In: painting

Komar and Melamid | Yalta Conference, 1982
January 26, 2023

Komar and Melamid, Yalta Conference, from the “Nostalgic Socialist Realism” series, 1982

I enjoy speculative fiction and recently was reading Harry Turtledove’s Joe Steele. It’s a stand alone story, but you may be familiar with his Southern Victory series (in which the Confederate States survive the American Civil War, and it stretches into the mid twentieth century, offering alternate – yet familiar – takes on everything from WW I to the Holocaust) or World War / Colonization books. That series of books inject an alien invasion into the midst of WW II. This might sound ludicrous, until you read them and one of the aliens observes that – upon their discovery of Buchenwald and Auschwitz – that clearly humans are monstrously incapable of governing ‘ourselves.’ It’s an interesting tonic to the proliferation of science fiction that posits an alien deus ex machina that proffers the narrative that humans are special – such as Arthur C. Clarke’s Childhood’s End, for example. Perhaps it’s because Clarke was more hopeful, and much has happened since then…

“The novel [Joe Steele] explores what might have happened had Joseph Stalin been raised in the United States, postulating his parents having emigrated a few months before his birth, instead of remaining in the Russian Empire. It depicts Stalin (in this history, taking the name Joe Steele) growing up to be an American politician, rising to the presidency and retaining it by ruthless methods through the Great Depression, World War II, and the early Cold War. The president is depicted as having the soul of a tyrant, with Stalin’s real-world career mirrored by actions taken by Steele.” (from here)

But I mention Turtledove’s Joe Steele as it reminded me of Komar and Melamid’s painting Yalta Conference, from the Nostalgic Socialist Realism series, 1982. This work has also been the cover image for Boris Groys’ seminal book The Total Art of Stalinism: Avant-Garde, Aesthetic Dictatorship, and Beyond (2011). The ‘inspiration’ for this painting is a famous photograph.

Komar & Melamid are interesting for their cultivated personas as much as their art. This painting can’t help but offer and foment a myriad of interpretations, drawing upon not just the ‘players’ but the moment it re imagines. Yalta was, after all, the point at which the shaky alliance between the USSR and the United States began to seriously fracture. The employment – or appropriation – of ‘socialist realism’ (a style that was the official style of the USSR but that – to quote a Soviet born historian – was like Pravda, in that you can find some grain of truth by what it ignores) only makes this a ‘scene’ even more about failure (like the Yalta Conference was, towards any peace in a Post WW II world) than progress, with a sprinkling of absurdity and skepticism, with the hushing Hitler and American leader a goggle eyed alien….

Boris Groys, in writing about Komar and Melamid, offered the following about their aesthetic: “[The artists] themselves, however, perceive no sacrilege whatever here, because they consider the religion of the avant-garde to be false and idolatrous.”

More from Groys, that could also apply to this painting, and the multiplicities of potential interpretations of it (combined with the irreverence of Komar and Melamid’s larger practice): “[in] the West, the march of progress is “aimless” – one fashion succeeds another, one technical innovation replaces another and so on. The consciousness that desires a goal, meaning, harmony, or that simply refuses to serve the indifferent Moloch of time is inspired to rebel against this progress. Yet the movement of time has resisted all rebellions and attempts to confer meaning upon, control, or transcend it.”

More of Komar & Melamid’s work – and their unique aesthetic and legacy – can be enjoyed here. If you’re interested, more about Boris Groys’ writings and ideas can be read here.

~ Bart Gazzola

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Romina Ressia | Woman with a Water Pistol, 2014
January 6, 2023

Romina Ressia | Woman with a Water Pistol, 2014

Most of the writing around Ressia’s photographs talks about absurdity and anachronism: perhaps that’s because she appropriates form and redefines meaning in a manner that challenges art historical tropes around gender and relevance. Meticulously executed, her ‘portraits’ have a gravitas on the one hand, but then this is broken by elements that can’t help but amuse (though her people never crack a smile, with eye contact that might wilt any irreverence from the viewer).

There is a hint of dourness to the woman who is the player in this series, and many others, having a heavy handed seriousness that is then fractured by the various objects her subjects are brandishing that seem silly and puerile.

Bluntly, Messia’s Woman with a Water Pistol looks like she’s had just about enough of you, young man, and unless you want to be sprayed with water – disciplined like an unruly, disobedient cat – you’d best behave. You shan’t be told again.

A bit flippant perhaps. But consider the [still, uninterrupted] proliferated misogyny in Western art history [or contemporary art] of women as object, or demure commodity, or the validation / apologia of rape as seen with Europa or the Sabine women or ‘Susannah and the Elders’ (and so, so many others). Consider that in (recently done) 2022 we’ve seen groups of women around the world make it clear that they have had *quite* enough and my interpretation is not without consideration….

This image is part of a larger series titled How would have been Childhood? with the same figure in them all, her unimpressed body language acting as a unifying aspect of the artworks. Birthday hats, costumes, balloons – nothing seems to inspire joy, here. When I first encountered this series online, a birthday party that no one was enjoying – if anyone even came, besides the ‘star’ of the series – can be forgiven for being an initial impression….

“Romina’s art cleverly initiates dialogue on important contemporary social issues through the striking use of anachronistic tropes juxtaposed with mundane and banal elements of modernity. Indeed, the influence of classical artists like Da Vinci, Rembrandt and Velazquez is instantly recognizable in the palettes, textures, ambiance and scenes captured in Romina Ressia’s works, bequeathing them an air of familiarity which only serves to highlight the contradictory and sometimes confrontational presence of objects of modernity such as cotton candy, bubble gum, microwave popcorn and Coca Cola.

The theatrical absurdity in her pictorial compositions, which combine stylistic elements of Renaissance paintings and Pop art, and the dissonance of the stark contradictions captured therein have a surprising clarity, making for an honest critique through visual dialogue of received notions of modernity. In this sense, Romina succeeds in achieving her artistic intent which is not to recreate or refer to the past but to establish a frame within which to interrogate the perceived evolution and progress of society especially in respect to the role and identity of women.” (from here)

If you’re doltish enough to suggest ‘she’d look better if she smiled’, don’t be surprised if you get soaked – deservingly.

More of Romina Ressia’s evocative – if a bit disquieting – work can be seen here.
Her Instagram is @rominaressia

~ Bart Gazzola

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Haruko Maeda | Self – Portrait with my cat and my grandmother in a glass, 2020
December 2, 2022

Haruko Maeda | Self – Portrait with my cat and my grandmother in a glass, 2020

Several years ago, when I was going through the library of a recently deceased friend  – at the invitation of his daughter – I noticed in his (former) apartment that she had a velvety bag, looking lustrous and fancy. I asked if this was some expensive alcohol, to mark her father’s passing. She told me it was her father’s ashes. When I asked if they’d be scattered in the city we were in, as he’d lived there for some time, contributing to the critical writing community and being a significant voice around visual culture and especially photography, or back in his home province in the Maritimes, she tersely commented she had not decided yet whether they’d be flushed down the toilet or mixed in with the cat litter.

When my own father passed several years ago, not long before COVID, the arrangements around his inurnment were put on hold: his ashes sat on a shelf in the living room of what is now my mother’s house for some time, only recently being put underground this past summer. Frankly, having ‘him’ in the same room where he spent most of the final years of his life seemed to comfort my mother: he was more agreeable than he’d been in decades, ahem.
No, I am not smiling – my face is as stoic and unreadable as Maeda’s, in her painting.

Those are both dark places to begin in considering Haruko Maeda’s painting Self – Portrait with my cat and my grandmother in a glass: but the funerary rites and rituals of family are nothing if not contested narratives that bring feelings to the surface, re opening old wounds and making new ones. Leave the dead to bury the dead, they (Matthew and Luke, to be specific, but that may just be hyperbole) say, but they never truly ‘leave’ us….

Maeda looks unperturbed in this scene: her cat seems relaxed, and even the fly that perches upon her arm that holds the ashes of her grandmother is subtle.

“Japanese Haruko Maeda lives and works in Austria since 2005. In her art she combines the Shintoistic traditions of her homeland with the Roman Catholic faith, deeply rooted in Austrian culture and history. This allows her to position herself between East and West. Maeda lets these double belongings function as a kind of filter through which she can process her own memories and experiences. The purpose is to raise universal questions about existence, life and death.” (from here)

In Neil Gaiman’s Sandman series, the final story arc – The Wake – offers several vignettes as concluding narratives about death, loss and mourning. One of these involves a man cast into exile, after the death of his son, who gets lost in a desert that his guides will not name, as to do so is to invite disaster. Master Li finds a tiny kitten as a companion, a ward, perhaps, against the ghosts of the dead he encounters in the ashy, shifting sands. At some point he encounters the shade of his son, and this is their conversation:

“Father? I am your son. That is only a kitten. Why do you abandon me to chase after it?”
“When you were alive, you were all my joy. Now you are dead. I see you only in my dreams. And when I awake my pillow is wet with tears. The kitten is living, and it needs my help.”

There is a solemnity to Maeda’s work, but also just a touch of irreverence.

More of Haruko Maeda’s work can be seen here.

~ Bart Gazzola

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Pavel Filonov | The Formula of Contemporary Pedagogy of IZO, 1923
October 21, 2022

Pavel Filonov | The Formula of Contemporary Pedagogy of IZO, 1923

He was walking about with a noose round his neck and didn’t know. So I told him what I’d heard about his poems.

.     .     .     .     .     .     .      .

Yevgraf: This is a new edition of the Lara poems.
Engineer: Yes, I know. We admire your brother very much.
Yevgraf: Yes, everybody seems to.. now.
Engineer: Well, we couldn’t admire him when we weren’t allowed to read him…
Yevgraf: …No. 

(both quotes from Boris Pasternak’s tale of Russia before and after the Russian Revolution Dr. Zhivago)

 

A defining book in my reading and understanding of art history in the 20th century is Boris Groys’ The Total Art of Stalinism: begun when the USSR was still in existence, Groys was able, with the fall of that empire, to access more information, and offer a more nuanced take upon the years post Russian Revolution, as it pertains to the arts in that rare and unique historical moment. Amusingly, I became aware of it after participating in a panel about modernism, and horrifying my fellow speakers by stating that it had failed, horribly, but that its relevance was in its ideals…

Several points stay with me, in considering Pavel Filonov’s work. One is that, in a correlation to the backward economic state of Russia making it fertile ground for a radical new approach and the subsequent revolution, the artistic milieu also suffered from this. It’s not incidental that so many significant artists – not just to Russia but to ‘western’ art history – like Malevich or the Suprematists flourished during the first heady days of the NEP. Experimentation and a sentiment that ‘anything was possible’ was pervasive and defining, with a desire to irrevocably fracture from the ‘old.’ 

This, of course, all ended badly, and the promised freedoms – whether artistic or personal – were soon not just reigned in, but suppressed, and a cultural exodus from the USSR to other places was predictable. 

Filonov (1883 – 1941) served in WWI and would die of starvation during the siege of Leningrad, the once and present St. Petersburg, in the war that followed the ‘war to end all wars.’

The painter, art theorist and poet was an outsider, even during the pre and immediately post revolutionary days of promise: after several failures, in “1908 Filonov was admitted at last to the Academy of Arts. His works attracted the attention of both students and professors by their unusualness: they were not abstract and depicted their subject with full likeness, but were executed in garish, bright colors – reds, blues, greens and oranges. This manner did not conform to the Academy standards, and Filonov was dismissed “for influencing students with the lewdness of his work”. Filonov protested the decision of the rector Beklemishev, and was rehabilitated, but after studying for two years he left the Academy in 1910.”

He was one of many whose works were deemed degenerate, as they eschewed official socialist realist policy. He’d be lost to us, in terms of history, but for the efforts of his sister Yevdokiya Nikolayevna Glebova: “She stored the paintings in the Russian Museum’s archives and eventually donated them as a gift. Exhibitions of Filonov’s work were forbidden. In 1967, an exhibition of Filonov’s works in Novosibirsk was permitted. In 1988, his work was allowed in the Russian Museum. In 1989 and 1990, the first international exhibition of Filonov’s work was held in Paris.

During the period of half-legal status of Filonov’s works it was seemingly easy to steal them; however, there was a legend that Filonov’s ghost protected his art and anybody trying to steal his paintings or to smuggle them abroad would soon die, become paralyzed, or have a similar misfortune.”

It’s unsurprising that Filonov was deeply influence by fellow dissident Klebnikov: and his works – whether the obvious disdain present in this piece The Formula of Contemporary Pedagogy of IZO, or the more stark Those Who Have Nothing To Lose, or Animals, that would make a fine illustration for Orwell’s Animal Farm decades later – have an unflinching quality. 

More of Filinov’s life and legacy can be learned here (and was the source cited for the biographical quotes about his life and work).

~ Bart Gazzola

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José Clemente Orozco | The Clowns of War Arguing in Hell, 1944
October 6, 2022

José Clemente Orozco | The Clowns of War Arguing in Hell, 1944
Fresco, Palacio de Gobierno, Guadalajara (alternately known as Carnival of the Ideologies).

Do I look like the kind of clown that could start a movement? (from the film Joker, 2019)

And butchered, frantic gestures of the dead. (Siegfried Sassoon, 1886 – 1967)

This fresco, created only five years before the artist’s death, is a good example of how ‘Orozco’s late works were characterized by a deep sense of anguish and pessimism as the artist grew skeptical about the future of humanity in the wake of sweeping technological advancements.’ (from here) The facile art historical reading is that this work was Orozco’s reaction to WWII, but even a quick perusal of his impressive body of work, and the cultural and social milieu he existed within, will indicate that this is a more complex and personal artwork than that. 

It is, bluntly, a horrifying piece, and intended to be so: painted in the final days of WW II, one might see this as the answer to that image of the conference at Yalta, with FDR, Churchill and Stalin, still pretending to be allies and not with their knives out to gluttonously divide the spoils of war. 

Recently I was lucky enough to write about the work of Orozco’s colleague Rufino Tamayo, who eschewed the political discourse that this artist – and other contemporaries like Diego Rivera or David Alfaro Siqueiros – considered essential to Mexican art. Orozco is at the opposite end of this spectrum from Tamayo: in this regard, Octavio Paz [the internationally renowned essayist and poet] once remarked “Orozco never smiled in his life.” (from here) Perhaps that is because – as with this work – Orozco had little use for genteel diplomacy, and knew that once you saw horrors, it was a conscious act of morality to not look away….I am also researching the Russian – Canadian artist Paraskeva Clark, right now, and her aesthetic was to respond to, and reflect, the world she lived within. That is what Orozco is doing here. 

But if I’m honest, the reason this older work holds my attention now and I want to share it here is because it seems that very little has changed, in our political discourse, and that we’re still – willingly or press-ganged – onto Das Narrenschiff [A Ship of Fools], a favourite theme of Hieronymous Bosch and so many others….

A quick perusal of the civic candidates standing for office in my space of Niagara only emphasizes this appropriate cynicism.

Much more about Orozco’s life and legacy can be seen here

~ Bart Gazzola

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Hayv Kahraman | Migrant 3, 2009
September 29, 2022

Hayv Kahraman | Migrant 3, 2009
Oil on panel 70 x 45 in. (177.8 x 114.3 cm.)

Hayv Kahraman was born in Baghdad, Iraq, in 1981 but now lives and works in Los Angeles. She describes her work as being “a vocabulary of narrative, memory and dynamics of non-fixity found in diasporic cultures are the essence of her visual language and the product of her experience as an Iraqi refugee / come émigré. The body as object and subject have a central role in her painting practice as she compositely embodies the artist herself and a collective.”

This work was made around the same time as her series Marionettes which “explores this subject of female oppression with particular reference to war in the Middle East and specifically in her home land of Iraq. At the same time, she turns her attention to female subjugation found in the everyday, in a series of work focused on women and domestic life. Enslavement is depicted through strings controlling the movement of the women; they drift through the landscapes seemingly oblivious to, or accepting of, their fate.” (from a review in Contemporary Practices, 2010)

This image, as I was engaged in my frequent research about contemporary artists, caught my eye not just for its evocative if disturbing scene (that might be an act of self censorship, or a visual metaphor for a prohibition to speak or be heard), but also with what’s happening in Iran, right now. Feminism – that idea, affronting to so many, that people are all equal – is a contested narrative with overlapping and challenging voices, whether you’re listening to Hurston, Dworkin, Solanas, hooks, Simpson or Deer.

When geo politics enter the conversation – as with spaces where religion is a defining factor, such as the Middle East or the United States, lumbering like a rough beast towards not so much Jerusalem as Atwood’s Gilead – it only becomes more important to allow it to be defined personally, as, “the personal, as everyone’s so fucking fond of saying, is political.” (from the writings of Quellcrist Falconer, the founder of the Quellist movement, in Richard K. Morgan’s Altered Carbon)

As the work is titled Migrant 3, Kahraman might be ‘speaking’ of Iraq or of her new home, in the United States, just as the mirrored figures have differences, as time and experience takes upon any sense of self.

More of Hayv Kahraman’s work can be seen at both her IG and her site.

~ Bart Gazzola

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Craig Thomas Oliver | Cloud Passes My Window, 1973
September 15, 2022

Craig Thomas Oliver | Cloud Passes My Window, 1973

Craig Thomas Oliver’s work always makes me melancholy. Perhaps it’s because not long after my return to Niagara I was approached to contribute an essay to an upcoming catalogue about the artist, published posthumously, as a means to bring attention to his art and accomplishments in Niagara. Later, I would include him in an exhibition I curated from the collection of Rodman Hall Art Centre, under the title of A Place To Stand, emphasizing artists in that archive who had built a place for others to grow and prosper within St. Catharines and Niagara. Both of those instances strike me as being about moments lost, or passing, with an implicit act of grieving. 

Cloud Passes My Window is a small, delicate meditation, with clean, vibrant colours, like a sky so blue it might have been hammered into place. If you’ve visited Niagara Artists Centre (NAC) and their upstairs terrace – the CTO Terrace, named for Oliver, as a founding member of the artist run centre – this motif is familiar to you. On the left wall, a massive reproduction of Oliver’s simple and pristine white cloud on blue dominates the second storey space. It’s an amusing contrast, of the solidity of the architecture and the whimsical, ephemeral clouds, repeated like in this image: but in this work, it slowly leaves us, like any cloud – or person – who was here, and now gone. 

I’ve spent many an evening there, with various NAC events, but I always think of it from a clear sunny afternoon, at the end of my first month upon returning to Niagara, in August of 2015. The CTO Terrace is a site often filled with music, so whenever I see any of Oliver’s ‘cloud’ works, Yoko Kanno’s song Blue comes to mind (Never seen a blue sky / Yeah I can feel it reaching out and moving closer
There’s something about blue / Asked myself what it’s all for / You know the funny thing about it / I couldn’t answer / No I couldn’t answer…)
Unsurprisingly, Kanno’s song may be about death, absence and loss, too. I’ve been told my mind goes to dark places, but that’s not entirely true, with the bright blue skies that Oliver shares with us, and that fills a wall in the loft space that bears his name, with ‘his’ sky to the side and the full sky above us…

But a more apropos element of textual ‘collage’ would be from Allen Ginsberg’s Elegy for Neal Cassady, written in the early morning hours (5 – 5:30 AM) upon learning of the passing of his friend and sometime lover:

aethereal Spirit
bright as moving air
blue as city dawn
happy as light released by the Day
over the city’s new buildings –

Lament in dawnlight’s not needed,
the world is released,
desire fulfilled, your history over,
story told, Karma resolved,
prayers completed
vision manifest, new consciousness fulfilled,
spirit returned in a circle,
world left standing empty, buses roaring through streets —
garbage scattered on pavements galore

Upon Oliver’s passing, NAC Director Stephen Remus offered the following tribute: “Craig was a key figure in the first wave of innovative collective projects that set the tone of wit and satire that has endured to define NAC today. [These include] the Niagara Now Billboard Exhibition (1972), Downtown Street Banner Project (1973), The Johnny Canuck Canadian Ego Exposition (1974), and The Johnny Canuck Canadian Ego Exhibitionist (1976). Craig was a master printmaker and he produced print work by many of his fellow NAC artists including John B. Boyle, Dennis Tourbin, Alice Crawley, and John Moffat.”

More about Oliver’s life and artwork can be read here.

~ Bart Gazzola

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