The Daily Pic: Feng Mengbo reveals Shanghai's decrepit science museum.
This photograph is titled “Siberian Tiger”, and it’s from a series shot by artist Feng Mengbo in Shanghai’s natural history museum, and which is now on view at the for-profit Shanghai Gallery of Art. Feng is hardly the first artist to photograph old museum dioramas – Hiroshi Sugimoto beat him to it by several decades – but the subject has special resonance in China. On the one hand, the grossly decrepit museum could stand for the neglect of basic science education in Shanghai’s wealth-obsessed culture. On the other, the museum has a hugely colonial flavor, so its neglect can seem like a suitable revenge of the colonized. What does it mean for a Chinese tiger, stuffed by the English, to be left as moth-food today?
The Daily Pic: Hand-written posters set the standard for the Chinese work that’s come since.
I saw these two street posters, known as “dazibao”, at the private Shanghai Propaganda Poster Art Center, which is housed in a few lower-level rooms in a scruffy apartment building. Dazibao were hand-written denunciations posted on city streets during the Cultural Revolution, with rebuttals quickly, illicitly scrawled on top overnight. Yang Pei Ming, the propaganda center’s founder, and the only person to preserve this poster genre, thinks of them as the first examples of contemporary art in China, citing their links to calligraphy, politics and history. I’m not sure I follow his reasoning, but dazibao do share many features with radical Western art since the 1960s: A rejection of fine craft and figuration; a privileging of text and content; an aesthetic that is built around allover compositions and a monochrome palette and, most of all, an extreme, high-stakes interactivity. It strikes me that Yang’s claim for these posters is also a classic contemporary gesture – taking something not originally meant to be art, and insisting on its artistic potential.
The Daily Pic: He Xiangyu's smashed porcelain forges links to China's classic ceramics.
This installation of 900 whole and broken porcelain bowls is by Chinese artist He Xiangyu, from his show at White Space Beijing. After seeing the jaw-dropping ceramics collection at the Shanghai Museum, I found that He’s piece seemed to gain meaning and poignancy: The pottery tradition is so extraordinary in China that it’s hard to see how contemporary art can compete. (As with all art in China, however, it’s very hard to tell if such a Western, outsider’s take has anything to do with the artist’s intentions, or with how Chinese people will read the work.)
The Daily Pic: At the 1933 arts center in Shanghai, death goes Art Deco.
A view down into the wild, Art Deco abattoir now called the 1933 Center in Shanghai. Brutalism avant-la-lettre, and as usual, I love all that concrete. Apparently, however, the creatively reused building hasn’t really succeeded as an arts-and-culture center, so I have a modest proposal: Return it to its original function, for which it was so carefully and elegantly designed.
The Daily Pic: China's terracotta army was built for fighting, not for looking at.
I first got a look at the great terracotta warriors of Qin Shi Huang, first emperor of China, in a show in Washington a few years back. At the time, I felt it didn’t make any sense to see just a handful of them, away from their thousands of fellows at their home base in Shaanxi province. Today, I took in the whole giant dig, with hundreds of the soldiers on view and thousands more waiting to be excavated. It was a stunning sight - and convinced me more than ever that an aesthetic, art-critical take is almost irrelevant to these objects. For all their visual glory and exquisite crafting, these figures, buried soon after their creation in about 225 B.C.E., were never really meant to be seen. And in some weird sense they are unseeable today, at least with modern, art-oriented eyes. In their massed ranks, they don’t invite or repay careful, connoisseurial scrutiny. Instead they manage to communicate the fact that they once had an entirely practical function: They were meant to serve their lord in the afterlife. If you can’t pretend for a minute that they are actually capable of doing that job, then you’ve missed their point. That is, they weren’t meant to please anyone but the emperor himself – and not by looking good, but by fighting well.
The Daily Pic: Beijing artist Zhang Wuyun just tells it like it is, in paint.
Yes, this is just an oil painting of a cat by the Chinese artist Zhang Wuyun, as seen at 01100001 gallery in Beijing. It is absolutely not the kind of art I usually have any time for, but in the context of so much work that is desperately trying to look flashy and hip, it was a pleasure to come across a nice, well-crafted picture of something simply encountered in the world. The hackneyed technique becomes almost snapshot-transparent, letting the moment depicted speak for itself.
The Daily Pic: Li Songsong, an old master back from the future.
At Pace gallery in Beijing, the well-known Chinese artist Li Songsong is presenting this strange sculpture/painting/installation. It consists of 91 oddly shaped aluminum panels (many look like the staircase that folds into the fuselage of a small jet) all covered in Li’s signature thick paint and assembled as a tunnel. It’s kind of Frank Auerbach meets Space 1999, and it’s not easy to parse what it might mean or even why it was made – except that it looks fine, and is consistently intriguing. It seems to invest the ancient medium of oil paint with some of the utopian energy of SciFi modernism – which actually makes for a fairly poignant combination, mixing the old-old with the old-new.
The Daily Pic: Frederick Catherwood's eagle eye did without Daguerre's invention.
This image of a deep well in the water-starved region of Bolonchen, on the Yucatan, was drawn in 1842 by the Englishman Frederick Catherwood. A print of it is in the survey of Caribbean art now at the Museo del Barrio in New York. What’s most amazing about the image is how utterly candid and instant and photographic it seems – and indeed it turns out that, just three years after Daguerre’s invention, Catherwood brought a camera along to this remote corner of Mexico. Even more interesting is the fact that he found its results unsatisfactory, and apparently went back to using his filmless camera obscura – and even that might not have been useful for a dark scene like this, which he might have had to draw freehand. The truth is, visual culture in 19th-century Europe was essentially photographic even before photography’s arrival.
The Daily Pic: Adam Cvijanovic paints a painter painting nature paintings.
”Waipiti,” by Adam Cvijanovic, is from his solo show at Postmasters gallery in New York. It’s from a series of murals (painted Tyvek glued to the wall, in fact) in which Cvijanovic riffs on the famous, now vintage dioramas at the American Museum of Natural History, which he depicts, in trompe-l’oeil, as though in progress in an artist’s studio. So this is painting rendering the act of someone painting copies of paintings that render the world as though seen in romantic landscape paintings. Or something like that. Cvijanovic gets away with being a really good painter by hiding his superannuated skill in an infinite regress of reference and meaning.
The Daily Pic: Louise Fishman vents for herself and her sisters.
Over the years, Louise Fishman has mostly been a really fine abstract artist, but she may be most famous for this little series of feminist works, now on view at Jack Tilton Gallery on Manhattan’s Upper East Side. Sometime around 1973, Fishman’s rage boiled over at the treatment that women creators had always got, and she poured it into these almost comically angry pictures, which are built around the names of her female peers and heroes. The nice thing is, the pictures also attribute that rage to the women they honor, as though they might want a hand venting it.
The Daily Pic: Everything the pop master made pointed back to Duchamp's urinal.
This dark self-portrait that Andy Warhol made in 1967 belongs to the Detroit Institute of Arts, and is now on loan to the Metropolitan Museum’s show about the pop artist’s influence. The mysterious image gets at something important about Warhol that I didn’t quite hit on in my Newsweek review: Every object he made, and almost every action he took, was in some sense about him – but not because they reveal anything about the man himself or about his creative persona. They are about Warhol because Warhol was in some sense a living, self-made readymade, in the mode of Marcel Duchamp’s urinal. (Warhol once traded some of his own portraits for a later version of Duchamp’s piece.) Warhol’s work is, almost by fiat, whatever strange things and acts he presents to his public. What Warhol gives us is magnificently imponderable, as normal things (such as urinals) are in the world. There’s no winkling out intention or meaning; Warhol’s stuff, like natural stuff, is simply there, in its ineluctable strangeness and removal from us. It is fully, completely deadpan. A Warhol has the inherent peculiarity of a rock that happens to look like a toad; it never has the contrived oddity of a melting clock. If an umbrella and a sewing machine really were to come together on an operating table, without anyone there to arrange the meeting, you’d be faced with something truly Warholian.
The Daily Pic: In the new Met show, the great pop artist stands out from his disciples.
Here’s the fundamental problem with “Regarding Warhol”, the Met show on the master and his influence that opens tomorrow, and that I wrote about in the latest international edition of Newsweek. The central fact about Andy Warhol’s closest followers is that they are (by definition) Warholian. And that’s the one thing Warhol wasn’t – couldn’t be. He was never working in another artist’s mode, which means he was always in some way unplaceable. Whereas you can always place one of his followers, as someone who is doing “that Warhol thing”. Even when, late in life, Warhol became the ultimate Warholian, entirely derivative of his earlier self, the fact that he was the one doing the deriving completely changed its meaning: His self-duplication was as unique as his original invention of the Warhol Way. And it took his art to an entirely new place that had to do with the market and selling out, and with the evaporation of meaning and quality.
A contemporary artist engaging in true Warholism, and truly worthy of the Met show, would have to have almost nothing in common with Warhol.
The Daily Pic: Marie Watt rethinks America's blankets.
I saw this lovely reworking of found blankets, by Marie Watt, at Greg Kucera Gallery in Seattle. Watt says she is “half cowboy, half Indian” (from the Turtle Clan of the Seneca Nation), and often makes work that addresses that split. But the tartans in this one, which is called “Transportation Object,” seem to speak more to Watt’s European side – although any culture that confronted English colonizers also met up with plaids from Scotland. I still remember the feel and appeal of the satin edging on a cheap blue blanket that somehow came to me as a kid. (I don’t think my modernist parents could have brought such a thing into our house.) Watt’s work lets me revisit that pleasure, and recall the guilt I knew I should feel at being taken in by a facile fabric effect. I can barely imagine what tartan might have done to my psyche.
The Daily Pic: Francesco Traballesi trumpets that his painting's almost done, after it's finished.
A little while ago, I Daily Pic’d a Renaissance painting that seemed all about the long time it takes to sit for your portrait. This later picture, which I recently saw at the Seattle Art Museum, seems keen on warping portraiture’s timeline. It was painted in 1567 by the late Mannerist artist Francesco Traballesi, and it depicts a young man named Bartolomeo Sirigatti, who is holding a note to his father that reads “the painter is almost finished with my portrait and I like it very much”. This doesn’t come off as perfectly true – since the portrait that shows us the letter is complete, and notable for the fine and final touches that allow its text to be read.
The Daily Pic: Gary Hill's portrait of Isabelle Huppert gets us looking at her looking.
For his two-screen piece called “Loop Through”, Gary Hill, the video-art pioneer, set Isabelle Huppert up in front of two cameras, then asked her to keep shifting her gaze between them. I recently saw the 2005 piece in the Hill survey at the Henry Art Gallery in Seattle, and its effect was powerful, and peculiar: You felt, somehow, as though Huppert had become those two cameras, and you were the one being recorded by her. Normally, a video just shows the thing being seen - you are barely aware of the lens and its act of taking things in. Hill’s piece refocuses us on the fact that his camera pays attention. It may help that that attention feels like it is being paid us by the charismatic French star. When Hill’s camera becomes Huppert, how can you ignore it?