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Victor Hugo’s Drawings

February 26, 2015 | by

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Victor Hugo, Octopus with the initials V.H., 1866.

Victor Hugo wrote poetry, novels, and drama—more than enough for any mortal—but he also made some four thousand drawings over the course of his life. He was an adept draftsman, even an experimental one: he sometimes drew with his nondominant hand or when looking away from the page. If pen and ink were not available, he had recourse to soot, coal dust, and coffee grounds. He didn’t publish his drawings for fear they would distract from his projects as a writer; instead, he drew for family and friends. His son, Charles, wrote of his process,

Once paper, pen, and inkwell have been brought to the table, [he] sits down and—without making a preliminary sketch, without any apparent preconception—sets about drawing with an extraordinarily sure hand: not the landscape as a whole, but any old detail. He will begin his forest with the branch of a tree, his town with a gable, his gable with a weathervane, and little by little, the entire composition will emerge from the blank paper with the precision and clarity of a photographic negative subjected to the chemical preparation that brings out the picture. That done, the draftsman will ask for a cup and will finish off his landscape with a light shower of black coffee. The result is an unexpected and powerful drawing that is often strange, always personal, and recalls the etchings of Rembrandt and Piranesi.

His drawings are collected in a 1998 book, Shadows of a Hand. Here are a few more: Read More »

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The Suffering of Books

February 25, 2015 | by

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Alexis Arnold, San Francisco Phone Book, 2013.

For centuries, books have enjoyed the benefits conferred on inanimate objects, chief among which is their immunity to pain. So lucky they are, so smug, sitting painlessly on their shelves, passing the time. But it is winter, and it is cold, and now our books must freeze as their readers do.

To that end, Colossal has introduced me to the work of Alexis Arnold, who, in her Crystallized Book series, dips found books in a borax solution (is this proprietary? Can I buy some?) that freezes, crystallizes, destroys, or preserves them—whichever verb suits your fancy. Arnold aims to return books to a kind of prelapsarian state as aesthetic, functionless objects, unburdened by the complications of text. Her frozen books, she writes, are “artifacts or geologic specimens imbued with the history of time, use, and nostalgia. The series was prompted by repeatedly finding boxes of discarded books, by the onset of e-books, and by the shuttering of bookstores.”

See more below, and here. Read More »

Alice Neel’s Brothers Karamazov

February 24, 2015 | by

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Alice Neel, Untitled (Karamazov, His Three Sons, and the Servant Gregory), ca. 1938, 14 ¼” x 10”. © The Estate of Alice Neel. Courtesy David Zwirner, New York/London.

Alice Neel, who died in 1984, is remembered best as a portraitist—her paintings present friends, lovers, and other intimates with an astonishing, often forbidding guilelessness. Your average Neel portrait is penetrating, flip, scary, and more than a little funny, depending on how long you’re willing to hold its subject’s gaze. Neel’s people all look to be plodding through the Stations of the Cross with a kind of decadent resignation—this is the world we live in, and oh well. “Alice loved a wretch,” her daughter-in-law told the Guardian in 2004. “She loved the wretch in the hero and the hero in the wretch. She saw that in all of us, I think.”

When Neel wasn’t painting, she was sketching. Alice Neel: Drawings and Watercolors, a new book with a corresponding exhibition, collects this interstitial work, some of it polished and some hauntingly restive. “There is an essential melancholy to Neel’s work,” Jeremy Lewison writes in the book’s opening essay. “She presents a world of hardship, of tenement buildings and shared bathing facilities, of underprivileged and underclass immigrants, of humanity weighed down by the burdens of living in the harsh metropolitan environment, of human loss and tragedy.”

All of which makes her a natural candidate to reckon with the Russian classics, those icons of gloom. Read More »

More Paintings About Poets and Food

February 20, 2015 | by

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Djordje Ozbolt, Poet Smoking, 2014, acrylic on board, 27 ½” x 23 5/8”.

Tomorrow’s the last day to catch Djordje Ozbolt’s show “More paintings about poets and food”—a welcome nod to Talking Heads’ 1978 album More Songs About Buildings and Food—at Hauser & Wirth.

Ozbolt grew up in Belgrade and now works in London, where he’s lived for many years; though he denies any kind of “East-meets-West” tensions in his work, his paintings evoke the kind of rambunctious, vivid satire of Western culture that comes best from outsiders. Ryan Steadman, writing in the New York Observer, calls Ozbolt “a master of the deadpan historical zinger … While an artist like John Currin seems to begin from a kitschified American view of classical painting (think Norman Rockwell), Mr. Ozbolt pointedly razzes the medium’s deeper history (a history that reflects our own) in a way that a New-Worlder never fully could.” It would be easier to shrug off his paintings as jokes if they didn’t reappear, some hours after seeing them, in one’s nightmares. I don’t know how Ozbolt burrows so deep into his subconscious, but I applaud him for it; he’s found a labyrinthine, underground network of our bugbears and bêtes noires. In Delivery, for example, a raven makes a brisk descent with a glazed donut in its beak—it took me a while to make the connection, but eventually I was brought back to the scene in David Lynch’s Twin Peaks wherein Waldo the Myna Bird is executed above a tray of jelly donuts. This is America, people: whenever birds and baked goods meet, suffering is sure to follow. Read More »

The Chinese Photobook

February 13, 2015 | by

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Cover and interior selection from Pictorial Review of the Sino-Japanese Conflict in Shanghai. Shanghai: Wen Hwa Fine Arts Press, Ltd., 1932. From The Chinese Photobook (Aperture, 2015).

Even with the advent of digital photography, it’s never been easy to publish a book of photographs: time, labor, and production costs ensure that such projects can’t be undertaken casually, at least not well. There’s something inherently lavish in a book of pictures, something that makes the eyebrows rise. A photobook, with its unwieldy trim size, its color printing, and its demanding design constraints, always answers to a grave question of purpose: What does it do? Why did it need to exist? Does it serve merely to bring prestige to your coffee table, or can it act to didactic, moral, or even geopolitical ends? If some publisher’s going to pony up, those questions are less rhetorical than they might sound.

The Chinese Photobook,” a new exhibition at Aperture Gallery curated by Martin Parr and the Dutch “artist-duo” WassinkLundgren, surveys more than a century of China’s rich photo-book publishing history. It surprises both in its complex portrayal of Chinese history and in the depth it gives to photo-book publishing as an enterprise. Read More »

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Erotic City

February 11, 2015 | by

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Aaron Wexler, Erotic City, 2014, acrylic painted paper and print material collaged on paper, 16.5" x 24".

Aaron Wexler’s new solo show, “The Basket Looked Like an Ocean, And I Was Just Throwing Rocks In It,” opens tomorrow at Morgan Lehman Gallery. Wexler’s work uses elements of collage, printmaking, and painting; these new projects include everything from Audubon illustrations to found photographs of jungle gyms.

Shapes are everything in Wexler’s work. He seems consumed by the moment when order becomes chaos, when geometry lapses into anarchy: even when his palette verges on the neon, his great subject is the tangle of nature. “I am in awe of nature every day,” he told BOMB in 2010:

I’m a city kid from West Philadelphia; nature is one giant mystery to me. I love the redwoods; I love scary looking tropical flowers; I love how weeds grow out of dirty bricks on nearly deserted streets. I love how innocently sexual nature is and how it surrounds us (if we’re lucky and in the right places). Most of all though, I love how organic objects can seem so foreign, alien, and new—an endless source of forms and imagery.

As the name of his show suggests, Wexler has a knack for titles—his best summon a kind of hallucinogenic outlandishness, but you can always sense a raised middle finger hovering somewhere in the background. They sound like the best albums our rock luminaries never recorded: The Love Life of a Leaf, Sure, After the Glitter Is Gone, and—a personal favorite—Erotic City, after the Prince song. (When in doubt, always borrow from Prince.) Read More »