January 22, 2013 | by Lauren O'Neill-Butler
On a typically snowy January morning in Vienna, I visited the famed Secession to see an exhibition by New York–based artist Liz Deschenes. For many years her work has articulated a materialist stance; rather than taking pictures of things in the world, Deschenes usually works sans camera, turning to the inner life of photography and proposing discursive questions about its philosophical, scientific, and experimental possibilities. Deschenes has recently called her approach “stereographic,” a term originally coined in the 1850s for two nearly identical prints that are paired and viewed through a stereoscope to produce a 3-D illusion of a single image. Deschenes employs this operation of doubling and dividing to give the viewer a chance to actively participate in her work, and it also places an emphasis on the constantly changing nature of her recent photographs.
As soon as I stripped off my coat and sweater at the museum, I learned that I needed to exit, since Deschenes had chosen a rarely used side door outside the building as the entrance to her show. Bringing my attention even more crisply to the Secession’s unique architecture, this unusual parcours led to a so-called “viewfinder,” a small empty hallway before two other rooms that (stereographically) forked to the left and right. Inside these chambers Deschenes had installed a series of moonlight-exposed photograms—Stereograph #1–#16, 2012—long and lean silver-toned planks, which she coupled to form four sets in each room. The energetic spaces formed within these brackets reframed and isolated—as one does when taking a picture—the spaces, and they offered an atmosphere for contemplation and concentration. In turn, the photograms themselves were still developing—oxidizing in situ and already bearing the traces of their time spent in the Secession’s lower gallery. Read More »
April 3, 2012 | by Lauren O'Neill-Butler
It could be a cult classic: the debut edition of Siglio Press’s Tantra Song—one of the only books to survey the elusive tradition of abstract Tantric painting from Rajasthan, India—sold out in a swift six weeks. Rendered by hand on found pieces of paper and used primarily for meditation, the works depict deities as geometric, vividly hued shapes and mark a clear departure from Tantric art’s better-known figurative styles. They also resonate uncannily with lineages of twentieth-century art—from the Bauhaus and Russian Constructivism to Minimalism—as well as with much painting today. Rarely have the ancient and the modern come together so fluidly.
For nearly three decades, the renowned French poet Franck André Jamme has collected these visual communiqués, and it hasn’t been easy: in 1985 he survived a fatal bus accident while traveling to visit Hindu tantrikas in Jaipur. In Tantra Song, Jamme assembles some of the most pulsating works he’s acquired, while unpacking his experiential knowledge of Tantra’s cosmology.
Western views of Tantra tend toward hyperbole. (The New York Times recently published an article, “Yoga and Sex Scandals: No Surprise Here,” noting, “Early in the twentieth century, the founders of modern yoga worked hard to remove the Tantric stain.”) Jamme’s book serves as a corrective to this slant and sheds significant light on the deep historical roots—and fruits—of the practice. Siglio will release a second edition of the book on April 19. Jamme and I recently discussed these anonymously made paintings, the altered states they induce, and their timeless aesthetics.
November 17, 2011 | by Lauren O'Neill-Butler
Born in a small town in northwest Iran in 1924, Monir Farmanfarmaian studied fine arts at the University of Tehran for only six months before deciding to move to Paris. But, with World War II raging, the ambitious young artist was denied entry in France; she opted instead for the United States, landing in New York City in 1944. “She traveled to the right place at the right time,” argues her old friend Frank Stella in Cosmic Geometry, Farmanfarmaian’s first and much-anticipated monograph, a testament of her continuing importance to contemporary Iranian art. Stella goes on to describe her facility with Abstract Expressionism’s “flatness” and “imagelessness”—her childhood home was filled with stained glass and wall murals—but neglects to mention all the other juicy details of her first decade in New York: how she rubbed elbows with the great artists of the day, including Pollock, de Kooning, and Rothko, at the Cedar Tavern and at the Arts Students League; how she worked as an illustrator for Bonwit Teller under Andy Warhol. “I wasn’t bad looking,” she says, “so everyone invited me to their parties.”
In 1957, she moved back to Tehran, married a young, American-educated lawyer named Abolbashar Farmanfarmaian, and began working with broken glass and mirrors in her studio—materials that became her hallmarks. She recounts traveling in 1966 to the Shāh Chérāgh mosque in Shiraz, Iran, a shrine “filled with high ceilings, domes, and mirror mosaics with fantastic reflections.” “We sat there for half an hour, and it was like a living theater,” she notes. “People came in all their different outfits and wailed and begged to the shrine, and all the crying was reflected all over the ceiling … I said to myself, I must do something like that, something that people can hang in their homes.” Read More »
October 4, 2011 | by Lauren O'Neill-Butler
Shannon Ebner is a Los Angeles–based artist known for using handmade letters, symbols, signs, and other means of representation to call attention to the limits and loopholes of language. Photographs and sculptures from her new project, “The Electric Comma,” are featured in the 54th Venice Biennale and in a solo show at the Hammer Museum in Los Angeles. Two new public sculptures, both titled and, per se and, accompany these shows and are installed, respectively, on the Grand Canal in Venice and in Culver City. Audiences in L.A. can see the eight-foot-tall solar-powered work on the northeast corner of Centinela Avenue and Washington Boulevard until October 14. Ebner’s pictures of “anti-places” and “anti-landscapes” (for instance, dust from emergency road flares that appears to spell out a word) are on view at the Hammer until October 9.
In the essay she wrote to accompany your exhibition at the Hammer, curator Anne Ellegood describes your work as “manifestly American.” How does American identity relate to your recent pictures, and how does landscape figure in?
Robert Smithson once asked if Passaic, New Jersey had replaced Rome as the eternal city, with buildings that rise into ruin rather than fall. It makes me realize that my interest in landscape—for instance, in the work of an artist like Joe Deal, who made pictures from an elevated vantage point, with his camera high up on a bluff or hillside looking down at tract-housing neighborhoods—has to do with this idea of falling while rising. I think that there is a connection between Salinger’s Catcher in the Rye and Deal’s vantage point. It seems to say that there could be some redemption, some possibility that the kids of those tract-housing communities could be saved from being an American, from rising to fall or, I guess I should say, rising to fail.