Wednesday, May 23, 2018

Ai Weiwei's Lego "Zodiac Animals"? It's Been Done

The New York Times recently reported that Jeffrey Deitch's new L.A. gallery will open this September with—what else?—Ai Weiwei's Lego block versions of Chinese zodiac animals. That high concept might seem to have some claim to novelty, but since 2015 Lego has been producing zodiac animal kits tied to the Chinese New Year. Originally sold only in Asia (and resold at high premiums to Western fanboys), the series entered the U.S. market with 2018's Dog. (Photos are from Jay's Brick Blog, which has near-obsessive reviews on each release. The Dog is rated 4/5.)
Don't expect Ai's Lego-Zodiac animals to look like these, or like something from Legoland. My guess is that they will be two-dimensional like Trace (2014), the floor installation of Lego portraits of dissidents, and that they'll be based on the Qing Summer Palace bronzes Ai has already reproduced in 3D.

Monday, May 21, 2018

Art and Propaganda in Cold War Hungary

The Wende Museum's "Promote, Tolerate, Ban: Art and Culture in Cold War Hungary" explores a phase of modernism so terrifying that MoMA has no department for it: propaganda. Mass-produced images and state media allowed governments to control minds. The Hungarian government both censored and co-opted the avant-garde. Tibor Zala's pop Lenin was produced the same year (1972) as Andy Warhol's own experiment in cultural appropriation, Mao.
More typical of Hungarian production is a 1983 porcelain bust of Lenin from the Zsolnay factory. The psychedelic glaze had been invented in the Art Nouveau epoch.
As elsewhere in the Eastern Bloc, post-war Hungarian art often exalted the worker. The wood statue of a Miner (1979) is by István Szabó. Socialist realism was followed by Socialist modernism. György Kádár's Night on the Field (1960s) owes something to van Gogh and to the midcentury painting practiced on both sides of the Atlantic.

Hungary produced up-to-date ads, posters, typography, and industrial design. Some government-patronized designers were loyal Marxists, others not.  Per Ghyczy's Garden Egg Chair has become a quintessential example of Eastern Bloc modernism. Its provenance is complicated. Hungarian-born Ghyczy created the self-contained chair in 1968 West Germany. Made of space-age polyurethane, its shape evokes a flying saucer. In 1971 production moved to East Germany, where labor was cheaper. This in turn made it unaffordable for most East Germans. It was sold primarily to the West. Today knock-offs are made from Thailand to South America.
Versions of pop, conceptualism, mail art, video art, and performance art flourished. Géza Perneczky's Mail Art Project: Marx Test (1983) re-imagines Karl Marx as a snail-mail meme.

Below, György J. Sazbó's cover art for a 1985 samizdat edition of George Orwell's Animal Farm. Orwell's pig was based on Stalin, and all of Orwell's works were banned in Hungary.

Wednesday, May 16, 2018

Getty Buys a Great Roman, Formerly of Denver

The Getty Museum has acquired a Roman Portrait Bust of a Man, AD 140-160. Formerly owned by the Denver Art Museum (DAM), it was deaccessioned through Sotheby's London in 2017. There it sold for £728,750 (about $1 million).

It's unusual for an encyclopedic museum to sell a major antiquity, something increasingly hard to buy at any price. The sale proceeds went to buy other art for Denver. The DAM does not have an antiquities department and has in recent years focused on Spanish Colonial and Western American art.
Roman naturalism reached its peak during the 2nd-century Antonine dynasty. The Portrait Bust of a Man is nearly contemporary with a well-preserved female portrait of similar format in the Getty Villa collection. It's  a generation or two earlier than the Getty's AD 180-185 Bust of Emperor Commodus, last of the Antonines (above right). Such works were influential in the Renaissance. Antico's bronze Bust of a Young Man, at the Getty Center, is based on an Antonine marble.

Like Commodus, the new bust's unknown sitter wears a military cape with brooch. That probably means he was an aristocrat who did a short term of duty, maybe to further a political career. Sotheby's said the tips of the nose and beard are restored. The round socle is the ancient original; counting it, the bust is 30 inches high.

Portrait Bust of a Man, set to go on view in July, is one of several antiquities lately acquired for the reinstalled Villa, including an Etruscan bronze and a Roman theatrical relief.

Pop-Up Grotjahn Show at LACMA

ArtNews is reporting that LACMA will open a heretofore unannounced Mark Grotjahn show, "50 Kitchens," on May 20. The exhibition, just recently added to LACMA's website, had been preceded by some cryptic Instagram posts on Grotjahn's account.

"Mark Grotjahn: 50 Kitchens" is a series of 50 color drawings. Number titles seem to be a thing. It will be adjacent to "David Hockney: 82 Portraits and 1 Still-Life" on the top floor of BCAM.

Shown, a Hockney portrait (of Bing McGilvray) and a Grotjahn Kitchen.

Monday, May 14, 2018

It's Raining Narcissism in West Hollywood

The centerpiece of MOCA Pacific Design Center's "Décor: Barbara Bloom, Andrea Fraser, Louise Lawler" is Barbara Bloom's The Reign of Narcissism (1988-89). Commissioned for MOCA's 1989 show "A Forest of Signs: Art in the Crisis of Representation," Bloom's hexagonal faux-"period room" has, like certain jazz musicians, been more appreciated in Europe. It hasn't been on view at MOCA in over 20 years.
The Reign of Narcissism? We're soaking in it. Today it's hard not to think about Trump Tower (opened 1983) when viewing Bloom's kitsch evocations of art history and "good taste," signed with Bloom's omnipresent brand.
A no less topical parallel is to the 50th anniversary hype surrounding Stanley Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey. Imagine Dave Bowman gave his retro-futuristic hotel room a good, hard Swedish death cleaning. Bloom as well as Kubrick asks, what lasts?

You won't get an answer to that question at the Smithsonian's National Air and Space Museum, which is now showing a literal recreation of the 2001 hotel room, by artist Simon Birch. That has become another selfie-museum feeding frenzy, with timed tickets. Incidentally, Hallmark is planning a HAL 9000 Christmas ornament.

The irony is that 80s PoMo was faulted for its irony and obsession with pop culture. Bloom (who studied under John Baldessari at CalArts) has always been among the most subversively funny of the Pictures Generation. These days, Bloom looks dead serious.
MOCA PDC's "Décor" includes a couple of classics of another sort, Andrea Fraser's videos Museum Highlights: A Gallery Talk (1989) and May I Help You? (1991), both promised gifts from Joseph Rosenwald Varet and Esther Kim Varet. For Fraser, art history is the ultimate unreliable narrator.

Thursday, May 10, 2018

Beautiful LAX

The El Segundo Museum of Art (ESMoA) will feature two photographic series exploring the landscape of Los Angeles International Airport. "Grounded," running June 7 to Sep. 22, 2018, pairs  Zoe Crosher's views from airport hotel windows (2001-2005) with John Divola's pictures of condemned, LAX-adjacent suburbia (1975).

Shown, Crosher's The LAX Caesar's Motel and Divola's LAX NAZ, Forced Entry, Site #29, Interior View A (1975).

Monday, May 7, 2018

"In the Fields of Empty Days" at LACMA

LACMA is unique in its engagement with the contemporary art of the Islamic world. No other American museum collects this art so intensively or presents it with regularity. Even in the Middle East, with its ambitious and well-financed museums, some of the region's best-known artists are too challenging to show. Much of this art is sharply critical of political, religious, and cultural regimes. LACMA's "In the Fields of Empty Days: The Intersection of Past and Present in Iranian Art" brings together 125 objects, nearly half from LACMA's collection, from over 50 artists. Works span painting, sculpture, installation, posters, political cartoons, animated cartoons, manuscripts, and photography. (At top, Shoja Azari's Icon #2, 2010.)
Rustam Battling Ashkbus, attributed to Hussein Qular Aqasi (d. 1966), is one of the earliest large-scale works.
There is what amounts to a mini-retrospective of Iranian animation. Dating from the 1970s to the 2010s, the cartoons encapsulate the strategies of the more strictly high-brow artists. The past is a coded language for talking about how the present sucks. Shown is Ali Akbar Sadeghi's Flower Storm (1972), appropriating manuscript illuminations of previous centuries. 
Hit the pause button on a cartoon and make it literal. Sometimes the result is art. Shown is Shahpour Pouvant's Projectile 8, 2012.

Shoja Azari's The Day of the Last Judgment (Coffee House Painting), 2009, is a large animated video installation based on the pre-cinematic paintings used by Shi'i storytellers in coffee houses. It incorporates, at upper right, the notorious image of a tortured Abu Ghraib prisoner in a black robe.
"In the Fields of Empty Days" will be a revelation to most American viewers. That's its appeal, but it also brings us to the show's drawback. There is almost no interpretive material in the galleries. I generally applaud curators for giving viewers credit for some intelligence. But in this case, let's get real. This is "narrative art," and the saints and kings are not so familiar to Americans as Hans Solo or Chewbacca are.

There is a room with iPads offering a concise, accessible introduction to each artwork. I wish they had printed those introductions on the object labels. Having an iPad available, somewhere else, isn't the same as having information next to the object. (The iPad room also has copies of the catalog.)
Knowing who the players are is especially important with political satire, a category that describes a sizable part of the show. Here's an untitled 1979 photograph by Maryam Zandi (printed 2016). Iranians will recognize Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, Shah of Iran. How many younger Americans will?