Thursday, September 14, 2006

Pretty As A Car Crash

Self-Portrait in the Camp Felix Nussbaum

Two weeks ago, Siobhan and I stuffed ourselves into her Ford Extinguisher and drove into NYC to see the Klimts at Neue Gallery. You remember: we didn't assault anyone, no matter how he or she stepped into our carefully chosen views of early twentieth century German artworks, and we discovered the gold painting of Adele was as big as me, perhaps even bigger, and that art under glass is a nightmare for glare. Perhaps I left that out, in my original epic. Being a person of unusual size and shape, I often found myself doing the watusi to move the glare from the ceiling lights around the glass surface so I could see more of the painting. This made me say "Damn it!" a lot in a relatively quiet gallery.

Weeks later, what we saw is still interesting and opening up in unexpected ways. My co-worker and I are plotting a class trip from my office to see Kwang-Young Chun's installation pieces at Kim Foster or Michelle Rosenberg Gallery because it is sometimes absolutely crucial to see in person what we see in art journals we handle at the library. Chun's work on paper or on the screen looks like a terrifying closeup of wreckage on the ocean floor or the lunar surface, but I'm not sure if that's my eye or an intended impression. From the Foster Gallery page:
Chun's artwork reflects his intense involvement with both Western art and the rich heritage of his homeland. Begun in the mid-1990s, the series titled Aggregation breaks away from the conventional use of brush, paint and canvas. His compositions are constructed of hundreds of triangles wrapped in century-old handmade mulberry paper. In his latest series of constructions, the work depends on a variation of trompe l'oeil. Using a range of gray to black tones, Chun creates what looks like deep depressions or craters. It is only after closer examination that we realize these are not actual indentations. The triangles coalesce into a composition creating a startling illusion of depth, dense with association to natural phenomena.

For those familiar with Korean culture, the mulberry paper used in Chun's compositions offers an additional layer of meaning. Inspired by childhood memories, the wrapped triangles in Chun's constructions are evocative of herbal medicine bundles wrapped in paper and hung in clusters from the ceilings of the family run pharmacy. Though herbal medicine is a dying art in his native country, Chun is keenly aware of the historical and personal resonance of his chosen medium.

Craters. I don't know and I'm excited to see it myself.

In the Neue Gallery, almost as an afterthought, five pieces - I believe it was five - hung in a third-floor hallway. I say they were possibly an afterthought because this hallway was important for patron traffic flow, the implication being: this isn't important, don't bother with these. And because the place was crowded, traffic moved down the hallway. One. Two. Three. Four. Five - Holy crap! The fifth piece was Self-Portrait in the Camp by Felix Nussbaum. Unlike any other piece in the hallway, the small or large rooms, this painting had an immediate emotional impact on me, at least, but also on the people who arrived there before me and couldn't move. If I had to guess dimensions, I'd say this painting was between a foot and 18" wide and maybe 2' tall. It's small-ish. It felt to me as if I'd seen something so deeply personal I had no right to see it. I was shocked by its power, shocked that this painting had survived. This painting alone in the whole of the gallery reminded me that we who love art are lucky that anything from early twentieth century Germany survived at all.

Here is a profound and perplexing online gallery of Felix Nussbaum's paintings. I didn't know anything about him before I saw his face. Apparently, this may not be much of a surprise.


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