Wednesday, December 12, 2007

Francois-Marie Banier at Villa Oppenheim, Berlin

I confess I'm a sucker for art that includes text. Duane Michals' work was some of the first art to ignite my passion for photo collecting. Since then I've been excited by Augusta Wood, Graham Dolphin, Carl André, Carrie Mae Weems, Lorna Simpson, and many others. So, I was eager to see the Francois-Marie Banier show at Villa Oppenheim in Berlin ( The artist has led a remarkably varied artistic life. He has painted, made photographs, written novels and plays, and is a regular contributor to magazines on both sides of the Atlantic. He is well-known in Europe and has a social life that has included some very famous names.

His photographs are often of those famous people, but the photos are usually the least of the work. Mr. Banier writes on his photos. Now when I say he writes, I mean he covers his prints with lines and lines, and lines of swirling text. I am reminded of the scenes from the movie "A Beautiful Mind" where the schizophrenic math genius John Nash is shown to have covered every inch of his garage with obsessive, psychotic text. There is something obsessive and perhaps mentally unbalanced about Mr. Banier's photos. They are each one-of-a-kind works that display a kind of verborrhea one rarely encounters in stable minds. The viewer is assaulted by words covering, in some cases, every available space of the photograph.

I struggled to find my way with these photos. I am, as I said, attracted to art work that combines text with image. I also like work that has an obsessive nature. But my initial reaction was to be a little put off by the photos. Perhaps it was because many of them are in French and my francophone skills weren't up to the translation. Still, I wondered whether these words were meant to be read in their entirety. It would be a huge task to read an entire Banier photo. Even the ones in English were hard to decipher and had a rambling, stream-of-consciousness quality. Then I started to look at them as a graphical device. Now, a new door was opening for me. The text took on a visual rhythm that, in it's best examples, was synergistic with the image. The photo itself was maybe not so engaging, and the text by itself was not so engaging, but together they had undeniable power. Favorites of mine are a massive photo of a park bench at the edge of a lawn called "Jardin du Luxembourg" (2005), and a portrait of Vladimir Horowitz that is one of the artist's first written photos.

It has been said that great art asks questions. If that's true, then this is great art. It is impossible to see this work and remain neutral. It fills your eyes and brain with questions and a desire to see and learn more about the work. Check it out and let me know what you think. His website is I would love to start a discussion of his work.

A list of A-List work I saw at Miami/Basel

In no particular order and with hyperlinks where I could find them:

Thorsten Brinkmann had his first showing on this side of the Atlantic with Berlin gallery Kunstagenten ( devoting their entire Scope fair booth to his photos and sculptures. I have been a huge fan of his work since I stumbled across it at ArtForum satellite fair, Kunstsalon, 2 years ago. It seemed that he was a big hit with a number of museum curators taking notice of him for the first time. Check it out on the gallery website. It's wonderful work and going fast.

Felix Schramm - Really intriguing photo collage. His sculptural work revolves around destruction and re-formation of space. In his photographic work, he photographs his installations then tears up the photos to use as materials in photo collage. There are no photos of the photos on this website, but you can find the work at this gallery.

Miyako Ishiuchi - Remarkably fearless and unblinking photographer. Hardly known here even though she was the Japanese representative at the 2005 Venice Pavilion. Two portfolios on view at Photo Miami were amazing: "Mother's" and a group of portraits of a 90+ year old Butoh dancer. The "Mother's" series includes shots of her aging mother mixed with details of her possessions, some of them post mortem. Beautiful and horrible at the same time. Filled with love and obsession.

John Slezaker - I have blogged on this artist before. He was part of a large show at the Rubell Collection as well as a solo artist booth at the main fair by "The Approach Gallery", London.

Danica Phelps - I have been following this artist for over a year now. I saw her in the Daimler-Chrysler collection show in Berlin last month. Sister Gallery, LA ( and Ritter/Zamet Gallery, London (
were showing fine examples. Zach Feuer in NYC also shows her. I have to get off my butt and actually buy one. I love the combination of minimalist aesthetic with the obsessive indexical calculations. It's very personal and autobiographical work, but in such an objective way. I can get lost in the graphical nature of the visual field or start looking at the budget details of every day for a month.

Corbin Walker was represented at Green on Red Gallery
Tremendous computer generated work on paper. He writes a program that taxes the computer and the paper to their very limits. Once he has a print with which he's satisfied, he destroys the program leaving a one-of-a-kind image. Super.

Hew Locke had sculpture and photographs in his signature over the top voodoo baroque style. I thought the photographs were irresistible. Hales Gallery London teamed up with Pierogi and Ronald Feldman in a warehouse in Wynwood. An oasis for art lovers.

Matt Ducklo takes pictures of blind people as they are given access to touch and experience sculptures in museums.

Adam Fuss showed more of the smoke photograms I love at Galerie Karsten Greve including a non-photogram platinum photo that bewitched me. At Xaverier Hufkens Gallery I was shown African mask photograms that the artist produced specially for the gallery and which are only for sale in Belgium.

Latin american op-art sculpture was everywhere. Art Miami fair could have been billed as the greatest exhibit of Latin American Op-Art ever. Walking through the fair was a treat if only for this reason.

Sunday, December 9, 2007

Musings in the form of a rant from Art Basel/Miami Beach

I don't usually use this forum to rant. I think it's important to remain basically positive since so many blogs are used as a venting festival. But something about this place just makes my blood boil. It seems to be a magnet for what I call VSIPs - Very-Self-Important-People. To have so many people in one place who are each convinced that their objective is the highest priority in the world is a recipe for mass bad behavior. At any second one is in danger of being clotheslined by some gallerist/art advisor/rich person with a cell phone glued to one ear. They all go barreling down the aisles with the phone up to their ear and the elbow sticking out. God help you if YOU are not looking out for THEM. You will certainly get that elbow in your face. Any conversation can be interrupted. There is no "excuse me" or waiting for a conversation to be finished. Just a tap on the shoulder to ask what the price or edition size is of this or that. Whatever conversation that was occurring before this must-know-this-millisecond question was asked could not possibly be as important as MY question. Get outta' the way.

Plenty of other people have written about how bad art fairs are, and what a terrible place they are to see or appreciate art. This is old -but true- news. Fewer have spoken about what an awful place they are to just stand in. One is bumped, and shoved, and pushed, and spilled on, and whatever else can happen when the people around you could not care less about civil behavior. People were barking on cell phones, cutting in lines, barking claims for preferential treatment, and crowing about this or that fancy party invite. I had the sense that it would be possible to look to my side and find a gentleman that was peeing on the spot while talking a deal on his phone - one just couldn't be bothered to go ALL the way to an actual toilet!

Along those lines, I will relate an actual experience I had. I went to the men's room and as I sidled up to the urinal, I overheard a cell phone conversation in one of the stalls. "Uh huh, uh huh, yeah, yeah, ok, I'll call you right back. Yeah, just a few minutes, I'll be right back to you. No, really, I'll call you back in just a few. Yep....ok. Bye" Just a second later there was the sound of an urgent evacuation. I didn't wait to hear if the conversation started again after the flush. This made me wonder, what was the conversation leading into the bathroom? What was SO urgent that it couldn't wait while the gent calmly walked to the toilet. I can imagine him barreling down the aisle, elbow out, "We can offer you the piece for $145,000. It's great work, but we've got a lot of offers. You're going to have to make a decision right away." he steps into the stall, locks the door and pulls down his pants....."No, we won't be getting more work and $145,000 is a fantastic price. Uh huh, uh huh, yeah, yeah, ok, I'll call you right back. Yeah, just a few minutes, I'll be right back to you. No, really, I'll call you back in just a few. Yep....ok. Bye". Flush. This is what I call doing your business. Chapeau to the gent in the stall. His focus should be an MBA class model.

There is another element that contributes to the unpleasant vibe in Miami and other like fairs. Unless one has a few hundred thousand dollars to bestow here or there(and sometimes not even then!), this fair is simply not intended for you. Now I am quite comfortable viewing, appreciating, and learning about art which I cannot possibly afford to buy. I don't waste anyones' time when I'm not serious about a work, but I'm happy to be there to see what is on offer. I mean, this is a grand bazaar where work to be sold is put up for public perusal. But that is not the assumption of most of the galleries here. They know the few hundred "real" buyers they want to meet. If you are not among the recognized few, you will be ignored to a degree that will make you feel like the fat, pimply kid at the fraternity rush. I make a baseball metaphor: If a pitcher and batter are roughly well matched, the batter may or may not swing. But if he does, there is some chance that he will actually hit the ball. However, if the pitcher is at a level too much above the batter, it won't matter if he raises his bat off his shoulder or not. If he swings, he will not connect. Faced with that kind of odds, what is the lure of trying to swing? There is no pleasure in guaranteed failure. Galleries at ABMB are not pitching to me, and after a few hours I feel the ennui of guaranteed failure seeping into my blood. Even when I love the art, I feel disconnected; this event has no relation to me. I am made to feel like an interloper and I cannot sustain my interest.

One could claim that this is sour grapes on my part. It could be imagined that I wish I could be a player, so when I meet the reality of a high finance art world, I'm bitter at my real world options. Maybe. But then, why make these public events? Why not just invite those few hundred high rollers and call it a day? Instead of asking to see the ubiquitous VIP cards at the door, insist on checking a recent bank account return. Perhaps that would thin the herd and make all participants happier.

Last, I was completely befuddled by the security check at the door that insisted that there be no cameras inside the fair. No cameras? There were more cameras inside the fair than in Times Square on New Year's Eve. There were camera phones, pocket cameras, disposable cameras, digital SLRs, and every other possible picture taking device. What could possibly be the genesis of this rule? And what could possibly be the reason for keeping it when it is so thoroughly and resoundingly ignored? To be forced to leave your camera at the coat check and then to find thousands of picture-takers inside was the yet another little indignity to be heaped on the hoi polloi. It was one more little reminder that you weren't really welcome here.

Not everything was so frenetic and unpleasant. For the second year in a row I spent an inspiring few hours at the Margulies Collection. Lat year was 90% photographs and 10% sculpture. This year the proportions were reversed. Much of the sculpture was devoted to explorations of representations of the human form. Anthony Gormley, George Segal, and Magdalena Abakanowicz were all beautifully represented. The wall text for Ms Abakanowicz' work included a short toast she gave in 1993. I found it touching and inspirational. I have thought of it many times since so I reproduce it here.

"I wanted to tell you that art is the most harmless activity of mankind. But I suddenly recalled that art was often used for propaganda purposes by totalitarian systems.

"I wanted to tell you also about the extraordinary sensitivity of an artist, but I recalled that Hitler was a painter and Stalin used to write sonnets.

"Art will remain the most astonishing activity of mankind born out of struggle between wisdom and madness, between dream and reality in our mind.

"Each scientific discovery opens doors behind which we are confronted with new closed doors.
Art does not solve problems but makes us aware of our existence.
Art prepares our eyes to see and our brain to imagine.
To have imagination and to be aware of it is to benefit from possessing an inner richness and spontaneous and endless flood of images. It means to see the world in its entirety, since the point of the images is to show all that which escapes conceptualization.

"I propose a toast to celebrate imagination which is more universal than any language."

I would raise my glass to that idea any time......

Other sculpture on display explored how one realizes a line in space: how can geometry exist off of the page. Marvelous work by Donald Judd, Richard Serra, Olafur Eliasson, and, especially, a remarkable light sculpture by Anthony McCall demonstrated the thesis with great panache. I was only missing a Fred Sandback piece to make my pleasure complete.

Elsewhere, Joe Amrhein of Pierogi Flatfiles and Ronald Feldman teamed up for a second year (this year with Hale Gallery from the UK) in a warehouse space in the Wynwood district. This was an art lovers' oasis. Yes, art was for sale. Yes, the purpose of the venture was commercial. What separated the venue from the rest was how much space was devoted to the work. One was encouraged to look, to pause, to discuss, to actually experience the art on view. The atmosphere was one of respect, fun, and curiosity. I couldn't wait to see what was in store for me around each new corner of the space. As it was last year, this was a haven of good art. What was new this year was a BBQ party on Thursday night. I have not had so much fun at an art party in recent memory. This was what all art events should aspire to. People were open, talking, laughing; there was good food and alcohol; and best, a diverse program of fine art was there to explore and discover. Heaven. A big ovation to the three host galleries for making it happen.

I could fill 10 more blogs with the stinkers and standouts of the art I saw. Maybe I'll post something later with a few names and photos. For now, it's good to think that all the VSIPs are scattering to the four winds. For next year I'll have to think whether the Pierogis and Margulies of the world make all the other aggravations worth the trip.