling are as fraught as any in recent memory. The collection’s highlights were formerly displayed in the Broad Contemporary Art Museum, a Renzo Piano-designed addition to the Los Angeles County Museum of Art financed personally by Broad, who retracted his tentative offer to donate them just before opening day as a rumored snub to LACMA Director Michael Govan. Its new location on Bunker Hill lies across the street from the Museum of Contemporary Art, where in 2008, as founding board chairman, Broad catastrophically installed New York gallerist Jeffrey Deitch as Director. Broad’s unsurpassed generosity has always come with strings attached. Veils can drop and vaults can lock; opacity is never far away.

On the whole, the collection is a grab bag of the bluest chips. Joanne Heyler, the museum’s founding director, curated its inaugural exhibition with commercial flair. Prior to her takeover of the Broad Art Foundation, Heyler was the Broads’ art advisor for nearly thirty years. Her debut looks like it was arranged by an art advisor, showcasing cost before quality. After a short escalator ride to the third floor gallery, visitors are first greeted by the glossy welcome mat of Koons’s Tulips (1995-98) and Christopher Wool’s Untitled text paintings (all 1990), a pairing more photogenic than informative. Most rooms are dedicated to a single artist: there is a Hirst room, a Warhol room, an Artschwager room. Heyler seems to have forgotten that conversation is impossible when only one person is talking. This is a Billboard Top 40 marathon of greatest hits, revealing less about context than market tastes.

In galleries that Broad’s collection couldn’t fill with the work of a single artist, corresponding temporal logic produces baffling results. David Wonjarowicz, whose queer, abrasive art assailed the selfsame institutions of capitalism and heteronormativity, would be presumably miffed to see his work hanging next to the overvalued paintings of his masculinist contemporaries Julian Schnabel and David Salle. The only parting message is that some people painted in New York in the 1980s. If decadism is a sanitizing curatorial sin, The Broad is surely hellbound.

The few women whose works the Broads collected are sidelined. Kara Walker’s silhouettes appear in a far corner past rooms filled with materially and conceptually unrelated works by male artists. Any visitor who finds Jenny Holzer’s 10 Inflammatory Essays (1979-82) deserves a prize: tucked on the backside of a wall pressed up against an exterior window, the powerful political piece is installed as if someone wished it hidden.

Several gems are worth the price of free admission. Bateau de Guerre (2001), Chris Burden’s whizzing battleship of children’s toys, is a charming surprise suspended in a ground floor gallery. Nearby, a room of Thomas Struth’s Audience (Galleria dell’Accademia) photographs (all 2004) amuse with their Brechtian candor, turning the eye to art-gazing audiences in Florence’s legendary museum. One hopes The Broad will actively encourage the self-reflection that Struth achieves with only a camera and photo paper; at least Diller’s building solicits as many curious gazes as that Florentine palazzo.

Running an art museum is politically challenging business. Internal operations can be subject to the scrutiny of institutional criticism, and it’s clear from its opening show that The Broad lacks self-awareness. Across the street, in MOCA’s newly hung permanent collection, Andrea Fraser dry-humps the “sensuously curved” lobby wall of Gehry’s Bilbao Guggenheim in Little Frank and His Carp (2001), making a mockery of placeless, private art museums. Such spaces, as Fraser demonstrates, are showrooms rather than classrooms, designed to awe instead of educate. Heyler now must prove the Broad collection needed its own institution by doing what the museums it lends to couldn’t. Helming a hefty $200 million endowment, will she gobble up new works by younger artists like a private European art foundation, or focus on progressive public programming, like the Hammer? Will The Broad become a space for rigorous academic research, like the Getty? Will it continue to lend work widely, or shut its vault and keep fan favorites on the wall? Without an adequate answer to these questions, L.A.’s newest contemporary exhibition space will gleam only with an old-fashioned luster, like the palace of a faded monarch. It will have nothing new to offer.