Monday, February 26, 2007

scoping the merchandise

Major art fairs hit Manhattan this past week, among them the long-established Art Dealers Association at the Seventh Regiment Armory and, well, The Armory Show at Pier 94. The L.A. Art fair in Chelsea featured California (& not just Los Angeles-based) artists. Those who wanted more of a focus on young &/or emerging artists headed to the giant white tent outside Lincoln Center for scope, at which sixty-five galleries peddled their wares.

Indeed the emphasis at art fairs is on commercialism, which is why P.S. 1 in Long Island City organized a counter exhibit, “Not for Sale” (now through April 16th), whose intriguing premise is to hang work by famous artists that is not available at any price. In an article this month in the New York Times, the director of P.S. 1, Alanna Heiss, explained that she’d wanted to do something to counter the frenzied art market; also, she feels the show will be a test of integrity, for it’s likely collectors will be interested in trying to acquire the nonofferings by artists like Robert Rauschenberg, Mark di Suvero & Maya Lin. “If you sell a work out of this show...[i]t’s your problem,” she warned. And if Richard Tuttle were to accept money for any of his contributions, he’ll be in trouble with more than one woman: the pieces in the show are gifts he made for his wife, poet Mei-Mei Berssenbrugge.

So while the fairs are very much about commerce—one commonly sees the artists’ names & titles pencilled on the walls over half-erased descriptions of work that buyers snapped up minutes before—it’s great fun just to go & look. At scope, where two men in silver spandex outside the entrance made one chuckle at the definition of general admission, painting & photography dominated. An older woman who’d battled the crowds earlier at The Armory Show asked, “Emerging artists—lots of video, then?” Nope—the emphasis these days continues to be on draftsmanship, & there’s a ton of varied talent out there. The Cuban duo El Soca & Fabian (Adrian Soca Beltran & Fabian Pena Diaz) met at the Instituto Superior de Arte & came to the United States in 2004; on display Saturday afternoon were three wineglasses, each with a delicate caramel-colored mosaic (a lip print, a World War II-era plane, & a pattern of barbed wire) made from crushed cockroach wings. The artists are also fond of using houseflies on canvas to create what appear at first to be gorgeous compositions in graphite.

A crimson dot accompanied every Mike Bayne piece—oil paintings of suburban houses done in an extremely realistic style heightened by their size: at 4 x 6 inches, the dimensions match those of a snapshot. The Ottawa-born artist says he works with Old Masters such as Vermeer in mind, & that he is continuing their tradition of using the camera as a tool for painting. Shannon Lucy, who lived in Halifax & Nashville before moving to Brooklyn, has been at work on a series of “Bad Thoughts”—No. 7 was a seductively beautiful musical score hand drawn in ink over which the words “I’m sorry” appeared in ragged red capital letters. Huge, boldly colored & futuristic canvases by Goetz Valien stopped people in their tracks: "To-Morrow," with its perhaps intentionally humorous throwback title, depicted a clean-lined building with two curved glass enclosures. In each a woman waited—it was unclear whether they were gazing at the dying golden light of the day or preparing for teleportation…or if the red dots above their head might be a wry commentary on the art world.

Yukiko Suto & Marcel Gahler are two of the many artists working small & in pencil. Suto’s love for nature manifests itself in pieces like “The Garden,” which seems very un-Japanese inasmuch as the plot of land depicted is lush & unruly, with tiny weeds beginning to spring up on the path. Gahler carries a camera during night walks & typically records foliage or the roofline of a building, then uses the photos as the source for his tiny (6 x 9 cm) drawings in graphite.

Numerous photographers showed strong work—among them April Tillman, Regina Verserius, & Esko Mannikko. Mannikko’s oddly cropped portraits of horses & geese were set off by lovely, thick frames that seemed to be flea-market finds. Although Verserius uses the decidedly modern ink-jet technique, her nudes, posed against dark backgrounds, hearkened to an era before the invention of electricity. But Yossi Milo gallery in New York took the crown for best stable of photographers: Loretta Lux, with her surreal headshots of children; Pieter Hugo’s portraits of honey collectors in Ghana & hyena handlers in Nigeria; & Sze Tsung Leong’s sweeping documents of China, the best of which captured a foggy maze of grey brick rooftops in Shanxi province.

Then there was the downright whimsical. A man ensconced in a cramped wooden house would, for two dollars inserted into a slot, fashion original art from Sculpey & bequeath it to the buyer on the dwelling’s outgoing tray. One came upon ipods decorated with plastic arabesques & incorporated into bright organic-looking blobs and asteroids cut away to reveal neatly ordered bedrooms. And Ma Jun’s enamelled television set done in the style of classical Chinese vases was at once hilarious & a technical marvel. All served as a reminder that despite the commercialism, a healthy spirit of fun persists at these fairs.

Wednesday, February 21, 2007

apradhis & apsaras

Sacred Games, a new novel by Vikram Chandra, is at once literary, cultural, and compelling thriller. At nine hundred pages in length, it could appear daunting to a bookstore browser contemplating her next purchase, but most readers will be quickly hooked on this fascinating tale of Bombay crime & police work, which opens with a white dog named Fluffy screaming as she is hurled out the window of an apartment complex.

Chandra’s portrayal of his two main characters is one of the biggest pleasures of the book. Sartaj Singh, a Sikh policeman who first appeared in “Kama,” a short story published in the New Yorker in 1997, is divorced, introspective, & incredibly savvy. Thrust into an investigation of the hugely powerful crime boss Ganesh Gaitonde, Singh considers himself too small a man for the job, yet before long is uncovering crucial evidence from sources as diverse as street urchins to Miss India. Alternating with the tough yet sensitive police officer’s determined legwork is Gaitonde’s narrative, in which he reveals his most private personal history. He details the killings, arms smuggling, political payoffs, & daily operations of his G Company, but also holds nothing back in other, more human areas: the humble origins he would like to forget, the overwhelming love he feels for his infant son, & even a growing spirituality. The ruthless gangster who is devoid of compassion for his endless supply of whores (most quite young & a good many of them virgins) is nevertheless a sympathetic individual due to Chandra’s skillful pen.

Sacred Games also contains a number of subordinate characters & stories that greatly broaden its scope. The widow of Sartaj Singh’s murdered partner struggles to raise her two sons on a limited income. A sheltered young girl witnesses the violence of Partition. A determined Moslem woman abandons her family with a brief note (“Don’t try to find me”) & comes to Bombay to be a film star. And Sartaj Singh himself may find love at last. An essential (yet unfortunately incomplete) glossary of terms appears at the back of the book: Vikram Chandra sprinkles Hindi, Bombay slang, Malayalam, Punjabi, Urdu, Sanskrit, Gujarati, Marathi, Bengali, Kashmiri, & even Konkami at a steady clip throughout. A warning: if you take on this amazing novel, you’ll find it’s impossible to resist learning & perhaps employing some of its excellent curse words.


Baghdad Is Burning, created by an unidentified “girl blog from Iraq,” provides readers with an insider’s opinions on life in that occupied, chaotic country (see link above & at right). While the author tends to post sporadically, in recent days she has written about Sabrine al Janabi, a young woman who went public on Monday night with allegations that Iraqi security forces abducted & raped her. (An article also appears on the front page of today’s New York Times but, in keeping with that newspaper’s editorial policy, does not identify al Janabi.) Given that women in Iraq (& numerous other cultures) are generally shunned rather than nurtured if they’re victims of sexual assault, it is incredibly brave of this 20-year-old to describe her ordeal on television & to use her real name. The Iraqi prime minister, Nuri Kamal al Maliki, initially promised a full investigation; however, only hours later he issued a second statement that smeared the victim as a liar & a wanted criminal.

Thursday, February 08, 2007

random journal excerpts