Monthly Archives: December 2014

Amsterdam Art Weekend

This report from the Amsterdam Art Weekend appeared on artforum.com:

Left: ‘An Evening with Anthony McCall’ at EYE. (Photo: Dimer van Santen) Right: Artists Gabriel Lester, Laurent-David Garnier, and Carlotta Guerra. (Except where noted, all photos: Agnieszka Gratza)

A MAN WALKS into a bar and greets another: “Wasabi.”

What on earth does that mean? “What’s up,” artist Gabriel Lester had to spell it out for me.

The bar, furnished with slanted black wooden stools designed by Robert Wilhite to facilitate encounters rather than comfort, is the setting for BOB’s YOUR UNCLE, a recurring event at the back of the Kunstverein in Amsterdam’s lively De Pijp district. That Friday, warming saffron vodka cocktails as well as a pale cloudy concoction were being served, courtesy of perfumer-turned-artist Laurent-David Garnier. “Saffron is the new red,” he assured me.

Following on the heels of a slew of gallery openings the previous night that ushered in the third edition of the Amsterdam Art Weekend, the Kunstverein’s Maxine Kopsa and Juliètte Jongma, director of the adjacent gallery, teamed up to host the second event in the Eau de Cologne series. Named after dealer Monika Sprüth’s female-focused magazine, published intermittently in the 1980s and ’90s, Eau de Cologne #2 featured, in addition to Garnier’s offerings, live music from Tommy Oost, one of the artists produced by the independent label I’m With Her Records, which Kopsa, Jongma, and Juliaan Andeweg set up earlier this year.Left: Frieze cofounder Matthew Slotover and Stedelijk Museum director Beatrix Ruf. (Photo: Jan Boeve) Right: Artist Anna Ostoya.

After the gig, some of us headed out to the EYE Film Institute—a short ferry-ride from the Amsterdam Central Station across the IJ lake—to hear the soft-spoken British artist Anthony McCall talk about his work, one of the weekend’s well-attended lectures. The audience spilled out of the auditorium into the exhibition rooms where several of McCall’s “solid light films” are on view, illustrating his claim that these living, breathing sculptural objects encourage their own brand of sociability. The cigarette smoke and dust that gave the light cones substance in the 1970s, when they were first projected in alternative art spaces, have since been replaced by fog machines.

Another sign of the times: Frieze mogul Matthew Slotover, whom I spotted in the lecture theater, was in town to talk art and capital alongside Beatrix Ruf, the new director of the Stedelijk Museum, at De Balie, a place that prides itself on fostering critical debate. “I’m going to get bashed by all the Dutch revolutionaries,” Slotover told me, sheepishly. I clutch my copy of a biography of the fiery anarchist speaker Emma Goldman, nicknamed “Red Emma.” One of Goldman’s spirited replies lies behind the unwieldy name of that much-loved Amsterdam institution, If I Can’t Dance, I Don’t Want To Be Part Of Your Revolution. Its rich program of guest lectures, performances, and workshops, part of the weeklong Performance Days festival, coincided with the Amsterdam Art Weekend.

Art and capital were very much on the agenda at the Manifesta-hosted Sunday brunch introducing Berlin-based artist Christian Jankowski as the chief curator for Manifesta 11. His curatorial concept for the 2016 edition of the nomadic European Biennial, which will take place in Zurich, involves connecting visiting artists with professionals of every ilk, and not just bankers. The engaging title—“What People Do For Money: Some Joint Ventures”—was prematurely leaked, according to Jankowski, but he stands by it. “Why this insistence on money?” I asked. “Because people wake up when they hear the word,” he said.

Left: Curator Chus Martinez and PR person Rhiannon Pickles. Right: Maria Isserlis, Manifesta director Hedwig Fijen, and artist and curator Christian Jankowski.

Modeled after the successful Berlin Gallery Weekend, Amsterdam Art Weekend plays to the Dutch capital’s strengths. “Amsterdam is very good at discovering and developing young artists,” said Adriana Gonzalez Hulshof, the glamorous Dutch-Peruvian art historian who is at the helm of AAW. Designed to attract collectors, from neighboring Belgium especially, the long weekend was originally an initiative of Rijksakademie director Els van Odijk, and the RijksakademieOPEN remains the main draw for many visitors.

I cycled out there with my hosts on Saturday morning, stopping en route to visit the Vivian Maier retrospective at Foam, Amsterdam’s photography museum. Located in former military barracks, the Rijksakademie—with its warren of studios spread over several floors and connected buildings—is home to fifty resident artists from all over the world. An hour after it opened its doors to the public, the place was already abuzz. More modest in scale, the first-year show at the nearby De Ateliers completed the circuit of artist residencies, in which the city justifiably takes pride.

The same can be said for De Appel’s Curatorial and Gallerist programs, whose participants had their own moment to shine at the discussion around “Curating and dealing performance,” organized by the arts center. “When Elephants Come Marching In,” a patchy group show exploring the legacy of 1960s psychedelia and conceptualism, took over De Appel’s exhibition spaces. The theme certainly has currency in Amsterdam; that very weekend, LED panels all over the city center flashed dire warnings about white heroin being sold as cocaine on the streets.

Left: Stedelijk Museum curator Hendrik Folkerts with artist Emily Roysdon. Right: Maxine Kopsa, director of Kunstverein Amsterdam with Juliaan Andeweg and Juliette Jongma, all of I’m With Her Records.

One of the indisputable highlights of Amsterdam Art Weekend was Tony Ousler’s site-specific installation for the city’s oldest building, the thirteenth-century Oude Kerk, situated right in the middle of the red-light district, a short distance from De Appel. When I arrived, a performance responding to Ousler’s work was taking place, sadly in Dutch; I concentrated instead on the talking figures of different sizes projected here and there on the walls, the vaulted wooden ceiling, the stained-glass windows, the misericords in the choir, as if designed to bring out the best features of the wonderful old church.

Destined for the Stedelijk Museum’s smooth white façade, Ousler’s outdoor projection echoing the one at the Oude Kerk was unveiled in the evening, shortly before the start of the AAW reception, which saw an elegant crowd mill around the museum’s grand staircase. The bright lights, the height of ceilings, and the event’s glitzy nature made me instantly long for the warm and congenial atmosphere of Performance Days, staged in a set of cottage-like buildings and in the garden of the former SKOR Foundation for Art and Public Domain (a casualty of Dutch funding cuts), where I heard the keynote speaker Chus Martínez extol the virtues of procrastination.

Things grew more relaxed at the afterparty on the ground floor of the prodigiously ornate Stadsschouwburg theater. The talk turned briefly to Alicia Framis’s transparent Plexiglas Confessional Room at Annet Gelink Gallery, where, throughout the weekend, visitors could open up to a priest for all to see—if not really hear. “They had to bring the priest in from Spain,” someone said wryly. But soon the place became too busy and loud to entertain any thought of conversation.

Left: Vivian Ziherl, curator of If I Can’t Dance, and artist Gerry Bibby. Right: Rijksmuseum director of collections Taco Dibbits.

Best of 2014

This round-up of my three favourite show in a French context appeared on artforum.com:

Latifa Echakhch, L’air du temps, 2013, chinese ink, wooden cloud scenery, canvas, acrylic paint, and steel wire, dimensions variable. Installation view, Centre Pompidou, Paris, 2014.

ALEXANDRA BACHZETSIS’S RIVETING NEW PERFORMANCE and installation piece, From A to B via C, comes in three versions, respectively destined for theatrical, museum, and online viewing. I caught the premiere of the first iteration staged as part of the Biennial of Moving Images at the Centre d’Art Contemporain in Geneva (September 18 to 19, 2014). Three dancers—including Bachzetsis herself—mirrored each other as they went from mimicking athletic movements to following an online tutorial on how to dance like Beyoncé and then on to executing ballet instructions. Throughout, they peeled off successive layers of clothing until they were only wearing anatomical suits, all sinew and muscle. This somewhat macabre vision was just as hard to shake off as the pop songs dealing with the violence of language that the performers sang while simultaneously translating them into sign language in a poignant final scene.

Last year’s Prix Marcel Duchamp winner, Latifa Echakhch, plays with the idea of a negative image in her whimsical prize exhibition at the Centre Pompidou in Paris (October 8, 2014 to January 26, 2015). On entering the narrow, elongated exhibition room, visitors are faced with clusters of low-hanging black, wooden clouds suspended from the ceiling. Each formation is paired with an object of the kind one finds at a flea market, including a Kodak camera, a box of vinyl records, and a vintage perfume bottle, all smeared with black ink. In stark contrast with this mournful color, the reverse of each sculpture is painted with dainty blue-and-white cloud motifs. This unexpected shift of perspective has a positively uplifting effect, as one retraces one’s footsteps, drifting amid clouds.

Playfulness likewise characterizes Diller Scofidio + Renfro’s Musings on a Glass Box at the Fondation Cartier in Paris (October 25, 2014 to February 22, 2015). The titular glass box, with a nod to Duchamp, is the Jean Nouvel–designed building itself, whose two ground-floor exhibition spaces are surrounded by large sliding-glass panels in lieu of walls. Normally opaque, these periodically cleared up like a mist to reveal the outside garden, illuminated with a phosphorescent green light at night as part of DS + R’s atmospheric orchestration. The larger gallery is empty except for a red bucket equipped with sensors and a camera guiding it towards controlled leaks in the ceiling. Every time a drop falls into the bucket, the sound is amplified to reverberate across the vacant space. Meanwhile, images captured by the camera flit across an LED screen hung low in another gallery, offering visitors a tantalizing glimpse of the building from a robot’s perspective.

Andro Wekua

This review appeared in the Agenda section of Mousse:

Courtesy: Sprüth Magers, London. Photo: © Stephen White.

Andro Wekua is fond of mystifying titles and the one chosen for his début show at Sprüth Magers proves no exception. One can only speculate about the meaning of “SOME PHEASANTS IN SINGULARITY” and what relation, if any, it bears to the works presented in the two ground-floor rooms of the blue-chip gallery’s London outpost. The name does bear a family resemblance to “Pink Wave Hunter” (2010-12), Wekua’s series of architectural models of notable buildings – stripped down to their façades – in his hometown Sukhumi (in what has de facto become Abkhazia). Drawn from memory, they are akin to an exercise in lucid dreaming.

Like “Dreaming Dreaming” (2012) at Gladstone Gallery, which featured the effigy of a girl standing with her back to a makeshift gray wall blocking a passageway, “SOME PHEASANTS IN SINGULARITY” is built around two central, dramatic elements: an architectural intervention in the shape of a wall, whose exposed rough breeze blocks obstructing the elegant front window are the first thing one sees on approaching the gallery, and a life-size sculpture of a blonde girl in her early teens, which greets visitors as they step inside the exhibition space.

Sporting a sleeveless black top that bares her scrawny legs and a pair of shiny gray trainers, the lone figure at first appears to be hovering; her feet dangle inches above the floor, fitted with a carpet in a bright cotton-candy shade of pink. On closer inspection, her chin is resting atop a reflective glass ledge, which is suspended from the ceiling in the middle of the room in a way that vaguely recalls a playground swing.

As if the scene weren’t creepy enough, the pallid dummy of a girl – at once lifelike and lifeless with her closed lids, pursed lips and a face as drained of colour as her flaxen blond hair – is endowed with motion.

An unwieldy metallic prosthesis is strapped to her left arm, elongating her left hand and giving it a robotic appearance. And yet the movement is circumscribed to her other hand, unconstrained save for a white wristband. Calling to mind the chilling scene in Fritz Lang’s dystopian silent film classic Metropolis (1926) when Maria’s machine-human double springs to life, the girl mannequin lightly thrums her fingers against her right thigh. The mechanism behind the imperceptible motion is there for all to see: a small black box conspicuously laid out on the floor behind the dummy and connected to its back by a set of black wires. Which does not make it any less unsettling.

A miniature version of the girl sitting astride a wolf sculpture can be seen in the adjoining room, mounted on a white plinth. For all intents and purposes, it is the same girl, wearing the same outfit, with the same prosthetic left arm, only her limbs appear more feminine perhaps, as she rides the black wolf, mounting it as if it were a horse – the stuff that dreams or nightmares are made of.

Though her eyes are shut, just as those of her counterpart in the front room, the girl seems to be looking in the direction of the largest of the four medium-sized collages and paintings in a restricted palette of blue, red, pink (matching the carpet), black and white, displayed alongside the sculptures in both rooms. Poised between abstraction and figuration, all four represent female sitters, whose relation to the girl mannequin in the sculptural works is not obvious. Untitled (2014), a mixed-media collage on silkscreen, hints at portraiture in its vertical format, with the barest outline of a rounded chin (a roughly scrawled red arrow pointing to it), scarlet girlish lips, and dark wavy hair, nestled within glowing pink and blue colour planes.

It is all too tempting to look to the Berlin-based artist’s childhood in Georgia for clues to solving the riddle of his works. Some of his shows, “Pink Wave Hunter” chief among them, lend themselves to such readings more than others. In this instance, the gallery with its partly walled-in bay window restricting the view to the outside world evokes the prison house that Abkhazia has become for its own people. But the cell-like space with the isolated mannequin hovering in its midst – a variation on all the other blank figures, cast or sculpted, that people Wekua’s universe – can equally be seen as a head space and a potent symbol of the artist’s condition.

Pattern Recognition: Florian and Michael Quistrebert

This feature on the Quistrebert Brothers originally appeared in Dutch translation in Metropolis M:

Florian & Michael Quistrebert – Amnesic cisenmA , (detail), 3 channel video installation, 2011

‘Abstract painting, now some 75 years old,’ wrote Bridget Riley in 1983, ‘is still relatively in its infancy. If Mondrian was the Giotto of Abstract painting, the High Renaissance is still to come.’ Abstract painting is a vast country, one more often than not defined by what it is not: non-representational, non-figurative, non-objective. For much of her long career, spanning five decades or so, Riley has been more narrowly associated with ‘op art’ (though she has always rejected the label ‘op artist’) and its own breed of patterned abstraction, designed to play havoc with visual perception.

Mondrian: Nature to Abstraction – the title of an exhibition the British artist co-curated at the Tate gallery in 1997 – reflects Riley’s own artistic trajectory. Prior to her radical break with representation in the 1960s, Riley herself briefly turned to landscape motifs in such paintings as the Blue landscape (1959-60) or Pink landscape (1960), bearing the influence of Seurat, another one of her mentors. For art historian Richard Shiff, who gave a preview tour of the retrospective Bridget Riley: The Stripe Paintings 1961-2014 at David Zwirner’s London gallery in June, Riley became an abstract artist because ‘it’s a way of intensifying the effect she’s really interested in without having to be concerned whether the colour is in someone’s skin or in the tree outside of the studio; if she wants to explore that optical effect and the experience of the eye, for her the best way to do it is to do it abstractly.’

Not unlike Riley, the brothers Florian and Michael Quistrebert, whose practice à deux is still relatively in its infancy, began by making figurative landscape paintings in the Hudson River School style, fresh out of art school (they completed their degree at the Beaux-Arts in Nantes, where they hail from, in 2005 and 2006 respectively), before turning to abstract art. Their choice of medium was a way of going against the grain, according to Michael: in the 1990s and the early 2000s, during their formative period, relational aesthetics held sway and painting, abstract or otherwise, far from enjoying a High Renaissance was deemed completely outmoded in France.

Their more recent experiments with complex overlapping patterns of lines radiating out from a centre in the 2013 Scratched paintings or the 2014 GOD series, using a range of flimsy, low-tech – what Michael calls ‘anti-Beaux Arts’ – materials and flaunting their imperfections, put the Quistreberts at the forefront of what curator Matthieu Poirier dubbed the ‘Post-Op’ trend in a group show tellingly titled Post-Op: Perceptual Gone Painterly. 1958-2014 that took over Galerie Perrotin this spring. Poirier considers ‘Post-Op’ – whose roots go as far back as the textured, monochrome paintings and poor materials deployed by the Zero Group artists in the late 1950s – as a reaction against the neutral geometry, regular unbroken patterns and smooth finish characteristic of many Op art works.

What Michael Quistrebert sees as lacking in Op art is a spiritual quality. As far as he is concerned his brother’s and his own work comes out of a different tradition, brought to light by Maurice Tuchman in his seminal 1986 exhibition The Spiritual in Art: Abstract Painting 1890-1985 at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (lacma). The show had, among other, the merit of being the first to present works by the Swedish mystic Hilma af Klint. The exhibition catalogue, Michael confides, is his bedtime book. It has essays on topics ranging from theosophy to synesthesia, from yoga to hermeticism and other occult doctrines, examining their influence on abstract painting and its key practitioners.

Where many of their peers find the term ‘spiritual’, in the words of San Francisco-born Tauba Auerbach, ‘not only unfashionable’ but also ‘contaminated with a host of unsavory associations’, the Quistrebert brothers positively embrace it. Their early painterly output – much of it produced in the course of a residency at Triangle Studio in New York in 2009 (a period of intense experimentation and new departures that Michael characterizes as their ‘fetal stage’) – attests to an undisguised interest in occult symbolism and spirituality.

The somewhat crude Masonic imagery (the triangle, the eye) pervading the black on black painting series inspired by the Chrysler building or the cathedral on Broadway, and even the Ex futuro (2010) video included in the 2013 Dynamo exhibition, co-curated by Serge Lemoine and Poirier at the Grand Palais, was apparently a rite of passage, something the brothers skimmed over. ‘It helped us transition towards geometry, towards the kind of work that we are doing now,’ says Michael. In his eyes, geometric art has a direct impact on the spectator; one need not be highly cultured in order to appreciate it.

The Quistrebert brothers draw on a vocabulary of basic geometric forms – circles, squares, lozenges – that they invert, multiply, overlap to create complex mirroring effects and symmetrical patterns in their paintings and video works alike. Videos, sometimes shown on (paired) monitors, sometimes screened in a (ideally) dark room, and in the case of The Eighth Sphere (2010) in a room-corner, double-channel projection, are very effectively placed in dialogue with the painting series in their installations.

Titles like Ex futuro notwithstanding, these videos have a deliberately dated feel to them that keeps with the anachronistic analogue processing methods. Works such as the Circles, Squares, Lozenges triad of Amnesic CisenmA (2011), which riffs on Duchamp’s surrealist 1926 Anemic Cinema, featuring his whirling rotoreliefs, hark back to the experiments of visual sound cinema and the geometrical films of Norman McLaren, Oskar Fischinger or the Whitney Brothers whose influence the Quistreberts readily acknowledge.

Referencing most obviously John Whitney’s digital film Arabesque (1975) with its orientalizing decorative patterns and music – an early instance of computer graphics used to generate abstract geometric animations – the black-and-white HD video Dots was made for the 2012 Marrakesh Biennal, and drew inspiration from local motifs, rituals, and Sufi mysticism in particular. Conceived as an animated painting, and screened on a giant outdoor wall in Marrakesh, the video was made digitally but using filmed footage of a single Whirling Dervish, spinning round counter clock-wise, faster and faster. Shot from above, its white robes undulating around it, fluctuating in size from that of a rose petal to a stardust particle, the lone figure is multiplied and arranged into geometric patterns of growing complexity. At the cusp of figuration and abstraction, the resulting ballet of figures and formations is the Quistrebert brothers’ own attempt at creating visual music without sound.

Dots illustrates the Quistreberts’ penchant for the kind of analogical thinking that posits a relation between, say, the microcosm and the macrocosm. For the two brothers, the dervish’s dance is ‘closely connected to astrology and, to an extent, to astrophysics’ given that its core counter clock-wise movement mirrors that of the stars and of the universe at large around a centre point. A similar – albeit perhaps more rigorous and scientific – preoccupation with the interconnectedness of shapes and spaces also underlies Auerbach’s interest in the mathematical study of typology, which she sees as being ‘at the root of everything’.

This is reflected in the artist’s new body of work made for her recent solo exhibition at the ICA, which borrows its sub-title from Martin Gardner’s bestselling 1964 science book The New Ambidextrous Universe, concerned with the concepts of symmetry and asymmetry. The show’s eponymous centerpiece (The New Ambidextrous Universe I, 2013) was a floor-based plywood sculpture, whose thin waterjet-cut strips have been painstakingly reassembled in reverse order to form a rippling horizontal pattern that cuts across and visually disrupts the dark vertical wood marks. Disposed around it in the gallery space, on (mostly) white plinths of varying sizes, the immaculate 3D structures were made from glass and aluminium using the same water-jet technology. The twin interlocking powder-coated metallic tubes came in two contrasting colours, each a shadow or mirror reflection of the other, as if to suggest the existence of a parallel universe or anti-matter.

The same pattern and colour inversions are at work in the Quistreberts’ gesso painting on wooden panels from the 2012 White Gradient series, with their play of light and shadow, and from the black-and-white Mom and Dad gesso paintings, both from 2013. The dual and familial nature of their practice – the brothers professionally think of themselves as a ‘confraternity’ – is playfully reflected in the titles of the twin paintings Brother I and Brother II, and of their 2012 show at Galerie Crèvecoeur in Paris, Laure and Jane Dumond, which read out loud yields something resembling L’Origine du monde, the name of Gustave Courbet’s best-known painting. Florian and Michael, who divide their time between Amsterdam and Paris, where each has a studio and both have gallery representation (Galerie Crèvecoeur and Juliètte Jongma), consider that working together as a duo (something they did right from the start of their career) gives them a critical distance as well as a certain competitive edge.

Like Riley and Auerbach, the Quistreberts share with other non-figurative painters working today ‘a real belief in the metaphysical properties of work, materials, process and practice, a kind of secular faith in the possibilities of non-objective image-making’, as Christopher Bedford puts it in the introduction to his Dear Painter… article. Michael Quistrebert finds the perfect finish of Auerbach’s work daunting in its sheer flawlessness, which appears computer-generated even if it is handmade. Producing a perfect object is beyond his and his brother’s technological grasp, but then – he is quick to assure me – neither is it something they aspire to. Theirs is an art that wears its workmanship on its sleeve and bears its seams, the accidents of making, the ‘little irregularities’ which, according to Shiff, Riley refers to as ‘the sign of the hand’ and cherishes in her own work for all its surface regularity.