reviews, artists, Bibliography

REVIEW: Quadriennale d'arte di Roma

Ciao ragazzi! The mercury here in Rome hovers around 40 degrees Centegrade (which is the upper 90's for those of you in the realm of Farenheit). What better excuse then to take refuge in the cool marble halls of an art museum! For my first visit to the Palazzo delle Esposizioni, we were able to catch the 15th Quadriennale d'arte di Roma, which runs through September 14th.

As an outsider to the here and now in contemporary Italian art, this was a good introduction. However, like many survey format shows, which must be a nightmare to curate, I have to admit that it left me feeling a bit lost for vision at the end.

Primarily comprised of emerging and mid-career artists, the show spotlights 99 living artists, with a special (post-mortem) tribute to a 100th, Arte Povera sculptor: Luciano Fabro. During our visit, the museum staff was busy building a large platform for one of his final marble sculptures: "Autunno"; up to this point, not yet shown in public. The casino created by this construction caused an unfortunate interruption of some of the more subtle sound environments and video installations on the 1st floor; for example: Mariateresa Sartori's video installation "Il concerto del mondo". This subtle piece, a video cropped to the mouths of various paired speakers, each vignette in a different language, was accompanied by a soundtrack of music composed to match the rhythm and volume of the subjects as they conducted their conversation. Unfortunately, the excess of ambient noise outside of the viewing room did not serve the interests of this piece.

At a loss to interpret some morbidly lush paintings clustered on the ground level, I found myself drawn to a pair of rather cheeky works in animation shown on the second level of this gorgeous palace. The first, Federico Solmi's "King Kong and the End of the World", was a joyous F.U. to the excesses of American capitalist culture and an energized animation, to boot. Scenes of "the artist as King Kong", sporting a ballooning red erection while smashing the Gagosian Gallery to bits with the edifice of the Guggenheim had me crowing with laughter. I appreciated the way that the museum installed a large selection of original drawings from the animation around the plasma video display. The style, very "schoolkid doodling in the margins of his notebook" was accessible in a way that just barely obfuscated the naughty bits of the subject matter.

Federico Solmi: King Kong and the End of the World

"Eine Symphonie Des Greuns", an animated environment by Andrea Mastrovito, featured similarly sketchy drawing style; in this case doubly projected in black and white over a still scene comprised of A4 sheets of paper photocopied and taped simply to the wall. The animation, a dreamlike sequence toying with the self-generated birth and death of a bearded young dude, was surreal in a way that reminded me of Rami Farah's narratives in Julia Meltzer and David Thorne's work shown at the Whitney Biennial.

Incidentally, it was impossible not to notice a heavy influence of British pop-music on this generation of Italian artists, as this piece was accompanied by a looped clip of the intro to Radiohead's "No Surprises" - and the former, by what I sketchily identified as the piano bridge in Eric Clapton's "Layla"...

I admit that I found myself a bit alienated from much of the formal work in the show, and my non-artsy husband, although born and raised in Rome, was no help to me in interpreting the movements behind the evidence. Paintings to my eye were morbidly garish, depicting either grossly overgrown vegetated environments or circus nightmares. Sculpture resonated fairly flat, with the exception of a lovely trio of maps, delicately carved into bars of cream-colored soap by Elissabeta Di Maggio. These pedestalled tesserae depicted, in turn, full aerial street maps of La Città di Messico, Parigi, e Algiers. Each complete map was enclosed in a lovely red linen box display, with the city name penned on an ornamental label.

Leaving the cool marble oasis of the Palazzo, we sported nostri casci and sped away on nostro motorino.

REVIEW: "Welcome To The Conversation": RISD Graduate Thesis Exhibition, Part 7

It's high time I wrapped up this week-long review of the RISD MFA program thesis show, "Welcome To The Conversation". As I tend to do with my eating habits, and so with I am savoring the sweetest morsels for the last bite. Luckily, I saved some room and have a coffee handy.

"Gordon and Martha Behr It All" by Nathan Craven - RISD MFA Ceramics '08

I've reserved this last post for the work of ceramicist Nathan Craven. His installation "Gordon and Martha Behr It All" is one of those pieces that has to be visited with, and not just looked at. A sprawling, interlocking network of individually fired, extruded ceramic units; the work is visceral, beautiful, evocative and joyful.

"Gordon and Martha Behr It All" by Nathan Craven - RISD MFA Ceramics '08

A labor-intensive, obsessive arrangement, the microcosm of individual units interlock to create structure, and read like the cells of a massive endangered coral reef. There are discoveries and humor in the piece as well, with peepholes, an embossed "river" of what look like Rorschach blot tools, and a goofy "Where's Waldo"-esque portrait of what I was told (by a fellow graduate) is the artist's young son, peering out in wonder and horror at the spectacle.

"Gordon and Martha Behr It All" by Nathan Craven - RISD MFA Ceramics '08

If not already overstimulating, the strength of the combined network of elements is enough to support the physical weight of the viewer - and we were encouraged to walk upon the piece, like Jesus on water. The tactile exhilleration and forbidden pleasure of this action was evocative of walking over coals, or treading on a very expensive Persian carpet.

From what I saw and experienced under the artificial lights of the convention center, Craven's work has a talent for bringing people together in conversation and mutual wonder. One can only imagine what the results would be of giving a piece like this a more permanent home in a public arena; like a park, library courtyard or greenway.

Speaking of public space, for an overview of thesis projects by the students of  landscape and interior architecture, which I haven't had a chance to cover in detail, please visit their respective webpages, which I have linked to above. Also for your perusal, works by the department of industrial design, hopefully coming soon to a forward-thinking retailer near you.

Congratulations to the RISD MFA Class of 2008!

REVIEW: "Welcome To The Conversation": RISD Graduate Thesis Exhibition, Part 6

Yesterday was a silent blog day for me, as I was off to Newport to conduct interviews for my upcoming Artscope articles. Picking up where I left off, I'll be wrapping up my week-long review of RISD's Graduate Thesis Exhibition over the next two days, with posts on the highlights from the MFA sculpture and ceramics candidates.

Returning from a long, stellar day exploring Newport's art spots and beaches a piedi, I put my sandy feet up just in time to watch the ongoing political drama of the Democratic national party. Hillary's toothy, "non-concilliatory / concilliatory" speech to the Obama camp reminded me of the circus of RISD grad Milton F. Stevenson V's day-glo thesis installation "The Beginning Of My Ascension To The Center Of The Universe Vol.2".

On my first visit, the installation starred two, life-sized photo cutouts of the would-be Democratic nominees. On my second visit, I noticed that Obama was...missing? Regardless, we'll be seeing plenty of Mr. Obama from now on, and since that was the day I was shooting photos, my mom graciously stood in for him. Hillary didn't seem to mind, as she's here for the party!

Milton F. Stevenson V - The Beginning Of My Ascension To The Center Of The Universe Vol.2

While I typically would not behave in such a manner at an art exhibit (editor's note: untrue), the content of this installation led me gleefully astray. Filled with tabloid deitritus, the installation is punctuated with hand-painted signs lettered with reactionary caustic remarks aimed at mass-media pop culture and high-art echelons alike.

Milton F. Stevenson V - The Beginning Of My Ascension To The Center Of The Universe Vol.2

The framed slogan: "Rachel Ray: The Dumbing of America" held court adjacent to "Your Residency Sucks Anyway", carefully lettered in stylized day-glo paint over an actual rejection letter to the artist from the Skowhegan residency commitee.

Milton F. Stevenson V - The Beginning of My Ascencion To The Center Of The Universe vol.2

Looking on, a google-eyed audience of altered tabloid covers, cheap plastic toys and portraits of goofy pop icons like Erkel, Pac Man and Mr. T. amidst a temporary forest of tape-striped placard posts. I pity the fool who doesn't see the exorcistic joy in this installation. Still, I wonder if the high court art influencers behind, say, the Whitney Biennial will latch on to this one, who took such care to frame his ubiquitous orange ticket stub for display, mounted between the lines of a hand-painted "Worst Biennial EVER" slogan.

Also making the most of deitritus and day-glo, Chandra Glaeseman's installation held court at the front of the exhibit hall. Using a towering array of building materials, her sculpture "I Have My Doubts" appeared rickety, yet dynamic.

Chandra Glaeseman RISD MFA Sculpture '08 - "I Have My Doubts" installation detail

In the vein of Jessica Stockholder, the materials seemed chosen for formal impact in lieu of narrative value. In this case, it worked, although given the height of the main tower element I wished to see the installation set against an unbroken background, rather than the limited temporary wall of the exhibition hall.

In my next post I will wrap up this week-long review with one of my favorite experiences of the exhibition. Stay tuned!

REVIEW: "Welcome To The Conversation": RISD Graduate Thesis Exhibition, Part 5

In part 5 of my exhibition highlights from "Welcome To The Conversation": RISD's Graduate Thesis Exhibition, I would like to call attention to the graphic design department, which exemplified some very strong conceptual design work through displays in print, video and book format.

My favorite work from this department was by Leslie Kwok. I first noticed her work in a collaborative wall drawing/video piece "The Group Portrait", undertaken with the help of her cohort.

"The Group Portrait" (wall drawing and video) by Leslie Kwok and the RISD '08 MFA Graphic Design department

The site-specific wall drawing, an outlined portrait of the graphic design '08 MFA candidates, is documented in a time-lapse video placed alongside. By watching the video, the viewer is invited into the micro-world of the department, where each student is responsible for a portion of the outline that will stand for their portrait. Of course, the outlines remain empty, and the video offers a point-of-view of the back of each artist. This leaves it up to the viewer to "fill in" the blanks, perhaps to assign a face and personality to the graphic designer, a role which outside of the microcosm of school often exists as a transparancy (or work horse!) behind which the work itself takes center stage.

This stands in ironic contrast to the role of the "art star" that comes to mind when one considers the high stakes luminaries of the contemporary art world, into which the entire crop of RISD MFA candidates now emerges. (For another take on this, see part 6!)

Also of great interest were Kwok's visual and narrative explorations of social ties, in a print series titled "Social Constellations" (depicted below), and video, "Sociograms", which can be viewed as a Quicktime movie on her website.

"Social Constellations" - 20"x26" poster by Leslie Kwok, RISD '08 MFA Graphic Design

"STYROFOAM" at RISD Museum for Artscope Magazine (May/June 2008)

"STYROFOAM" at RISD Museum for Artscope Magazine (May/June 2008)

Rhode Island School of Design Museum
through July 20th, 2008


By Meredith Cutler (for Artscope Magazine)

Name a lightweight, manmade material that emits toxic vapors when heated, yet is historically used to package food. It can be carved or molded; it floats on water and is stubbornly non-biodegradable. If you are still stumped, this controversial substance is expanded polystyrene, commonly referred to by its trademarked name: Styrofoam™.

Fraught with environmental pitfalls and increasingly banned by municipalities for use as food-service packaging, expanded polystyrene nevertheless offers many material qualities that make it attractive to artists. Concisely curated by Judith Tannenbaum, the “Styrofoam” show offers a survey of Styrofoam art created within the past 25 years.

Several big names are represented, such as Richard Tuttle and Sol LeWitt, whose posthumously installed “Black Styrofoam on White Wall and White Styrofoam on Black Wall” starkly greets visitors upon entering the museum, flanking the stairway to the main gallery.

Soaring above, the gravity-defying silver expression of Heidi Fasnacht's “Exploding Airplane” does nothing to quiet the unease surrounding ongoing terror alerts and the recent airline maintenance debacle.

Contrastingly grounded and modestly introspective, Shirley Tse's “Do Cinderblocks Dream of Being Styrofoam?” clings to the gallery wall at eye-level, inviting close inspection of the hand-carved markings tattooing its otherwise banal, utilitarian forms.

The small size of this show lends itself to a balanced viewing, which pays off when one encounters subtle, conceptual work such as B. Wurtz's “Untitled” sepia-toned photographs of implied architectural sites, or Steve Keister's Mesoamerican-inspired cast resin wall reliefs, all composed from the dips and bulges of molded packing containers.

With work ranging from Folkert DeJong's over-the-top figurative sculpture to hidden messages embedded in Bruce Pearson's colorful wall reliefs, “Styrofoam” offers the viewer a perspective on individual artists as they push the physical and conceptual boundaries of a material ubiquitous to the consumerism and material waste now so publicly called to question.

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