Tuesday, July 25, 2017

''If that's art, I'm a Hottentot''

Robert Boyd

Yasuo Kuniyoshi, Circus Girl Resting, 1925, Oil on canvas, 38 ⅖ x 28 ½ in.

The title of this blog post is a quote that President Harry S. Truman made in 1946 on seeing the painting Circus Girl Resting by Yasuo Kuniyoshi, reproduced above. It was part of an exhibit of art purchased by the State Department. The exhibit was called "Advancing American Art," and its 117 pieces showed some of the modernist trends in American visual art. It had been assembled partly as a propaganda exhibit, to demonstrate to viewers overseas that the USA wasn't just a bunch of uncultured rubes with A-bombs and Hollywood. The show had traveled to Eastern Europe and Cuba before the reactionary Hearst newspapers and Look magazine attacked it. Look ran a headline "Your Money Bought These Paintings"with a selection of photos of some of the most inflammatory examples.

This episode was a key moment in the history of American art. The State Department was forced to sell its collection, but the mission of showing our allies (especially in Western Europe) that the USA was a free nation that tolerated and even encouraged avant garde art was still considered important; the baton was taken up by the CIA, which with the collaboration of the Museum of Modern Art began to secretly sponsor exhibitions of advanced American art in Europe and Latin America.

There is so much to unpack in this little story--the life and career of Yasuo Kuniyoshi is fascinating, and the history of the CIA and Abstract Expressionism has become a kind of conspiracy theory all its own. But for the purpose of this post, I want to reflect on Harry Truman's statement. It's exciting and flattering to artists if our leaders have sophisticated tastes, like Kennedy and Obama apparently did (or at least they successfully faked it). But most presidents, prime ministers and premiers don't. Being an art lover is hardly a prerequisite for a politician. In the USA, that's usually not an issue--for the most part, politicians have no say and no interest over what art gets produced. Occasionally an issue bubbles up and politicians try to make hay over "obscene" art. See Rudy Giuliani, for example.

But in countries where the government is the primary market for art and has a strong ideological motive for controlling art, that's not the case. The example of the Soviet Union is instructive.

Under Stalin, socialist realism became the official state-approved style in 1934. Artists who resisted this risked imprisonment or death. Stalin died in 1953, instituting a period called "the thaw." In various arts, it became acceptable to do things that had previously never been allowed. The Soviet Union's post-Stalin leader, Nikita Khrushchev, emptied the gulags of political prisoners and removed the terror that kept artists in line. There would be no more Osip Mandelstams, who was killed for writing a poem critical of Stalin. Khrushchev personally approved the publication of One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich by Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, which was the first honest depiction of life in the gulag.

Despite this, abstract art was a bridge too far for Khrushchev. There is a remarkable account of his encounter with several abstract artists at an exhibit in 1962 in the book Khrushchev: The Man and His Era. A little background is necessary. Artists and writers in the Soviet Union were very much encouraged by the publication of One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich, and artists had been given a chance finally to see the modernist masterpieces owned by the state that had been in storage in the Hermitage museum for decades. But there were still plenty of conservative artists still in positions of power.

There was an exhibit at the Manezh Exhibition Hall across from the Kremlin entitled "Thirty Years of Moscow Art" consisting of traditional socialist realist works. Then, mysteriously, a section of modern work was added--essentially an unofficial apartment show was moved into the Manezh Exhibition Hall. The artists were thrilled--it was as if suddenly the state was recognizing their work. But it was a trick--the head of the Artist's Union and the Central Committee Secretary--two arch-reactionaries--told Khrushchev that these artists were mocking him. So Khrushchev went over to check it out.

He walked in and was shocked by what he saw.
The artists applauded Khrushchev, but among the first words he uttered were "It's dog shit!  . . . A donkey could smear better than this with his tail." He shouted at a young artist, "You're a nice-looking lad, but how could you paint something like this? We should take down your paints and set you in a clump of nettles until you understand your mistakes. You should be ashamed. Are you a faggot [pideras] or a normal man? Do you want to go abroad? Go then; we'll take you as far as the border. . . . We have the right to send you out to cut trees until you've paid back the money the state has spent on you. The people and the government have taken a lot of trouble with you, and you pay them back with this shit."
Imagine how terrifying it must have been to be on the receiving end of that tirade.
Khrushchev demanded, "Who's in charge here?" [Eli] Beliutin was pushed forward, along with [Ernst] Neizvestny, a gruff, husky paratrooper before he turned sculptor. Neizvestny too must be a homosexual, Khrushchev shouted. "Nikita Sergeyevich," the burly sculptor shot back, after excusing himself to Minister of Culture Yekaterina Furtseva, "give me a girl right here and now and I'll show you what sort of homosexual I am."
But Khrushchev was no Stalin. There were no repercussions from this. No artists were arrested. He recognized later that he wasn't really competent to judge avant garde artwork. When Fellini's 8 1/2 won the top prize at the Third International Film Festival, it was shown to Khrushchev in his dacha. His son Sergei tried to convince that Fellini was a genius. Khrushchev told Sergei, "I don't understand a thing, but the international jury has awarded it first prize. What am I supposed to do? They understand it better than I do; that's what they're there for. Why do they always palm these things off on me? I've already called Ilychev and told him not to intervene. Let the professionals decide."

But in 1964, Khrushchev was overthrown in a coup. The neo-Stalinists were back in power and they clamped down on culture. The Thaw was over. It was impossible for avant garde artists to get official support, and many were oppressed. The most infamous example was the closing of an open-air exhibit of "unofficial" art in 1974 (so-called because the artists were not officially part of the Artist's Union, which would have allowed them to make a living from their art) by police who destroyed the art with bulldozers. However, by this time Russia was open enough that this incident embarrassed the government. Nonetheless, the world of unofficial art moved decisively underground. Artists had exhibits in their apartments and studios, careful only to invite trusted friends.

As for Ernst Neizvestny, he had a long career as a sculptor. He was ironically invited to design Khrushchev's grave four years after Khrushchev's death (it took that long for the family to get official permission to mark his grave).

Ernst Neixvetsny, Nikita Khrushchev's grave marker, 1975

Ernst Neizvetsny, Nikita Khrushchev's grave marker, 1975

(These photos are by Russian translator and scholar John Freedman from his blog, Russian Culture in Landmarks. )

Ernst Neizvestny was on the outs as an official artist until 1966, when he won an important sculpture competition by entering anonymously. In 1976, he either voluntarily left or was forced into exile (accounts vary) and moved to the U.S., where he taught sculpture. He died in 2016 in Stony Brook, New York.

Wednesday, July 19, 2017

Real Estate Art: 4302 Colony West Dr., Richmond, TX

by Robert Boyd

This listing has been circulating around my internet for a few days. Multiple acquaintances have posted it on Facebook. The house seems nice, but it's what's in the house that interests us.

Richmond was once a charming small town southwest of Houston, but in recent years it has become a suburb of Houston. This huge house was built in 2000. The listing says that it was owned by an artist, and it is crammed with art. But I can't identify any of it.

I can relate to this owner because of the clutter, the hoarder-like horror vacui. My apartment is much smaller and less elegant, but is also crammed with stuff. I've always admired people who manage to have elegantly empty homes, with one or two really striking objects or pieces of artwork in any given room. I could never do that, nor it seems could the owner of this place.

I obviously don't know for sure, but I'm assuming that these thick canvases on the wall are by the artist who lives here. They seem energetic and similar to art I've seen around town but are unfamiliar. So I throw the question out to whatever readers remain for this mostly defunct blog--who is this artist?

I like clutter, but this seems closing in on pathological. Amazing that they'd use this photo in a real estate listing. Note the mannequins. The house is inhabited with mannequins, some dressed and posed, others waiting. I've known artists who have mannequins--it's a little like having a realistic, life-size doll that you can dress however you like. It gives you yet another reason to hit the thrift stores.

Here is another mannequin--one of several that are mounted on the ceiling. And I love this library!

Another great library wall. But it seems like it's a little hard to get to stuff. That's the problem with clutter.

As far as I can tell, the two people here are dressed up mannequins. Below are a bunch more photos. And check out the actual listing for 4302 Colony West.

Tuesday, July 18, 2017

Notes on Fasal Sheikh’s Photographs of Vrindavan at Museum of Fine Arts, Houston

by Virginia Billeaud Anderson

“Never was there a time when I did not exist, nor you, nor will there ever be a time in the future when we shall cease to be.”

Krishna’s words caused indescribable longing the first time I read them in the Bhagavad-Gita in the early 1970s. Not long after, I began a dedicated search for the ultimate truth of our existence.

Among other things, that search included a high blown investigation of history, philosophy and comparative religions, which my friend Ron tells me is useless horse manure. Only through disciplined meditation can one grasp the nature of reality. And language, Ron insists, is inadequate to describe the mystery. Words are piss-ant metaphors.

When I saw Fasal Sheikh’s photographs of elderly widows meditating at the Bhajan Ashram in Vrindavan, India, in the exhibition Homelands and Histories: Photographs by Fazal Sheikh at Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, it moved me to imagine that through their devotional practices the women had attained the universal wisdom I’m seeking. Sheikh’s photographs made me want to give up booze and dedicate part of each day to meditation.

Fazal Sheikh, Bhajan Ashram at Dawn, Vrindavan, India, from the series Moksha, 2005, inkjet print, the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, Museum purchase funded by Jane P. Watkins. © Fazal Sheikh

Many years ago I read John J. Putnam’s account of visiting the widows in their “charity house” in Vrindavan, the “city of widows,” which as pilgrims know, is the childhood home of Krishna. After welcoming Putnam with mint and water, the women explained their practice of chanting and meditating, repetition of the names of Krishna and other revered deities, they believe, brings sanctification and ultimately freedom from the cycle of death and rebirth.

It is a fact that the widows seek eternal communion with a divinity so all-encompassing, it includes manifestations of all the Hindu gods. I liken this concept to a sort of primordial energy, and recall seeing in the Vedas words which described that energy as “Pure Consciousness.”

Fazal Sheikh, Pramila Satar (‘Lover’), Vrindavan, India, from the series Moksha, 2005, inkjet print, the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, Museum purchase funded by Jane P. Watkins. © Fazal Sheikh

Fasal Sheikh told us that many of the widows who go to Vrindavan are forced from their homes by their families after the death of their husbands, so they suffer loss of spouse and family, and some are superstitiously blamed for those deaths. Like much of the world’s idiocy, I wondered if mistreatment of widows had a scriptural basis. After digging around I found in the the Manu-Smrti, a set of laws, customs and ethical precepts, the commandment that “even if a husband is devoid of good qualities, after death he must always be worshipped as a god by a faithful wife.” If the wife violates this duty to her dead husband, after her death she will enter the womb of a jackal and also get awful diseases.

Devoid of good qualities yet the son of a bitch should be worshipped as a god? It becomes less absurd if you remember that the Vedas is immense, it’s the oldest living scripture on the planet, and probably contains within its many parables, legends and rules, the commandment to love and respect female family members.

A widow photographed by Sheikh, Neela Dey, told him she took no possessions to Vrindavan when her son asked her to leave. Those things did not matter, she concentrated only on Krishna, who comes in her dreams, and plays with her sari. Dey said it pleases her to go to the Yamuna River as often as she wants, and bathe with Krishna’s spirit. At seventy, she never dreams about her family, she is intent only on achieving “moksha,” release from death and rebirth.

The Yamuna River plays an important role in Krishna’s biography. To protect the river from poisonous venom, he conquered the serpent spirit Kaliya. Perhaps more memorable than his demon-destroying battles are the god’s pranks and promiscuous behavior. The thief stole butter, and he also stole the saris of 16,000 girls so he could watch them bathe naked. Because he’s a god, he can call milkmaids and cow herdresses with his flute, and supernaturally turn a night of sex into many years. It’s the opinion of his consort Radha that Krishna lacks discrimination when he cheats on her, he will seduce anyone. In Hindu narrative tradition, Krishna’s lust holds important symbolism for divine love, devotional offerings, and cosmic rhythms.

I had never heard of dowry killing when I met Sheikh. It’s an obscene practice which takes place in parts of India, Pakistan and Iran in which a woman’s inlaws threaten violence in order to extract additional money. Shahjahan Apa, whose portrait appears in Sheikh’s “Ladli” series, suffered from this barbarity when she lost her daughter to death by burning, and corrupt police were bribed into inaction. At the time Sheikh photographed Apa, she was working as a womens’ rights activist in Delhi. His camera captured implacable resolve in her wrinkled face.

We see in Apa’s portrait, Sheikh’s sensitive photographic style. Rather than documentary type images of death and violence, Sheikh focuses on his subject’s beauty and strength. The artist believes his subjects’ lives are greater than the tragic thing that happened to them, “their lives can’t be reduced to that thing,” he told us. Viewers find in Sheikh’s photographs, asserts exhibition curator Malcolm Daniel, a “deep sense of humanity.”

The big grin on Malcolm Daniel’s face was because he acquired 75 additional photographs by Sheikh for the museum’s permanent collection, by way of a sweet deal between the artist, Pace/MacGill Gallery, and a check writing patron named Jane Watkins. Through Watkin’s generosity, MFAH expanded its holdings of Fazal Sheikh’s photographs seven-fold, with groups of images from each of the photographer’s principal bodies of work. “It is more than we dreamed possible, and we are eager to share Sheikh’s vision of his fellow man with Houston’s diverse audiences,” said Director Gary Tinterow.

You can expect more slick moves from Daniel. Tinterow could not have stolen that guy from the Metropolitan Museum in New York, where during his nine-year leadership of the Photography Department he had acquired some 20,000 photographs which spanned the history of the medium, without dangling a seductive package. My guess is Daniel negotiated glamarous curatorial opportunities. This might be confirmed by the museum’s 2013 press release which announced Daniel would take over the Photography department and also be Curator of Special Projects.

If Fazal Sheikh’s photographic subjects seem to trust him, it’s because of the amount of time he spends knowing them and trying to understand their history and culture. Sheikh established this approach when he first began photographing in South Africa, and in refugee camps in Kenya and Malawi. It was undoubtedly trust which motivated Abshiro Aden Mohammed, whom Sheikh photographed in the Somali Refugee Camp in Dagahaley, Kenya, to recount the violent rapes that occurred there, and the newborn babies left on the ground to die.

Fazal Sheikh, Abshiro Aden Mohammed, Women’s Leader, Somali Refugee Camp, Dagahaley, Kenya, from the series A Camel for the Son, 2000, inkjet print, the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, Museum purchase funded by Jane P. Watkins. © Fazal Sheikh

Photographing in Kenya helped the American born Sheikh (b.1965) to better know his Kenyan’s father’s home, where he hoped to “reconcile the duality within me.” Similarly he began going to the northern part of India that is now Pakistan, to know where his grandfather lived, and try to discover “what of him was in me.” In Pakistan at the Afghanistan border, Sheikh befriended Afghan refugees who had fought the Soviets, and hoped one day to return to their Afghan villages. Some asked why the Americans abandoned them. Look into the watery dark eyes of Rohullah, an Afghan refugee photographed by Sheikh in Badabare, Pakistan, and you get a sense of the reason Sheikh considers his work “a conduit between people and history.” Homelands and Histories: Photographs by Fazal Sheikh can be seen at MFAH through October 1, 2017.

Fazal Sheikh, Rohullah, Afghan Refugee Village, Badabare, North West Frontier Province, Pakistan, from the series The Victor Weeps, 1997, inkjet print, the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, Museum purchase funded by Jane P. Watkins. © Fazal Sheikh