I’m usually unsure of new pieces. At first I think, “what the fuck?” Then I stare at it a while longer, let my eye flow over the colors and shapes, wonder at possible meanings. Like, why did I put a ceiling fan over that guy’s face? I suppose because his lose of identity is my gain. After all, he’s pretty buff in a feminized way, and I’ve never been even close to buff. I go to the gym simply to slightly slow the hands of time, but not actually expecting to improve anything.
He used a rope and nail to tether a stone to a wood block. He made another work the same year, in which he attached a metal screw eye inside a box. He then tied twine to the screw eye and wrapped it around a stone that, in this instance, he placed outside the box. The person standing next to me says: “ball and chain.”
He made a drawing using a car (a Model A Ford, to be exact) as the drawing instrument. A friend drove the car slowly, inching it forward, on joined sheets of typing paper that had been carefully placed in its path. Two tire tracks are visible, one in ink and the other the impression left by the tire treads. The tire tracks, perfectly aligned from sheet to sheet, form a scroll nearly 24 feet long, a drawing of two wide lines, one of which is ghostly, that stretches from one wall to another. He could have made a dozen or more of these scrolls, but he was too restless to do it again.
Erasing a work that he had solicited from an older artist whom he admired, one who was celebrated for his drawings, became another drawing. It took him 40 erasers to complete the task, but the sheet of paper is unblemished by creases or erasures. He repeatedly caressed the older artist’s drawing until it all but vanished.
He made a series of “transfer drawings” illustrating the thirty-four cantos of Dante’s Inferno. These drawings look as if he did a rubbing of a flat image, coalescing into ghostly echoes in the streaks and smears.
The gesture used in erasing a drawing presages the one used in making the “transfer drawings,” the repeated rubbing of erasure.
A man clad in a towel descends into hell. He stands before what looks like a railing. Torments of all kinds are stacked up below him.
He reinvented frottage. He made drawings without drawing. He was interested in ghostly images and traces. In his best works, he is often agitated and fastidious.
He kept the erased drawing in a drawer and did not show it. Another artist convinced him to put it in an exhibition. This artist matted the erased drawing and fit it into a gold gilded wood frame. He also provided the label, which he inscribed with perfect penmanship, using a metal template in blue ink, and affixed it into a cut-out in the mat. The gilded frame and label authenticate the drawing as a museum piece. One artist made the drawing. Another artist erased it. A third artist contextualized it. The context helps complete the viewer’s understanding of what is being looked at.
He made paintings from dirt, as well as used paint made from pigments.
He used taxidermied animals, dead insects, and engravings of beetles in his work.
He has gotten the tire around the stuffed angora goat, which he first saw in the window of a secondhand office furniture store. Eventually, through the suggestion of another artist, the same one who provided the gilded frame and inscribed label for his erased drawing, he places the goat on top of a painting lying on the floor instead in front of a painting hanging on the wall. The painting, which becomes a platform, is raised on casters. The platform becomes a low pedestal. We can still look the animal in the eye and contemplate his paint-smeared head.
There are footprints on the edge of the painting that has become a pedestal, as well as a street barricade with signboard lettering.
Behind the goat, on the platform, the artist has placed a paint-smeared tennis ball, a perfectly spherical turd.
Perhaps he lifted this turd from a urinal.
Dirt, paint, at least one turd, dead insects, stuffed animals. He goes from stench and perfection to perfection and putrefaction — a huge vat of percolating tan sludge.
He smears paint, nail polish, and toothpaste onto a pillow and quilt, evidence of what happened there. The quilt is a grid, which is the way he organized his diverse images and materials. He puts one rectangle (or thing) next to another. He never got out of this way of arranging his images.
Nearly 350 years later, Rubens’ oil painting Venus at the Mirror (1615) becomes an oil and silkscreen painting titled Persimmon (1964).
In Rubens’ painting, Venus at the Mirror, Cupid holds a mirror up for Venus. An African maidservant looks on. The mirror faces us, so that we see Venus’ reflection in the mirror, looking at us. One interpretation of this is the reflection of Venus, which reveals her beauty to the viewer, becomes a symbol of painting that competes with nature to produce an image that is as real as possible. From the expression on her face and the direction of her glance, it is clear that Venus is aware that we are admiring her.
Ruben’s painting is about painting — about reflection, beauty, and the viewer. Its purpose is to please the viewer, to give pleasure.
Do we prefer one more than the other — artifice or nature? Or do we desire to have both? What does it mean when he says: “My work exists in the space between art and life”? Is there a space between the two?
He turned Rubens into a silkscreen, a representation of a representation. He changed the colors, added images of his own. The African maidservant is replaced by the image of a city street where the sign, “Cafeteria,” is prominent. Four years earlier, four African-American college students staged a sit-in at a Woolworth’s lunch counter in Greensboro, North Carolina. The one becomes many. Our eyes consume what is around us.
The image of a round ripe persimmon, with its smooth indentation, sits right beneath Venus’s buttocks, a perfect anus.
The word “persimmon” dates to America’s colonial period. It comes from the Powhatan name for the fruit, pichamin. It is a member of the genus Diospyros, which has been misread to mean “divine fruit.’ It has led some to believe it is the lotus Homer writes about in the Odyssey. In Powhatan, an Algonquin language, it means “a dry fruit.”
A stone inside a box; a tire wrapped around the belly of a goat; an inverted pail that can be raised or lowered into a metal shaft; a dirty, paint smeared bed; a dirty tennis ball (or perfect turd).
In the silkscreen painting, the persimmon is the most boldly colored area of the composition — it is a round form inside a similarly colored square. A gauzy strip of cloth wraps around Venus’s right buttock, crosses over the crack of her ass, and touches against the top left edge of the torn rectangle (its top edged in white), framing the persimmon and the voluptuous indentation.
Venus looks back at us, knowing what we are thinking.
ROCKLAND, Maine — In a subtly evocative installation photograph of John Walker: From Seal Point, currently on view at the Center for Maine Contemporary Art, the camera catches the light from the overhead clerestory windows in such a way that it seems to address, at least in part, how the paintings came to be and what they are about: The framing and passage of time.
The space that houses these ardent, full paintings — which seem to exhale in airy release — is so perfectly tuned to their eloquent fierceness, you might think Boston architect Toshiko Mori designed the gallery especially for Walker. The natural light washing the gallery walls, even on cloudy days, is both cleansing and muted, coaxing out the complexity of colors filtered through translucent gels, glazes, and pulsating globs. You can almost smell the salt air in John Walker’s most recent paintings, melding with the heavier, bracing smells and sounds from the nearby working harbor mere steps away from the museum. It’s the kind of vaulted and perfectly proportioned space that we imagine painters see, like dogs closing on rabbits, in their most rapturous dreams. Rarely does an exhibition conjoin so perfectly with its setting. Sometimes you just have to be there.
Born in Birmingham, England in 1939, Walker bought a house on Seal Point, Maine, in 1989. Prior to that, he had a distinguished teaching career that took him from Paris to London, Melbourne, New York, Boston, Yale and Oxford University. He is represented in permanent collections of major museums throughout the world, and he represented Great Britain at the 1972 Venice Biennale. Since retiring in 2014 from his most recent post, as director of the graduate program in art at Boston University, Seal Point is where he spends much of his time, working nearly every day.
Walker usually paints his larger canvases in a two-story former community hall near his home. In the hall, he found stacks of “Beano” or bingo cards that became the basis for small paintings. The 7 ½ x 5 ½-inch paintings on card stock are lightly but thoroughly worked and stand on their own as finished and fully realized paintings. They appear to be Walker’s heartfelt homage to the English landscape tradition — especially the work of John Constable — in which small, plein air paintings track moisture and ever-changing English skies over the cloud-piercing spire of Salisbury Cathedral. (One of the large paintings in the exhibition is titled “Constable’s Tree,” 2014).
For Walker, air, land, and sky are interchangeable in their fluidity; the artist paints them as layered, floating and charged, oozing, dragged within and often falling off the gridded card. Occasionally, printed elements from the Beano cards emerge, ghost-like from beneath the paint layers — a minuscule roving elephant, perhaps, or, more frequently, the underlying grid, including the numbers and letters of the bingo game. It has likely struck a bemused Walker that recycled and collaged numbers and alphabets had helped reinvent contemporary art half a century ago, in work by Jasper Johns. (Burying them once again beneath a different kind of abstract expression might well amuse Johns.) As intimate as the larger canvases are magisterial, the “Beano” paintings represent a distinct and intensely focused body of work. They encourage close looking, a teacher’s device for how one should penetrate, scan, and understand the larger paintings as well.
Walker is an unrepentant modernist who has led a resurgence — mostly through uncompromising example — of painters reinvigorating abstraction by looking to nature, ideas, emotion and, especially, place. The Seal Point paintings are the artist’s celebration of the tidal mud flats, wind-driven, irregular wave patterns, and the island-rimmed horizon hugging the upper edge of his canvases. It’s the view from his front door on Seal Point — arguably among the most visually arresting sights, fair weather and foul, along the entire Maine coast. Seal Point’s natural beauty borders on the sublime, initially intimidating Walker; it took ten years before he could paint what he saw.
As in the work of artists he most admires — Matisse, Hartley, Marin, even Rembrandt and Goya — Walker’s paintings don’t much look like their sources in the real world. Indeed, that is the point. They reference how a place feels more than how it looks, much like Richard Diebenkorn’s Ocean Park paintings describe the Southern California streetscape, his Santa Monica neighborhood’s compartments and divisions, dissolving into pure, high color within loose but straight boundaries, occasionally disappearing or simply slipping into the shimmering expanse of oceanic blueness. It represents a way of thinking about structure and color and place that Walker seems to share and references according his own unique vision.
Seal Point is Walker’s private realm of becoming, always present to his eye and real to his touch. The receding tide lets local clammers dig holes in the mud. The clam holes resemble the incantatory dotted surfaces of aboriginal Australian art (which Walker collects) that puncture painting’s essential flatness. Walker has often used actual mud in his paintings, mixing it with binders and gels to evoke a quality of “realness.” The mud of Seal Point and its anti-picturesque, muck-laden quality at low tide interests him far more than traditionally beautiful aspects of his property. Its wet rawness also seems to trigger personal associations. His father fought in World War I at the battles of The Somme and Passchendaele (where the elder Walker was wounded), muddy bloodbaths where casualties numbered over half a million. Only recently has he allowed lush color and generous expansiveness into the Seal Point paintings, yielding to fierce beauty — an act not of surrender but of ownership. Seal Point is not just an idyllic retreat. It is a place — his place — where long familiar sights and time-washed memories recur with the regularity of the incoming and outgoing tides. After years of “looking out to sea,” John Walker feels that he truly owns his way of seeing Seal Point, a view that is always different, revising and renewing itself.
Last night outside Trump Tower, Jeffrey Beebe’s inflatable sculpture Trumpy the Rat made its debut and thousands of New Yorkers gathered to protest the president during his first visit home since taking office.
Crowds began gathering at Fifth Avenue and 56th Street around 5pm last night to protest Trump’s international warmongering and domestic negligence. The mood was somber, with many participants wearing all-black in mourning for Heyer, while others held signs lamenting the death of democracy. Like at previous anti-Trump protests, there was plenty of quippy signage, too. One man wore a placard around his neck that read, “A NYC Salute to Trump,” with a hole through the left side of it through which he stuck his hand to flip the bird. A young blonde woman raised a poster bearing photos of Heyer’s accused killer, James Alex Fields, white supremacist Richard Spencer, and Friday night’s tiki-torch-toting mob with the words “Vanilla ISIS” in bold letters below. Eventually, a united front of protesters positioned itself across the street from Trump Tower’s main entrance.
“The First Amendment isn’t only the right to speak out against government suppression, it’s also the right to be within sight and sound of the location of that which you’re protesting,” said Sunsara Taylor, a spokesperson for Refuse Fascism, one of the organizations that helped lead the protest. “We have a right — even a responsibility to be there.”
Rising with the chants of “No Trump, no KKK, no fascist USA!” and “March to the tower, drive them from power!” was artist Jeffrey Beebe’s Kickstarter-funded Trumpy the Rat, stationed at the corner of 59th Street and Fifth Avenue. The funny yet sinister 15-foot inflatable, modeled on the popular “Scabby the Rat” construction site protest props, has the unmistakable orange hue and flaxen combover of the president and wears a suit emblazoned with Confederate flag cufflinks and a Russian flag lapel pin. John Lee of Chelsea gallery BravinLee programs, who commissioned the piece, said on Monday evening that political caricature has been around — and a crucial form of political discourse — since Ancient Greece. Trumpy will stay up as long as possible, Lee said, and its latest whereabouts will be broadcast on the gallery’s Twitter page.
Despite the comic relief of an inflatable rodent caricature of Trump, yesterday’s peaceful protest was permeated by a sense of anxiety. Around 6:30pm — well before Trump was due to arrive — NYPD officers threatened protesters with arrest and forcibly shepherded them away from their preferred location directly across Fifth Avenue from Trump Tower’s main entrance resulting in at least one woman being pushed to ground (she didn’t sustain any injuries).
“At the beginning of the protest, they were trying to keep us from the tower entirely,” said Taylor. “They kept dispersing us, they had pens everywhere; we couldn’t gather. A lot of people that came here for this were looking around trying to figure out what was happening, but they couldn’t cohere.” Attendees were largely confined to the southeast and southwest corners of Fifth Avenue and 57th Street, and the northeast and northwest corners of Fifth and 56th Street, despite the fact that pedestrian crosswalks remained open.
“Our government is not defending equal rights for all,” said Caleigh Scott, co-founder of the activist comedy sketch duo Girlcrush Comedy, who came straight to Trump Tower from her Union Square office after she finished work. “It shouldn’t take a president of the United States days to denounce things this country considers to be enemies, like the KKK and Nazis. If Trump is going to come to New York, we need to make sure he hears the voice of the people of his hometown.”
Several Trump supporters turned out as nightfall approached and Trump’s motorcade — arriving just after 9 pm by a route that kept him out of most protesters’ sight — neared. One older man wearing a “Make America Great Again” hat held a sign that said “Daddy’s Home.” A handful of Orthodox Jewish men carrying signs stating that they had voted for Trump appeared around 8:30 pm, eliciting angry shouts of “Shame!” from the gathered crowd. Upon seeing the Trump supporters walk by — and the ensuing verbal sparring between them and protesters — a middle-aged woman behind me caught my eye and said, “I feel like we’re living a total nightmare.”
Things were fairly calm and quiet when I left the scene an hour later, long after the President’s anticlimactic arrival. I passed a weary queue of protesters and police officers waiting together in line for snacks at a hot dog stand across the street from Grand Army Plaza. Just behind them, Trumpy the Rat’s dark silhouette still ominously loomed.
VENICE — Damien Hirst’s Treasures from the Wreck of the Unbelievable is not an exhibition. It’s a showroom for oligarchs. Comprised of about 190 works, including gold, silver, bronze, and marble sculptures, the show is undoubtedly the most expensive artistic flop in living memory.
Treasures is founded on a compelling concept that has had the life strangled out of it. The exhibition guide details the fictional discovery of an ancient shipwreck off the coast of East Africa in 2008. We’re told that scuba divers spent ten years recovering incredible finds: coins, weapons, crystals, and monumental sculptures encrusted with corals and other marine organisms. The wreck is attributed to an equally fictional collector, a freed slave named Cif Amotan II, who having amassed a fortune, supposedly loaded a ship (the ‘Unbelievable’) with his treasured collection of “commissions, copies, fakes, purchases, and plunder.” “Yet the vessel floundered,” the guide continues, “consigning its hoard to the realm of myth, and spawning myriad permutations of this story of ambition and avarice, splendor and hubris.” The exhibition is built on the premise that Hirst personally financed the excavation and has brought the objects to Venice for the public to enjoy.
It’s a brilliant lie, and one that could be enormously fun and engaging. Cif Amotan II is an anagram of “I am Fiction.” The works are by Hirst, and the enormous coral encrusted sculptures are actually meticulously painted bronze. These are displayed near pristine gold or marble editions of the exact same pieces, so-called “reproductions” of the scarred wreckage finds. The exhibition is split between the Punta Della Dogana and the Palazzo Grassi, private museums operated by French billionaire François Pinault, the owner of Christie’s auction house, a collector of Hirst’s work, and the co-financier of the exhibition. This is more than a little problematic.
Outside the Punta della Dogana is “The Fate of a Banished Man (Standing),” a monumental sculpture of a horse and rider entangled in the vice of a snarling serpent. The scene resembles a Hellenistic sculpture on steroids. For a work carved out of Carrara marble it looks extraordinarily cheap. The tree stump and rocks that make up the base of the sculpture are crudely carved, even cartoonish. It’s a portent of the excessive kitsch that follows inside.
A television monitor near the ticket office displays underwater footage of the excavation. This is easily the best feature of the exhibition. The imagery is beguiling: plumes of silt drifting off half-buried treasure, giant sculptures foregrounded by schools of fish, and raised objects shimmering in the shallows. The film is bolstered by a number of large light-box photographs scattered throughout the show, which purport to document where each artifact was found. They establish an aura of mystery that the objects fail to exploit.
The first room contains three of Hirst’s monumental, coral-encrusted bronzes, “Calendar Stone,” “The Diver,” and “The Warrior and the Bear” — each successively worse than the other. At a glance the sculptures make for impressive selfie-fodder, but up close the painted coral looks unconvincing. Some, but not all of the works, are accompanied by explanatory labels. We’re told that “Calendar Stone” is similar to the Piedra del Sol housed in the National Anthropology Museum in Mexico, but that “the presence of objects of presumed pre-Hispanic, South and Central American Origin within a Roman-era wreckage is currently unexplained.”
“The Warrior and the Bear,” a sculpture of a sword-wielding woman on a bear’s shoulders, is attributed to a maturation ritual for Athenian girls. However, the work doesn’t remotely resemble an ancient Greek sculpture. Thus, the show’s false conceit is immediately exposed. Other works include a Greek goddess with the head of a fly, a figure of Optimus Prime, multiple Disney characters, a sword emblazoned with the SeaWorld logo, and a silver bust of a figure wearing a gimp mask. A number of celebrities also make an appearance. Rihanna and Kate Moss are transformed into Egyptian deities, Pharrell Williams appears as a pharaoh, and Yolandi Visser (of Die Antwoord) stands in as the Mesopotamian goddess Ishtar.
A generous reading is that Hirst is commenting on our true cultural values. Perhaps the ancient gods were simply the contemporary equivalents of Mickey Mouse or Rihanna? Is it absurd to revere objects whose history and meaning we can barely access or comprehend? I could almost subscribe to this idea were it not for the fact that the show is littered with iconographic retreads: unicorns, a flayed horse, and so on. Hirst retreats into familiar territory instead of exploiting the thematic potential of his myth. The flagrant kitsch of the work also sits uneasily with the show’s conceit. The work announces its fakery immediately.
Elena Geuna, the show’s curator, has propagated the show’s fiction in interviews — maintaining that it truly is an exhibition of recovered artifacts — whereas Hirst can’t be bothered. It all feels a bit half-arsed. What if Hirst had produced works that looked real, leaving the viewer to second-guess themselves? Perhaps he could have inserted real artifacts among his own creations? Such a course would have required a great deal of effort and subtlety. By comparison, Hirst’s kitsch is simply an easier means to sell juvenile trinkets to idle and unengaged one-percenters — an audience for whom a Mickey Mouse covered in coral or a minotaur raping a buxom woman apparently constitutes some sort of genuine art-historical engagement.
“As an artist you always make work from what’s around you,” Hirst told the BBC in 2010, “and you know, money was around me.” Treasures from the Wreck of the Unbelievable could have been the Blair Witch Project or Nat Tate of fake archeological excavations. Hirst is one of the very few artists with the means to achieve such ends.
There has been an elaborate effort to give the exhibit a museological feel, as evinced by the numerous sleek display cases and explanatory labels. The Palazzo Grassi includes a scale model of the Apistos (the ‘Unbelievable’) and a suite of aged pencil drawings of the artifacts. The latter are accompanied by various archival stamps, the sort you might see on drawings that have long been housed at the British Museum or the Victoria and Albert Museum. It’s an elaborate touch, and one that is undermined by the lazy and haphazard approach to maintaining the overall illusion of the show. For instance, if the wreck was discovered in 2008, then who made these drawings? Hirst could have positioned himself in a lineage of artists who have actively interrogated the function and history of museums and collections (Fred Wilson, Andrea Fraser, and Marcel Broodthaers for instance). Instead, Hirst’s starting point was presumably, “how many works will we produce, and how should we edition them?”
Am I taking the show’s premise too seriously? Isn’t it just a peg for Hirst to hang his new body of work on? Sure — but the resulting work is insipid. The exhibition lays waste to a brilliant and engaging concept. It is also unbelievablyrepetitive, with variations of the same sculptures in bronze, gold, silver, and crystal. The sheer avarice of the show is jaw-dropping. The combined space of both museums is 54,000 square feet. For context, the Whitney Museum has 50,000 square feet of interior exhibition space.
There are some works, which by sheer force of spectacle, manage to briefly seize your languishing interest. A prime example is “Demon with Bowl (Exhibition Enlargement),” an 18-meter resin figure built in situ at the heart of the Palazzo Grassi. It would probably be the most Instagrammed work of the show where not for the fact that it is impossible to capture in a single shot. Other behemoths include coral and non-coral variations of “Hydra and Kali,” in which the multi-limbed Hindu goddess (naked, of course) prepares to battle the renowned water monster of Greek and Roman mythology. There’s also a bright blue bronze depicting Andromeda screaming before a great white shark, a tentacled sea creature, and two piranha-like fish. These larger sculptures resemble pornographic re-imaginings of a Ray Harryhausen film.
Pinault financed the show with Hirst, though neither have stated its exact cost. When asked by New York Times reporter Carol Vogel whether he was effectively exploiting his museums for commercial gain, the collector gave a prickly response. “What can I say? I cannot avoid those comments. But this is not commercial. It’s about showing the art that I love.” In the same interview, Pinault all but admitted that he had acquired some of Hirst’s new work. “Perhaps. Probably,” he told Vogel, “but I am not going to tell you which ones!” Put simply, Pinault is promoting the art — and by extension, the market value — of an artist whose work he already owns. Assuming the show is a sell-out success, Pinault stands to enjoy a considerable appreciation to his collection’s value. To be clear, this is not illegal, but it does beg the question of what financial incentives or tax breaks, if any, Pinault’s foundation has enjoyed for housing his private collection in “the floating city.”
Various multi-million dollar production costs have been bandied around by a cabal of press officers, dealers, and Hirst collectors who stand to benefit from the ambiguity. Hirst is especially keen to perpetuate the mystery, as evinced in this absurd (and frankly, offensive) exchange with the BBC’s arts editor Will Gompertz:
WG: What did it cost?
DH: Er, what did we say? More than twenty, less than… [pauses] less than a hundred.
WG: [laughs] We can do better than that Damien. More than fifty or less than fifty million?
DH: Erm, I’m not sure. Oh, probably more. A lot of money.
DH: Yeah, mine.
Articles regarding Hirst and the art market are ten a penny, but an understanding of the exhibition’s economics is essential to understanding the reasons for its artistic failure. Treasures is supposed to be Hirst’s major come-back, a rebuke to his diminished popularity and slumping market value. The principal reason for this decline is saturation, both literal and conceptual. Hirst’s studio pumped out works recycling the same tired motifs: skulls, flies, butterflies, spots, and expensive pharmaceuticals. It got old and it got boring. Hirst’s 2009 exhibition at the Wallace Collection, a series of new paintings riffing off Francis Bacon — backfired spectacularly, with the late Brian Sewell memorably describing the show as “detestable” and “fucking dreadful.”
According to Vogel’s report, the works in Treasures range from $500,000 to $5 million, and a number of collectors have already professed to purchasing pieces in advance. Each work apparently comes in an edition of three with two artist proofs. These have been branded into three aesthetic types. A collector can buy a “Coral” edition (i.e. one of the encrusted artifacts recovered from the supposed wreck), a “Treasure” (a restored artifact) or a “Copy” (a reproduction of a wreckage find). That’s around 950 works in total. You do the math. There are also three separate publications for sale, priced at £75, £150, and £250. Visitor entry to both museums is €15. The exhibit has been strategically designed to make as much money as possible. After about ten minutes into the show, it becomes glaringly obvious that Hirst has abdicated his aesthetic and conceptual ambitions to economic priorities.
If we knew how much Treasures from the Wreck of the Unbelievable cost to produce, it would probably set a benchmark for how much money can be sunk into something so visually brash and un-compelling. Though the show may be in couched in history and myth, it propagates the prevailing orthodoxy of our time — one in which our cultural heritage is increasingly molded and determined by the whims and fancies of a wealthy elite. Boredom has never come at so high a price.