Friday, May 27, 2005

Current Exhibitions: Monet, Basquiat, and "Little Boy"

Opening today at the Brooklyn Museum of Art, Monet's London: Artists' Reflections on the Thames: 1859-1914 is what it promises: a multi-media survey of England's most famous waterway. Likewise, as the name intimates, it is Monet's work which is not only the centerpiece of the exhibit, but is also its most interesting feature. Given the artist's declaration that it was "instantaneity [and] above all the enveloping atmosphere" that most interested him, the Thames with its infamous fog perfectly suited his purpose. In his "Houses of Parliament..." cycle (1903-4) for instance, the titular structure is portrayed through various densities of fog, rendered by the relative sharpness of the structure and the intensity of the light, whose position likewise marks the specificity of the time depicted. In this way, Monet limns both a precise moment in time -- the program of the Impressionist -- and also the tactile presence of the fog. Put another way, Monet's Thames work seeks to transcends its sensory limitations, adding touch to its optical aspect. It does so not through physical reproduction of the tactile, but rather in a certain evocation, impelling the viewer to recall their former experience of precisely such a place. The strength of Monet's London paintings thus depends upon the imagination of the viewer; however for the viewer who actively engages with his work, the effect is an art that transcends the immediately contours of the medium's ontology.

Outside of the Monet's, perhaps the most interesting piece in the exhibit, at least for his aficionados, is James McNeill Whistler's Nocturne (circa 1870). This early work of a series with the same name, having the appearance of a single grayish, pale-dark blue color-field, with a barely visible horizon line, possesses the same quality as his decorative arts interior design or his portraiture wherein the subject's garment and the backdrop seem to be cut from the same material. In all these, attention is called to the unity of the work, and implicitly, in the case of the paintings, to the fact that the aesthetic object is in fact a painting. His is an inherently reflexive, and therefore, profoundly modern art.

Elsewhere in the Brooklyn Museum, Basquiat, a career survey of the notorious Brooklyn-born artist who died in 1988 at the age of twenty-seven, continues to draw well (the exhibit will close on the fifth of next month). If "Monet's London..." shows how painting can transcend its own material limitations, Basquiat is symptomatic of everything wrong with the plastic arts of the not-to-distant past. Sure, his is an ouevre that builds upon the iconography of his ancestral Caribbean, the graphic forms of his lower-class rearing, and taps into the anger of his zeitgeist, but then again, the lack of lucidity on display in Basquiat's work sorely limits its rhetorical strength. In an untitled piece (1981), said to have been mistakenly referred to as "Skull," the limits of Basquiat's art finds its pictorial analogy: a cluttered skull, filled to overflowing with violent forms that add up to little more than the uncertainty that it initially announces. Lest Basquiat's irrationality is taken as insight, however, it should be added that a chaos of this sort is often under-girded by rhetoric which is clearly imparted to the observer, as with the best of surrealist art. Indeed, the ultimate problem with Basquiat's art is that it argues through emotion without making sufficient recourse to the intellect. It is angry art that fails to make the case for its rage.

Whereas Basquiat fails to adequately articulate the crisis of his moment, there is no similar deficiency on display at the Japan Society's Little Boy: The Arts of Japan's Exploding Subculture (which runs through July 24th). In this multi-artist, multi-media survey, the vitality of Japan's youngest generation of artists is drawn into sharp focus. From the monumental works of Chiho Aoshima (born 1974) that first greet visitors to the exhibition, it is clear that Japan's current crop of visual artists is reinventing traditional and newer idioms alike in order to parse a particular anxiety evidently shared by a number of its artists. In Aoshima's Magma Spirit Explodes -- Tsunami is Dreadful (2004), manga (comic book) art and the horrors wrought by the subject matter are mixed with traditional understandings of a universe animated by spirits (Shintoism) and the traditional form of a scroll to create a work that is at once of its moment and deeply indebted to Japanese tradition. Aya Takano (b. 1976), who claims the influence of 14th century Italian religious art, mysterious crop circles, and the music of Bjork, shows an ouevre that is far less opaque than these cursory influences would suggest. Takano's sketches and paintings, often depicting teenage and tween girls, manifest a disquiet that is everywhere in "Little Boy." They seem to be the new girls of the Folies Bergere, imbued with the same ennui (in all aspects of life, including sexually), though again they are much younger than Manet's woman -- in keeping with Japanese society's ubiquitous fetishizing of very young women. Like its cinema from the previous two-plus decades, Japanese visual arts has transformed a European vernacular into one that is very particular to its own cultural variances. Perhaps much of the recent hand-wringing that has occurred over the sorry state of painting may be due in part to Western commentator's failure to look in the right places? As with the cinema, the epicenter of the visual arts may have shifted east.

More evidence of this exists elsewhere in the exhibit. Beyond Aoshima and Takano, there is also Chinatsu Ban's (b. 1973) pixilated canvas, Digital Elephant Underpants (2005), which thusly reconfigures cubism in light of primitive computer graphics, and Izumi Kato's (b. 1969) untitled sculptural cycle (all three from 2004), which feature painted neon green inflections that seem to speak to a dread that continues to infect society. Indeed this creep is also picked up in Takashi Murakami's (b. 1962) Time Broken-Black, which references a Japanese cartoon from the 1970s that ended with the same mushroom cloud animation signifying the animae's happy ending. In fact, it is this subject that would seem to hover over so much of this work, which is no great surprise provided that the title of the exhibit, coincidentally curated by Murakami himself, is code for the nuclear bomb. Thus, Murakami offers an interpretative thread that ties together these collected works, and more profoundly the artists of his shared time. Little Boy is without question a major event in contemporary art, not to be missed by anybody within a commutable distance to the Japan Society.

No comments: