Month: August 2016

Rodney McMillian’s Landscape Paintings at MoMA PS1

Above photograph by the author.

I recently attended the month-long Cooper Union summer art intensive where I studied graphic design, drawing from life, and contemporary art issues. I’ll be posting samples of my work shortly, but in the meantime, I wanted to share a response I had written for one of my classes after visiting Rodney McMillian: Landscape Paintings at MoMA PS1. Our assignment was to choose a piece and write about it poetically. I hope I accomplished this task. Unfortunately, the show closed on August 28th, but hopefully the image above and the following description will give you a good sense of my experience.

Out of all the pieces in the exhibition, I elected to write about Site #1, an origin narrative, specifically, for I felt it was far more kinetic and aggressive, emphatic in its blackness, in comparison to McMillian’s other works. I also considered it one of the most successful in conveying the appearance of a landscape, as was the artist’s objective, and thereby worthy of discussion. Standing before it, I think immediately of looking down from a helicopter upon a tattered relic of the past, the scene below transformed or perverted by industrial modernity, but somehow still archaic with its residual organicism. From above, I see flowing wellsprings; if I were closer I could walk the Bible, journeying through a desert of green gingham and leftover paint from construction supply stores. He cunningly employs an aerial view, so familiar an image style it has become contemporary visual currency, in the process of communicating the scene. But McMillian’s portrayal is also effective by way of his thick, goopy brushstrokes and the sense of friction in the work, visible through the juxtaposition of heavy paint with a light, delicate background. Myriad other contrasts overwhelm the piece: as an object, it is filmy and fragile, but from far away, it resembles the aftermath of the BP oil spill with its both inky and rough textures. Secondly, there is this anxiety, an urgency that pervades it– the viewer might get the impression that the work is asking him to decide what to see or what to feel– and yet it is also exacting, dictating, and demanding. There is a certain messiness to the piece, and although how it actually looks may not seduce the eye in its imperfection, its beauty carries through. I especially enjoy the fusion of a cracked marble surface, discernible via a blend of blue and black pigment, with the glossiness of the other layers, garbage bag-like in their stretchy sheen. Almost crunchy, I would say, if not for some lingering plasticity, distinguishing the central mass from tides seeping outwards. Site #1 has this unique synthesis of noir undertones– scratchy, bleak, and matte– with a superficial gleam reminiscent of nail polish and duct tape. Hardness versus malleability. Permanence versus movement. The vibrant aquamarine strands, which give way to the aforementioned fractured veneer, whirl as they ride in waves up an ebony river, rocking to an O’Keefe-ish tune of juvenile sophistication. They are intrepid in exploring expansion beyond the sheet’s confines, though it seems that here the artist eschewed this possibility, opting out of the third dimension exercised in neighboring works that conjure the carpet “sculptures” of Faig Ahmed. There are echoes of Joan Mitchell, Willem de Kooning, and even famous Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas illustrator, Ralph Steadman, in Site #1, which for me is part of its appeal. But it is the slender blueness of the piece, shyly confronting a suffocating barrier of black, that really pushes McMillian’s work out into the spotlight, enabling its transition from blasé obscurity– paralleling so much that has been done already by antecedent mixed-media masters– to importance or at least to being pronounced in its own right. 

The show was also reviewed here by Hyperallergic. Seph Rodney’s article compares the MoMA PS1 exhibit to McMillian’s overlapping Views of Main Street at the Studio Museum in Harlem. While aptly reflecting on the quotidian nature of McMillian’s chosen materials (in addition to the bedsheets, he also plays with furniture), Rodney politicizes the pieces to such a frustratingly self-righteous extent that their aesthetic merits are completely overshadowed.

Personal Reflections on Charles Demuth’s “My Egypt”

My Egypt (1927), from the Whitney Museum of American Art. Copyright Whitney Museum of American Art, New York 2016.

Charles Demuth’s My Egypt is one of the works that attracts little or less attention in the Whitney‘s Portraits show. Hidden in a small and crowded corner of the seventh floor, the piece depicts a “steel and concrete grain elevator belonging to John W. Eshelman & Sons,” in the artist’s hometown of Lancaster, Pennsylvania, according to the wall text. It would not be truthful to say that I fell in love with it at first sight; my affection for My Egypt is founded primarily on a simple fact: Demuth painted the work in sickness, bedridden with diabetes and near the end of his life, looking out towards death with a certain resigned pride and introspective contemplation.   (more…)

Artist of the Month: Robert Mapplethorpe

Artist of the Month (August)

Robert Mapplethorpe


Patty Smith (1975), from the Whitney Museum of American Art and now featured in the show Human Interest: Portraits from the Whitney’s Collection. Copyright belongs to the Robert Mapplethorpe Foundation 2016.

According to the wall text besides the above diptych by Mapplethorpe of his longtime friend, muse, and onetime lover, Patty Smith

… [These photographs are of] a moment shortly before the two artists rose from relative obscurity and poverty to international acclaim, a period documented in Smith’s 2010 memoir, Just Kids. The image on the right served as the cover of Horses, her debut album. Recalling the shoot, Smith has said, “The only rule we had was, Robert told me if I wore a white shirt, not to wear a dirty one… I got my favorite ribbon and my favorite jacket, and he took about twelve pictures. By the eighth one, he said, ‘I got it.’”

I spent some time with the work not only because I was aware that Mapplethorpe is having a moment (in addition to being heavily represented in the Whitney show, he is also the subject of concurrent retrospectives at the Getty and the LACMA this summer), but because I was drawn to the honesty of his monochromatic photograph. It recalls the recent Intimisms show at James Cohan Gallery by inviting the viewer into Mapplethorpe and Smith’s private orbit. He captured a delicate androgyny, a combination of confidence and vulnerability, that betrays their closeness. I also found his experimentation with proportions compelling. On the left side of the image, Smith is at the bottom, her figure cut off almost awkwardly. The camera follows the diagonal of a triangular shadow upwards so that on the right, she is front and center, rendering each half surprisingly balanced.

The organic sensuality of Mapplethorpe’s pieces never ceases to wonder me. Even the most artificially arranged of his photographs, such as Ken Moody (1984), seem to be instinctively carnal but subliminally human: they are natural, feeling, and passionately corporeal. This is even the case with pictures of plants.

Here is his bio, courtesy of Artsy (please excuse the redundancy)–

In the 1970s, Robert Mapplethorpe and musician, poet, and artist Patti Smith lived together in New York’s infamous Chelsea Hotel where he started shooting Polaroids to use in his collages. Drawn to photography, Mapplethorpe got a Hasselblad medium-format camera and began taking pictures of his friends and acquaintances—artists, musicians, socialites, pornographic film stars, and members of the gay S & M underground. Despite his shocking content, Mapplethorpe was a formalist, interested in composition, color, texture, balance, and, most of all, beauty. In the 1980s, he concentrated on studio photography, specifically nudes, flowers, and formal portraits that are considerably more refined than his earlier work. After Mapplethorpe died from an AIDS-related illness, his work precipitated national controversy when it was included in The Perfect Moment, a traveling exhibition funded by the National Endowment for the Arts.

Human Interest finishes in February of 2017. If you are able to get there, I highly recommend attending.

And for more Mapplethorpe, check out Artsy’s resource page on the artist, available here.