Saturday, June 29, 2013

The Nu Mu

I went to the Bowery with a friend the other evening for the New Museum’s free night to see the exhibitions of Llyn Foulkes (very good) and Ellen Gallager (good but flawed) This was my first visit to this pile on the Bowery, and to me it looks and feels like another corporate museum, hell even the very large elevator as big as my living room has a donors plaque on it. It’s also a rather bland and sterile place with some awkward spaces and galleries. Some of Ms. Gallager’s very lovely “Watery Ecstatic” embossed and delicately color small works are installed in a tight claustrophobic alcove off a dollhouse like staircase going from the 3rd to the 4th floor, and if one decided instead to take the donor elevator instead of the toy like staircase you would miss seeing these pieces. Now since it was a free night there was a longish line full of mostly hip and cool good looking young New Yorkers out for some free culture, but it moved fast once they opened the doors, and I love being the oldest person in a large crowd of pretty pretties. The Llyn Foulkes show is robust, eccentric, hilarious, inventive, angry and charming tracing a 50 year span of output from this much loved L.A. artist who has remained pretty much unknown on this coast, but I’m sure this will change now that he is the subject of “the long-overdue career retrospective” as the New Museum puts it in the intro to the show. Loaded with about 100 works by this wild and wooly artist it includes very early small black and white drawings that have an underground comic book feel to them, (of course they were done way before these kind of comics appeared) some strong early large assemblages and constructions along with pop like paintings based on postcards and photographs that incorporate both words and images. The layout of the exhibit is somewhat cramped and confused, in fact as we were about to enter a room that had black curtains hanging down the entrance and seemed like the next logical space to enter a guard stopped us and said that we should see this room last as it contained his most recent works. In another gallery on one wall are lots of different size strange painted portraits some of them quite harsh and violent with blood running down the faces, eyes blocked out and small collaged additions glued to parts of some of the faces all elaborately framed. Foulkes who is an old fashioned good old lefty goes back and forth in his work from the very personal (there are several self-portraits) to the very political. He especially has it in for Ronald Reagan (who can blame him), Walt Disney, Mickey Mouse, art critics (again who can blame him) and the destroyers of our environment all of whom are pictured and torn apart in many works. Probably the strongest later work in the show is titled “The Lost Frontier which is a large tableau like almost 3-D work that is set in its own dark private gallery that is vivid and disturbing. One would have to say it was both beautifully constructed and painted. It’s an almost breathing tableau of an apocalyptic nightmarish scene, a dead Landscape with a city (Los Angles) dying in a sickly yellow smog in the background while a Buddha like blackened figure sits on the side with an empty bowl and a mummified cat or some kind of animal lies on the other side while a man (Foulkes?) sits in front of a TV or a computer screen or a microwave oven surrounded by mounds of garbage and craggy hills. Cars on an elevated highway move by in the distance and a creature in a dress with a Mickey Mouse head stands guard on one of the craggy hills a rifle in its hand. Other pop figures from Superman to the Lone Ranger also make cameo appearances and even Jesus Christ drops in for a visit. One would never accuse Foulkes of being a subtle artist that’s not what he’s about, his long career is full of art that is emotional and deeply felt, colorful, harsh, tactile and lush and sometimes brilliant. The Ellen Gallager show consists of some very beautiful large abstract paintings that are also tactile and engrossing in her use of color and texture, these are the best works in the show. Sadly a much stronger curatorial hand was needed because there is no clear direction that the show takes. It has a little of this and a little of that, and the few small collaged works of hers that examine her life as a young African American woman while mildly humorous, sarcastic and artistically attractive should have been left out or many more of them shown. They just don’t work well with the large abstract paintings, and are confusing. I guess the idea was to show how eccentric, eclectic and experimental she is but it didn’t work for me. On the 4th floor in a dark dimly lit gallery is a jarring very large cube like dark sculpture with some kind of designs and markings all over it that takes up most of the gallery and is pretentiously titled “Osedax” which is Latin for "bone-eating" and looks like it should be in a dumb 3-D sci fi summer blockbuster movie or sitting in some park or public space. It’s opened on one side where viewers are encouraged stoop down and enter this fun house attraction and view something I’m sure is visually groovy. I can’t report on what this entertainment was because my days of entering small dark claustrophobic spaces came to an end around 1980 when I had my pocket picked in the dark back room of the Anvil but according to the laughable description on the museum’s web page it “is an immersive environment consisting of 16mm film and painted slide projections inspired by a species of undersea worm that buries into the bones of whale carcasses.” On the walls surrounding “Osedax” are smallish not very compelling red and black paintings of swirling twisty shapes with touches of silver added that look like something you might see under a microscope or in a textbook on creatures that live in the sea or maybe they are of those damn undersea worms.


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