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When Bad Photography's Best

An untitled 2013 photo by Annette Kelm

(Image © Annette Kelm, and courtesy Kelm, Andrew Kreps Gallery, New York, and Johann König, Berlin)

The Daily Pic: At MoMA, Annette Kelm channels past mediocrity, and excels.

This is a recent photo by Annette Kelm, now on display in the "New Photography 2013" show at the Museum of Modern Art. I've been following Kelm's photos since her appearance in the Venice Biennale, and I remain pleasantly puzzled by them – which as far as I'm concerned stands in their favor. They are clearly not meant to be "good photos", in anything like the standard sense: They look like really crummy commercial photography from the 1970s. (In photography school in 1979, I took a shot that was remarkably similar to this one, complete with badly prepared striped background.) So I guess this is a kind of skilled restaging of an earlier photographic moment, with its virtue and interest lying not so much in the photographic end product itself – which is no better than its crummy prototype – but in Kelm's act of staging, which is virtuosic. (Especially since she's managed to channel a form of incompetence that almost predates her birth, as executed at a lousy photo school in Montreal by someone who luckily left the profession behind.) I like the idea that the excellence of a photograph could be, or maybe always is, as much in the act and moment of making as in the image produced by it. 

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We The People

Constitutional Performance Art?

A few days into the government shutdown, one Bulgarian artist is hoping to create a commentary about democracy—by staging a “bed time” reading of the Constitution. Ann Binlot reports.

Battles over the nation’s budget went unresolved on Thursday, resulting in the third day of the government shutdown. That same day, Bulgarian artist Borjana Ventzislavova was putting the finishing touchés on a performance art piece that reflects on the very documents that serve as the basis for American democracy: the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution.


Dakota Fine/Borjana Ventzislavova

It may seem like an unlikely marriage of ideas—the Constitution and performance art—but this weekend, Ventzislavova will debut a piece that seeks to fly in the face of that. She has assembled a makeshift bedroom in a corner of the parking garage at Washington, D.C.’s Capitol Skyline Hotel for 15-Minute Constitutional Bed Stories, a participatory performance piece that will take place for three hours each day of the (e)merge art fair, which takes place this weekend at the hotel.

The artist will invite visitors to participate in the piece by joining her for a 15-minute session in the bedroom, which is furnished with a bed, lamp, recliner and bedside table. Participants are free to move about and recite the Constitution or the Declaration of Independence out loud, state their opinions on them (or even ignore them) while Ventzislavova documents each “performance” by filming it and taking a Polaroid of the happening. Participants will get to keep a Polaroid snapped by the artist. “I really want to let people open up and show their thoughts or feelings—their relationship to those documents and what democracy means,” says Ventzislavova.


Frozen in Time

In 'Across the Ravaged Land,' Nick Brandt captures the stone remains of wildlife that Africa is losing. Nico Hines talks to the ex-Michael Jackson video director about his haunting new work.

Two thousand years ago, the stricken population of Pompeii was buried alive in the red-hot ash of Mount Vesuvius; the result was a preserved display of human suffering whose intensity has been unrivaled in the intervening centuries. 


Nick Brandt, Courtesy of Hasted Kraeutler Gallery, 2013

Strolling along the shoreline of a lake in Tanzania’s desolate Rift Valley, Nick Brandt encountered a modern version of that haunting scene. The British photographer’s otherworldly portraits of those statuesque figures are recorded in Across the Ravaged Land, the climax to a trilogy of books mourning the destruction of wildlife that once dominated the great plains of Africa.

The extraordinary carcasses of these creatures, which were calcified in the world’s most caustic lake, were revealed to the artist purely by chance. He was scouting for locations and the dry season had forced the salty waters of Lake Natron to recede, exposing the remains of dozens of bats and birds. “They are quite extraordinarily well-preserved down to the tip of the tongue of a bat, the minutest hair, each little claw on a swallow,” Brandt told me. “I just wanted to take portraits of these creatures like they were still alive because they were so perfectly preserved. It seemed so logical to me to put them back on branches and take their portrait.”


Printed Circuit

A detail from "Caesura" by Emily Henretta

(Courtesy Emily Henretta and Room East, NY)

The Daily Pic: Emily Henretta's woodcut captures technology's fragility.

This is a detail from "Caesura" by Emily Henretta, on view now at Room East in New York. The piece is a woodcut printed on copper-green rice paper, and what I especially like about it is the way Henretta uses the crudest, most primitive printmaking technique to render a circuit board, that symbol of technological sophistication. What with Henretta's rips and the glitches in her printing, something seems wrong in our brave new world.

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Artist as Ant

Untitled works by David Adamo from 2013

(Courtesy David Adamo and Untitled, NY)

The Daily Pic: The sculptor David Adamo copies termites, insignificant creatures with big ambitions.

These sculptures by Berlin-based David Adamo are in his solo show at Untitled gallery in New York. At first, they look like more of the crafty, intuitive, "expressive" sculpture that's taking today's art world (and especially its market) by storm. It turns out, however, that Adamo's pieces are very closely based on real termite mounds. This means that objects that seem like abstraction are actually in the center of the realist tradition, closer to Houdon than to any Peter Voulkos retread. It also shows how the classically expressionist urge to give up conscious control over the creative act is doubly reversed in Adamo's latest works: He cedes control, but only by diligently copying the work of another creature – and that creature's creativity, in turn, is the product of a hive-mind rather than individual will or psychology.

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Tinted Love, Baby

Color Chips and Color Fields

Works from the series "Interior Color Beauty", by Morgan Fisher

(Courtesy Morgan Fisher and Bortolami, NY)

The Daily Pic: 1930s paint samples help Morgan Fisher get at abstraction's heft.

When I first looked through the window of Bortolami gallery and spotted these and other paintings by Morgan Fisher, I thought "Oh no, not more late-in-the-day re-riffing on attractive Color Field abstraction". Then I went in and discovered a backstory that changes everything: The paintings are faithful enlargements of color chips from a brochure that Fisher's father, a builder of prefab homes, had offered to clients in about 1935.  The paintings' compositions represent the "tasteful" combinations the brochure suggests for different rooms in a modern house.

Fisher's installation doesn't use serious modernist art as the basis for 21st-century decor, as so many of today's abstract painters do. It makes clear that, from the beginning, decor went hand-in-hand with serious modernist art. Fisher isn't using color chips as raw material for his own aesthetic play, as is the norm in other color-chip art (there's a lot of it around...) Fisher is preserving the original aesthetics of the brochure, as a kind of document in the social history of art.

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A page from the booklet "Exterior and Interior Color Beauty", produced in about 1935 by General Houses, Inc.

(Courtesy Morgan Fisher and Bortolami, NY)

Art & Sex

The Original Erotica

Shunga, paintings of sex and pleasure beginning in 17th-century Japan, are the focus of a new exhibition in London. Chloe Ashby reports.

Perhaps The British Museum’s latest exhibition, Shunga: Sex and Pleasure in Japanese Art should come with a warning: “Don’t try this at home.”


The British Museum

After all, in 1861 an anonymous source observed: “a foolish couple copy the Shunga spraining a wrist.” For this exhibition—which offers a crash course in the ceaseless and inventive intertwining of limbs in the most beautiful way possible—the museum has imposed an age limit of 16 to enter.

Shunga are beautifully crafted erotic paintings, woodblock prints, and books; they are rendered with powerful outlines and brought to life with colorful pigments. Translated loosely as ‘spring pictures’ or ‘pillow pictures,’ Shunga were produced in Japan between 1600 and 1900, partly as a form of sexual education. They’re eerily beautiful and also wickedly funny: Tsukioka Settei’s Shunga parody of an educational book for women, Great Pleasures for Women and their Treasure Boxes (c. 1755), shows a couple making love while taking a break from making noodles.


Nothing New Under the Sun

Park Ave. Armory

Adam Curtis and Robert Del Naja perform at Massive Attack V. Adam Curtis at the The Park Avenue Armory on Sept. 26, 2013. (Stephanie Berger)

Park Avenue Armory debuts Massive Attack V Adam Curtis, a film and concert performance that recycles the past to stunning effect.

Nothing is new.  The past returns to haunt and seduce us. 

That is the final message of Massive Attack V Adam Curtis, a 90-minute film and concert that opened this past Saturday, September 28th, at the Park Avenue Armory in New York.

For the film, BBC producer-director Adam Curtis wove together over 50 years of archived footage of politics, pop culture icons and eerie tragedies, from the Chernobyl disaster and Jane Fonda in her fitness days to Brit pop icon Pauline Boty and her daughter, whose tragic story haunted the night. The combination of clips formed a timeline intertwining a past that still sought an optimistic future to what Curtis sees as today’s fearful and managed culture.

Park Ave. Armory

Adam Curtis and Robert Del Naja perform at Massive Attack V. Adam Curtis at the The Park Avenue Armory on Sept. 26, 2013. (Stephanie Berger)

Equine Excellence

A Horse and His Gent

Joshua Reynolds's portrait of George Coussmaker

(Metropolitan Museum of Art, bequest of William K. Vanderbilt, 1920)

The Daily Pic: In 1782, Joshua Reynolds gave equal attention to a toff and his mount.

In 1782, Joshua Reynolds painted this portrait of the British gent George Coussmaker and his horse, now on view in the Metropolitan Museum's revamped Old Master galleries. Or is it a portrait of the horse and his gent? Given the British love of their mounts, I wonder if any other painter has been faced with as strong a need to perform equine flattery. I love the way the horse is made to wrap elegantly around the tree, and seems to cross its hooves just as its master crosses his legs. I bet George's lady love wouldn't have been rendered as lovingly. Reynolds apparently devoted 22 sessions to painting the master and two to painting the horse, but I might have guessed the reverse.

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Porn as Art as Porn

An NSFW Masterpiece

Frames from "Everything That Rises Must Converge", a new video installation by Omer Fast

(Courtesy gb agency, Arratia Beer, Dvir Gallery)

The Daily Pic: Video artist Omer Fast becomes a Vermeer for porn stars, showing them at work and adding his own poetry.

These images are from a new four-screen installation by Omer Fast, one of the world's best video artists, premiering at the Frieze art fair in London in a couple of weeks. There's more about Fast and his new piece in my profile of him in this weekend's New York Times.

Fast takes documentary (and also mockumentary) footage shot on a real hard-core porn set and remixes it, with typical bravura, to incorporate fictional storylines.

One reading of the work that didn't make it into my profile, and which Fast has mixed feelings about, is to see the porn and Fast's own piece and practice as having something in common. After all, there's not that huge a gulf separating art and porn as cultural commodities offered for sale, and any number of artists have been accused of bumping and grinding to appeal to an audience. 

Fast told me that the reality of porn stars “is totally parallel to ours in the art world” – there’s the same daily, banal labor coupled to an aura of mystery, of exclusivity, of superstars and also-rans – “except theirs is taboo.” Given the vast circulation of porn in our world, Fast sees breaking down that hypocritical censure as part of the work his installation can do, simply by presenting pornography as a routine subject for art.


Loeb Targets Sotheby’s

In another one of his now-famous “poison pen” letters, activist investor Dan Loeb aims to shake up storied auction house Sotheby’s

Most bigtime hedge fund investors are interested in big brands. But Dan Loeb, the billionaire activist investor, is more interested in shaking up the companies behind them than in acquiring the products they produce. In recent years, Loeb, founder and proprietor of Third Point has gone and acquired stakes in companies like Yahoo! and Sony, and then encouraged management to make significant changes. At Yahoo!, Loeb helped install new CEO Marisa Mayer and then sold most of his stake after the stock appreciated significantly.

On Wednesday, Loeb announced his latest target: Sotheby’s. Loeb, who already owns a stake in the auction house, released another of his acid-tipped letters. This one was aimed squarely at Sotheby’s CEO William Ruprecht.

Loeb’s letter details what he sees as the failings of Ruprecht and the company management. The bill of particulars: too much focus on high-value lots, the lack of a good digital strategy, and not enough emphasis on the contemporary and modern art market. (On Wall Street, you can never be too money. But Ruprecht is apparently too Monet for Loeb).


Michael Nagle/Getty

Digital Landscape

Hudson River School, 2.0

"Yellow Trail Spring with Gray" (2013) by Debra Ramsay

(Courtesy Pocket Utopia)

The Daily Pic: Debra Ramsay records nature as a series of computer-mixed stripes.

A second day of stripes, in a painting on paper called "Yellow Trail Spring with Gray", made this year by the young artist Debra Ramsay and now in a group show at Pocket Utopia in New York. The piece is clearly meant to recall the stripe-works of Gene Davis (as per yesterday's Daily Pic), and to add new meaning by changing the process that gets Ramsay there. 

The piece has roots in photos shot during nature walks she took while on a residency in upstate New York. She says she chose a salient color from each image, then mixed a paint to match it using the Virtual Paint Mixer application from Golden Artist Colors, then applied those new hues in the stripey "landscape" painting she produced.  The result, Ramsay says, is "a direct experience of color in nature [filtered] through a rules-based and technological approach to the collection of color data" – but it's also a clear mash-up of traditional landscape painting, Color Field formalism and conceptual, process-based work. You could say it's a grand experiment in deliberate pseudomorphism, pillaging art history to produce something that looks old but is new.

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Banksy Takes New York



The anonymous British street artist announces a month-long residency in the Big Apple.

Get ready, Big Apple—Banksy is back.

After “Banksy Oct 2013” posters began appearing around Los Angeles weeks ago, rumors have been flying that the elusive and anonymous British artist would be coming stateside to stage one of his famous guerrilla graffiti projects that turn empty walls into high-priced works of art.

The mystery of where Banksy’s show would pop up was solved on Tuesday, when the first in his series, Better Out Than In, mysteriously appeared on Manhattan’s Lower East Side. (The same day, Banksy’s website announced that the show would be “an artist’s residency on the streets of New York.”) The painting depicted two young boys, one atop the other’s back, reaching for a can of spray paint, and a sign stating “Graffiti is a crime.” As with most of Banksy’s works, the image was quickly tagged and subsequently painted over. Luckily, a new work appeared this morning on Manhattan’s West Side, with the words “This is my New York accent” in iconic graffiti typeface. Underneath, “…normally I write like this” is neat and simple.

With Banksy’s involvement confirmed by images on his blog—as most of his works are—fans are buzzing about where the artist might strike next. Each image in Better Out Than In will be accompanied by a phone number and extension for an audio guide to the works. The artist is not revealing exact locations, but it’s predicted he’ll be doing a piece a day. So, if you see something—say something.

Eye Bitters

Stripes With Depth

"Queen's Gate", painted by Gene Davis in 1980

(Courtesy Ameringer McEnery Yohe)

The Daily Pic: Gene Davis can seem to tickle the retina, but he’s digging deeper than that.

Gene Davis painted the huge Queen’s Gate in 1980, and it’s now up in his solo show at Ameringer McEnery Yohe gallery in New York. More often that not, Davis seems to get dismissed as a provider of intriguing visual fun, pretty much in the mode of op art. After having spent some time with his work recently, I think it’s more profound than that. Rather than catering to visuality, it defeats it: his pictures are hard to look at, hard to absorb, hard to register in full with anything like stable results. That makes them almost as philosophical as they are visual. Lately Bridget Riley has been billed as the philosopher’s op-ster, but I think Davis may deserve the title.

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