Category Archives: Video

First Hand: Sarah Cockings & Harriet Fleuriot

Cockings & Fleuriot

Plasma Vista (2016), HD video with audio, 7 minutes 05 seconds; courtesy the artists and K-Gold Temporary Gallery, Lesbos, Greece

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Cockings and Fleuriot bend genres as cagily as they do genders in Plasma Vista (2016), a haute couture horror show featured at K-Gold Contemporary Gallery, a venue located on the Greek isle of Lesbos founded by curator Nikolas Vamvouklis. Channeling Hans Bellmer, Mickey Mouse, pulling a rabbit out of a hat, and MTV–that is, when MTV dedicated itself to music videos–Plasma Vista is the work of “total control freaks and huge maximalists” who don’t know how to say when. Thank goodness, then, for a sense of humor that brings unity to an effulgence of images, rhythms and attitudes.

© 2019 Mario Naves

A Gracious Deference: The Art of Mary Lucier

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Mary Lucier, Wisconsin (2009-12) (video still); courtesy Lennon, Weinberg Inc.

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The following review was originally published in the April 1, 2007 edition of The New York Observer and is posted here on the occasion of Mary Lucier: New Installation Works at Lennon, Weinberg Inc. (until April 20).

Mary Lucier is no Sacha Baron Cohen.

You may remember Mr. Cohen masquerading at a Virginia rodeo as the hapless Kazakh journalist in Borat. As seen in the film, the cowboy spectacle is a haven for yahoos, rednecks and astonishingly casual racists. The squirm-inducing comedy confirmed the prejudices of big-city types, who are, of course, a more highly evolved species. The rodeo, it concluded, is barbaric entertainment.

Ms. Lucier, whose video installation The Plains of Sweet Regret is on view at Lennon, Weinberg, Inc., attends the rodeo and sees something radically different: a poetic blur of muscle, movement and, unexpectedly, a gracious deference to the natural world.

In one sequence of the video, a bull is let loose from a holding pen. A cowboy tries to ride it, but is thrown off in a matter of seconds. He comes precariously close to being trampled and gored; at one point, he lands directly between the animal’s horns. A cadre of men, including a clown, circles their comrade and attempts a rescue. They manage to drive off the bull, whose rampaging hurdles are terrifying to behold. The scene runs at a pace slightly slower than life.

Once the bull calms down and lopes off, the scene begins again. But this time, a mirror image is superimposed upon the original. A Rorschach-like tumult ensues, bull and rider expanding and contracting into a heaving field of action.

The scene is run yet again, complicated further by shifts in time. The temporal stagger creates a kaleidoscopic abstraction of transparent earthy tones and magical, transitory pictures. At one point, a virtual totem pole coalesces and just as swiftly dissipates; it exists as a ghostly flash of portent.

The camera makes a sudden rush sideways, and we’re presented with different moments of the same rodeo projected in a similar manner. At the end, a wrangler brings a calf to the ground. For one fleeting instant, man and animal morph into each other as the divide between them dissolves. A rough-and-tumble collision of purpose is choreographed into a sinuous ballet. We intuit the cowboy’s respect for the animal, despite the confrontation that’s taken place.

The rider, wearing a white cowboy hat and a pinstriped shirt, lets go of the calf; both pick themselves up and walk away with breathtaking nonchalance. The cowboy comes toward the camera. Turning sideways, his head is briefly transformed into a Janus-like effigy. All the while, George Strait’s “I Can Still Make Cheyenne,” a plaintive country song about distance and loss, underscores the archetypal drama enacted by the rodeo. Ms. Lucier conjures up myth with a deceiving dispassion. It’s an awesomely beautiful sequence.

The rodeo scenes come at the end of The Plains of Sweet Regret, and they all but eclipse what’s come before. Which isn’t to say that the rest of the 18-minute video, presented on five separate screens, isn’t, in its own way, stunning. The installation abounds with iconic heartland images—more documentary than lyrical—from the vast and consuming plains of North Dakota.

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Mary Lucier, Wisconsin (2009-12) (video still); courtesy Lennon, Weinberg Inc.

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Laurel Reuter, the director of the North Dakota Museum of Art, commissioned The Plains of Sweet Regret as part of a larger project titledEmptying Out of the Plains. This initiative invites essayists, poets and filmmakers to respond to the ongoing evolution of the state and its economy, population and landscape.

“The land is now occupied,” Ms. Reuter writes, by “agribusiness with its massive machinery, global positioning systems … worldwide marketing networks, and government safety nets.” Communities are changing: Some are adapting and most, it appears, are dying; the migration of farmers, cowboys and jobs has left a disheartening mark. Ms. Lucier’s video is a kind of historic preservation.

Talk of “global positioning systems” shouldn’t deter anyone wary of political ax-grinding. Ms. Lucier steers clear of explicit commentary; the intractability of time is her subject. In her hands, time’s unsparing momentum is rendered monolithic and is stilled, however precariously.

The artist juxtaposes panoramic vistas with remnants of individual achievement and desire. Isolated highways, smokestacks expelling pinkish-purple smoke, and wind-blown fields of wheat are set against abandoned homes and churches, a mysterious stack of suitcases, a cow giving birth, a weathered bowling trophy and farmland seen from a speeding car. History haunts The Plains of Sweet Regret, but through quiet understatement and an unfailingly humane focus, the video dexterously avoids the pitfalls of easy nostalgia.

Ms. Lucier has a cinematographer’s gift for composition, tempo and point of view, as well as an impressionistic instinct for narrative, however obscure or diffuse. Camera movements are various, recording events straight on, at first-person vantage points, gently rocking back and forth, panning downward or moving at an almost indiscernibly reduced speed.

imgresThe Plains of Sweet Regret (installation); courtesy Lennon Weinberg, Inc.

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Each of the five screens may hold disparate actions or objects, yet they’re counterpoised in ways that unify the work’s gentle yearning. An atmospheric cascade of music (composed by Ms. Lucier’s longtime collaborator, Earl Howard) keys in to subtle shifts of rhythm, image and gesture. The undulating electronic score, forever promising crescendos but adroitly glancing off them, indispensably complements the visuals.

Ms. Lucier stumbles when she inserts an unnecessary theatrical device. Two women wearing kerchiefs and a young police officer with an earring are simultaneously seen swaying in slo-mo. Their languorous motions smack too much of the artist’s conscious direction. It is Ms. Lucier’s lone false note.

Otherwise, The Plains of Sweet Regret is a moving evocation of a land burdened with grave uncertainty. A nagging strain of pessimism informs the work, but Ms. Lucier’s celebration of the American character refuses to capitulate to it. There’s resilience mixed with her melancholy. If she doesn’t tell us about the country as deeply or as concisely as Walker Evans or John Ford, Ms. Lucier approaches the stern heights reached by Edward Hopper. Certainly, she gets closer to the heart of things than Borat. Compassionate insight beats cruel humor every time.

© 2007 Mario Naves

“Superbly Majestic Elegance”; More Adventures in Art Writing

A painter friend sent this “timelessly sublime” video my way and I’m forever in her debt. Jörg M. Colberg is the man’s name. He’s dry, droll and deserving of a round of applause.

Me, Me, Me

Laurel Nakadate

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What’s the name of this blog? Oh, yeah:  Too Much Art. I was reminded of the title’s rationale while visiting P.S. 1 the other day.

Not that I was at MOMA’s avant-gardist outpost expecting to see art. Experience tells me that this event is unlikely, if not altogether out of the question. But much the same way I occasionally leaf through Artforum in order to marvel at proof of life on other planets, I’ll wander through P.S. 1 in the hope that the bric-a-brac on display will be more diverting than the building itself.

Good luck enjoying that much what with photographer and video artist Laurel Nakadate festooning her work from floor to ceiling. Who is Nakadate? She’s a graduate of Yale University, a pusher of “a mailbag’s worth of envelopes” (a description courtesy The New York Times), a “provocateur” (ditto), exotic, beautiful and sad, so sad–365 large photos of 365 days of self-induced tears are the centerpiece of Only The Lonely, the mid-career retrospective mounted by P.S. 1.

But mostly Nakadate is a narcissist. Who isn’t, right? But Nakadate–well, she’s special.

Imagine this: Two commercial airliners are hijacked by terrorists and are sent crashing into a pair of buildings in a major American city. What’s the first thing a New York City artist does? Set up a camera, film the scene as best as able and slip on a Girl Scout uniform. Then she plants herself in front of the lens and looks pensive, really pensive, as plumes of smoke darken an otherwise idyllic September day. Anything is fair game in the cause of art.

Laurel Nakadate on 9/11

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Elsewhere, Nakadate engages myriad men of a certain age and class–men unknown to the artist, it’s important to note–and films the subsequent close encounters, contrasting her young and supple body with their not so young and supple bodies. Overlay the films with schlock pop music–Neil Diamond, say, or Britney Spears–and you have, according to Jerry Saltz, “crackerjack” work by “a kind of aggressive ‘Olympia’ presence, artificial, at risk, and dangerous simultaneously”. Saltz thinks condescension and exploitation count as art. So does P.S. 1 Director Klaus Biedenbach. He organized Only The Lonely.

Artist Laurel Nakadate and uncredited collaborator

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Doesn’t Nakadate worry about her safety when filming these cinematic ventures?

“I always thought there was something so beautiful about getting attacked and turned on by something we can’t see.”

Rape, or the threat of it, is a “beautiful” thing.

I was late in seeing Only The Lonely; the show’s been up since January. Critical response has been wishy-washy–Ken Johnson at the Times being the most egregious example. The “sympathetic view”, Johnson writes, “is that [Nakadate] has been tapping into a river of grief and loneliness under the surface of American life.” Sympathy will be the death of, if not lonely Americans, then the life of art. Enough, Ken; stop it.

Over at Art Vent, Carol Diehl proved refreshingly caustic, attributing the limitations of Nakadate’s work to “art school conceits” and prurient appeal:

“Men become unhinged at the sight of a young woman in her underwear”. 

True enough, but it’s also worth noting that only a bright young thing could get away with this booty-shaking brand of artistic expression.

Arguments and opinions will circle around Nakadate’s achievement, its salacious mix of blatant intentions, specious theorizing and cruel aestheticism guaranteeing the artist this brief moment in the Long Island City sun.

© 2011 Mario Naves

With Age Comes Wisdom, Joy and Broads

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The cast of It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia; clockwise from center: Danny DeVito, Rob McElhenney, Kaitlin Olson, Glenn Howerton and Charlie Day

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Few things in recent memory have given me as much pleasure as Danny DeVito’s turn as “Frank Reynolds” on It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia.

I’m late in coming to the show. Now in its sixth season, the FX Network program was recommended by my son; I’ve since been catching up with it on DVD. Described by its makers as “Seinfeld on crack”, It’s Always Sunny revolves around “The Gang”–four men, one woman, miscreants all–and their various and sordid adventures. Their escapades center around Paddy’s Pub, a down-in-the-mouth watering hole stranded in a seedy Philadelphia neighborhood.

It’s Always Sunny tramples over the boundaries of good taste. What popular entertainment doesn’t, right? But just when the humor threatens to buckle under adolescent self-consciousness, it takes flight into realms of exasperated absurdity that bring to mind Abbott & Costello’s “Who’s On First?”–albeit in a decidedly post-modern, casually scatological way.

In a typical predicament, a pair of characters find themselves pondering whether it’s more reprehensible to be a racist cannibal than merely a cannibal. How they get to the point where such a discussion can occur is too complicated to recount here. Suffice it to say, the conversation takes place in the city morgue, where we find our heroes brandishing a six-pack of beer, marinade and a hot plate.

DeVito joined the cast during the show’s second season. A notable screen presence since One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest in 1975 and, especially, his role as the irascible Louis DePalma in the NBC sitcom Taxi, DeVito subsequently became an unlikely movie star, a capable director and a not insignificant producer–Erin Brokovich and Pulp Fiction were two of his projects.

But as Frank Reynolds, the owner of Paddy’s Pub, DeVito has achieved something for the ages. Has an actor ever inhabited a role with as much abandon? The relish DeVito takes in bringing to life the foul-mouthed, mean-spirited and irredeemably piggish Frank is palpable. I’m convinced DeVito is doing It’s Always Sunny free-of-charge. The man is having that much fun. His gusto is infectious.

In a recent episode, Frank stuffs his shirt pocket full of sausages so that (a) he has easy access to food and (b) doesn’t need to use his hands to eat. In the crass and cloistered world that is It’s Always Sunny, this makes for a perfect kind of logic. Credit DeVito: Any actor who can make having a great time something from which the rest of us can gain joy deserves a lifetime’s supply of grease-stained shirts.

© 2011 Mario Naves

“Cockroaches marching into a bowl of spoiled milk to drown!”

Barack Obama, Video Artist

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Some of the best criticism being published nowadays is found in the back pages of The Onion. Few publications beat its literary concision, verve and straight thinking. Popular culture is treated as social touchstone, telling artifact and a brilliant waste of time–or not, if the corresponding movie, CD or book is found lacking in merit. Even the reviews of video games are worth reading and I have zero interest in video games. It’s the quality of the writing that engages. Given that satire is a form of criticism, we can count the front pages of The Onion as a good venue for criticism as well, including art criticism.

The best satire doesn’t merely mock its subject; it inhabits the target, laying bare its follies and (fingers crossed) eviscerating them from the inside out.  The art world, as with any sub-culture, is rife with hypocrisy, delusions and petty grievances. The writers of The Onion have them down pat.

Take, for instance, the June 13, 2001 news item about “art community” protests instigated by “a non-controversial, non-feces-smeared painting that in no way defiles or blasphemes Jesus Christ”. Elsewhere, guest columnist “Keith Dans” writes of how “I Don’t Have Time For Noncontroversial Art Exhibits“:

“No time for . . .  slowly soaking in the dynamic, geometric tension of the upcoming Cézanne retrospective. Not while there’s a guy in the East Village who’s going to vomit Cheerios into a piggy bank and smash it open with his penis.”

The fine strain of sanctimony filtering through Dans’ brief for “boundary pushing art” is beyond perfect and should be familiar to anyone who’s been on the ground when the art scene bubble is burst by contact with the greater world.

A scene from Fire In the Belly (1987) by David Wojnarowicz; courtesy The Museum of Modern Art

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Like, yeah, the brouhaha surrounding the removal of David Wojnarowicz’s Fire In The Belly (1987) from The National Portrait Gallery. It was, don’t you know, an “outrageous use of taxpayer money and an obvious attempt to offend Christians.” The film features a scene of a crucifix crawling with ants.

I don’t have much to add to the conversation–civil liberties, freedom of expression, artistic freedom, yes, yes, blah, blah, blah–and I brook no sympathy for House Speaker John Boehner and House Majority Leader Eric Cantor, who got the ball rolling for political gain and, in doing so, provided patrons of the arts an opportunity to revel in shocked! shocked! self-indignation.

But neither do I have patience for Wojnarowicz, whose slapdash video is typical of his cruel narcissism and stylistic randomness. And pretense; let’s not forget the pretense. The Museum of Modern Art, knowing good PC PR when it comes along, snapped up Fire In The Belly for the permanent collection on the heels of the controversy.

But the video accompanying this Onion article about President Obama “really getting into Nam June Paik” is infinitely more worthy of the attention of our cultural caretakers.

First of all, it’s funny. First of all again, it’s more insightful about its subject (the failings of contemporary art) than Wojnarowicz’s piece was about his subject (the miserableness of existence and/or capitalist societies and/or organized religion, the list goes on–and nowhere). The Onion lampoon is more inventive, crafted with greater care and lasts only about a minute.

Is it museum worthy? Who cares: all I know is that the President’s “message of hope and progress” is better than 99% of the “boundary pushing” videos I’ve twiddled my thumbs through in the name of Art.

Postscript:  Pia Catton’s Wall Street Journal article detailing the posthumous evolution of Fire In The Belly makes for a fascinating read.

© 2011 Mario Naves

Living Out Loud

anvil_300_2Robb Reiner & Steve “Lips” Kudlow of the heavy metal band Anvil

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Shortly after putting in my two cents on Plan B, I came down with a relentless, niggling bug.  Between napping, eating chicken soup and ingesting a series of opalescent horse pills that CVS dares us to “compare to the active ingredients in Vicks DayQuil”, I settled down to catch up on a backlog of DVD’s. Being in a near catatonic state doesn’t lend itself to making fine distinctions in cinematic quality–I was hoping fever would improve upon Jacques Tati’s over-studied homages to Buster Keaton; it didn’t–but I’ll nevertheless go ahead and recommend Anvil: The Story of Anvil, the saga of a heavy metal band that never quite hit the big time. What begins as the real life equivalent of Spinal Tap ends up a raucous, at times cringe-inducing and ultimately touching homage to the sacrifices, passions, travails and rewards of the artist’s life–Plans A and B definitely included.

© 2011 Mario Naves

Mika Rottenberg at Mary Boone

Mika Rottenberg, Mary Boone with Cube (2010), photograph; courtesy Mary Boone Gallery

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The life-size photograph of a malevolent Mary Boone is the least objectionable aspect of Squeeze (2010), a video installation by Mika Rottenberg currently on view at the veteran dealer’s 24th Street location.  Squeeze is an effective, icky and nettlesome amalgamation of Eraserhead, Pink Flamingos and Matthew Barney as informed by the theories of an aggrieved economics major.

Be warned:  The film is holed up in a small cubicle toward the back of the gallery; it’s almost impossible to see on a crowded Chelsea Saturday.  If the idea was to create a space as cramped as those seen in Rottenberg’s film, well, point taken.

Read the full article here.

© 2010 Mario Naves

William Kentridge at The Museum of Modern Art

William Kentridge. Drawing from <i>Stereoscope</i> 1998–99. Charcoal, pastel, and colored pencil on paper, 47 1/4 x 63" (120 x 160 cm). The Museum of Modern Art, New York. Gift of The Junior Associates of The Museum of Modern Art, with special contributions from Anonymous, Scott J. Lorinsky, Yasufumi Nakamura, and The Wider Foundation

William Kentridge, Drawing from Stereoscope (1998-99), charcoal, pastel and colored pencil on paper, 47-1/4″ x 63″; courtesy MOMA

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Included in the catalogue accompanying William Kentridge: Five Themes, an important if ultimately exasperating exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art, is a DVD featuring preparatory studies for several of the artist’s animated films and theatrical projects. Admirers of Kentridge’s poetic indictments of racism, industrialization, and arrant capitalism will gain insight into a working process that is more meticulous than the finished pieces necessarily let on. This is to Kentridge’s credit. Given the resolutely handmade nature of his finest work—stop-motion films made from constantly worked and re-worked charcoal drawings—overt fussiness would only diminish its gritty, elusive spell. But the DVD also sheds light on Kentridge’s greatest liability: an aesthetic hubris that has, with increasing frequency, come to dominate a singular accomplishment.

It’s there to see on the DVD’s menu. The table of contents is placed against a white wall riddled with black smudges—it’s the artist’s studio. Shortly after the screen comes up, Kentridge—portly, balding, slump-shouldered, and possessed of distinctive bushy eyebrows—wanders in from stage left, stopping just short of the DVD’s text. He’s dressed in a white shirt, black pants, and black shoes: a costume as codified as Joseph Beuys’s safari gear or Andy Warhol’s platinum wig. Kentridge engages in low-key mugging; crossing his hands and feigning mild bewilderment, he comes across as an unkempt, middle-management Buster Keaton. It’s a cute moment, but it’s also clearly a star turn and, as such, off-putting in its presumed self-deprecation. Kentridge’s art has, based on the evidence at MOMA, increasingly become a means for self-congratulation. The DVD cameo is a small example of a disheartening tendency.

False modesty, after all, doesn’t become an artist who gained international renown for his moral center. Born in 1955 in Johannesburg, South Africa, Kentridge decided on a life of art, turning away from the “family business”—his parents had achieved national prominence as lawyers working against the policies of Apartheid. Kentridge studied and taught printmaking, but theater and mime classes taken during a year spent in Paris were pivotal. Upon returning to Johannesburg, Kentridge devoted himself to drawing, all the while harboring doubts about an artist’s cultural role, doubts engendered by self-consciousness about his race (white), ethnicity (Jewish), and the “rather desperate provincial city” he called home. In 1989, he created Johannesburg, 2nd Greatest City After Paris, the first of nine short films that took as their basis South Africa’s troubled social structure.

But don’t mistake the series, collectively titled 9 Drawings, as agitprop. Kentridge’s impetus and imagery are, admittedly, blatant: Soho Eckstein, the chief protagonist in the films, is the cliché of the cigar-chomping corporate fat cat; elsewhere, racial oppression and economic inequities are depicted with heartbreaking candor, patent outrage, and little room for interpretation. Kentridge’s draftsmanship, keyed to an encompassing black, is harsh and graphic, recalling Goya, Daumier, and Käthe Kollwitz. But the best analogy may be to the great German painter Max Beckmann.

Like Beckmann’s deeply astringent art, Kentridge’s work is anchored by portent that is beyond the realm of logical explanation, but not in the least bit Surrealistic. As a consequence, Kentridge’s stock characters and situations are interrupted, augmented, and, with astonishing stealth, redeemed by narrative and symbolic shifts of emphasis. The Eckstein character, for instance, turns out to be more multifaceted and sympathetic than one might expect. That Kentridge’s dreamlike elisions are as inevitable as they are inexplicable goes some way in explaining his stark and novel gift.

Kentridge’s art is, in fact, counterintuitive: political anger and philosophical suasion are sharpened by his embrace of mutability. Kentridge is, in his own allusive manner, an ideologue skeptical of ideology. The process by which he creates the films both makes blunt this attribute and renders it subtle. We watch as charcoal drawings transform themselves before our eyes, their smudgy range of tones fluttering, coalescing, and just as swiftly dissipating. Erasures morph into an oncoming tide; a ledger turns into a raging current. Diagrams become corporeal and a banker drowns in his own tears. Flesh—whether black, white, torn, beaten, or caressed—is rendered with breathtaking tenderness. (Kentridge is the rare contemporary artist capable of evoking sex as a coefficient of love.) The films are defiantly grubby and purposefully primitive. The manner in which they stutter and shift is reminiscent of the silent cinema—at MOMA, you can watch a Kentridge homage to the Meliès Brothers, whose roughhewn work is suited to his dour and pointed visions.

Drawing is the inescapable foundation of Kentridge’s artistry, but film provides it with lyricism and life. The actual works on paper are disappointing; without the camera providing momentum and fluidity, the images are lumpy and undistinguished. They are political cartoons rather than provocations imbued with grace—the relative intangibility of film is vital to Kentridge’s art. The work that follows upon 9 Drawings is more expressly physical and, not coincidentally, gimmicky. The method that informs Stereoscope (1998–1999), the finest installment of 9 Drawings, is diminished when put into the service of mechanized puppet shows, mini-dioramas, and multiscreen video installations. The latter suffer from being tech-heavy, over-orchestrated, and arty. The Dadaesque figurines featured in Black Box (2005) are compelling when static, but when they pirouette, run, and galumph they’re no more than wind-up contrivances. A puppet show favoring the puppet-master—or, at least, the computers he’s programmed—has its priorities in the wrong place.

Black Box is a meditation on colonialism—a natural subject for an artist who came of age during Apartheid. But the most remarkable thing about the piece is how unnatural, how forced and pedantic, it is. Kentridge is forever spelling things out for us; the same goes for I Am Not Me, the Horse Is Not Mine (2008), a mishmash denunciation of Stalin’s Russia, and the whimsical The Artist in the Studio (2003). Each is intermittently brilliant—Kentridge’s herky-jerky riffs on Constructivism are particularly delightful—but, on the whole, they’re programmatic and cluttered, all but self-defeating. You begin to realize how much at sea Kentridge has been since the fall of Apartheid. No wonder we see more and more of him in the drawings and films. Deprived of the historical circumstances under which he thrived as an artist, Kentridge indulges passions that are not immediately his own. He’s left only to celebrate his own cleverness. It’s a luxury to which Kentridge is entitled, I guess, but art and history (not to mention politics) benefit from less egotistical preening. 9 Drawings proves the point with brute and haunting elegance. The rest, however, is little more than an impressively convoluted and overambitious postscript.

© 2010 Mario Naves

Originally published in the April 2010 edition of The New Criterion.

Steve McQueen at Marian Goodman Gallery

Steve McQueen, Giardini (2009), video; courtesy Marian Goodman Gallery

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Accompanying a group of students through the galleries along West 57th Street, I heard bitching and moaning as we entered Marian Goodman Gallery. Was there any possibility, I was asked, that a person could do the rounds without having to encounter a darkened room—that is to say, a space featuring a video installation?

I commiserated: Video is, after all, a genre pretty much dominated by sub-cinematic poseurs whose specialty is indulging trivial (or base) obsessions. So, the video featured at Goodman was greeted by not a little skepticism, and then, surprisingly, with something approaching awe. Steve McQueen’s Giardini, it turns out, is hypnotic, unnerving, highly theatrical and evocative. It’s that rare creature: a genuine work of art.

Giardini is making its American debut, having originally served as the U.K.’s contribution to the 2009 Venice Biennale. Running about 30 minutes and projected on two screens, McQueen’s video is an almost unbearably sensual meditation on narrative disassociation, occluded metaphor and the quiddities of memory and place.

Give Giardini a chance. For the first few minutes or so, McQueen’s juxtapositions of imagery—bugs, men smoking, a stolen embrace in an alleyway, a drop of water and wild dogs foraging through Venice—seem willfully random. A score alternating the ambient noise of traffic, crowds at a sports arena and a forest glen doesn’t help. At which point, a slippery and haunting logic emerges, if “logic” is, in fact, the right word. Imagine De Chirico sub-contracting for National Geographic in the age of HDTV and you’ll get some idea, but only some,of McQueen’s spare and brainy poetry.

McQueen weaves together his fragmented scenarios through meticulous attention paid to texture, light, resolution, gesture and, not least, pacing.Giardini might move like a glacier, but it’s like a glacier in other ways, too: it’s monumental and sweeping, breathtaking and unstoppable.

Would that the same could be said of Static, a video made last year specifically for this show and with New York City in mind. It’s basically a virtual-reality amusement park ride: What, it posits, would it feel like to ceaselessly circle the Statue of Liberty in the choppiest of helicopters?  A measure of aesthetic integrity doesn’t redeem McQueen’s homage to Lady Liberty: it’s a pretentious, queasy-making bore. Skip Static and stick with the main event. That way there can be no cavils about this being one of the best shows of the season.

Originally published in the February 3, 2010 edition of City Arts.