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Earthshakers, or People to know about: A series of profiles for Black History Month and beyond

betye saar

Betye Saar, 90 year old mixed media artist and force to be reckoned with. Photo by Ashley Walker.

I was hunting for Valentine’s Day ideas and came across this profile of African American artist Betye Saar in Design Sponge. She has long been one of my favorites, both because she makes work out of all sorts of things (some of her pieces are paintings, some quilts, some sculptures and everything in between…) and because each piece has a narrative that seems to flow out of it effortlessly. Nothing is preachy, yet they all have a strong message to convey that is at once deeply personal, magically surreal and culturally relevant. She is a true modern master.

So if you don’t know her work, please take a minute to read the Design Sponge profile, and watch the video below in which she speaks about racism in southern California between the World Wars.

And here are three examples of her work, just to whet your appetites to dig deeper.

Stay tuned for more inspirational people as Black History Month continues…

Go see the Martin Creed show RIGHT NOW (if you haven’t already and you happen to be in NYC…)

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Martin Creed balloon

My daughter, having the time of her life, in the middle of the balloon room at the Martin Creed show uptown at the Park Avenue Armory.

The Back Door, British artist Martin Creed’s show at The Park Avenue Armory is absolutely not to be missed. Which means you have 3 more days to catch it before the building wide installation closes and fades into a memory (and lots of Instagram photos).

There are balloons, a piano that opens and shuts on it’s own, a whole range of videos, a band of musicians that wander through the space making enigmatic songs, huge curtains that move on their own and all sorts of beautiful objects that make you pause and think about all sorts of things. Plus the huge main room has been transformed into a kind of dark internal head space where the “mouth” opens every once in awhile and you can see out through the back door. Hence the title of the exhibit.

Go see the show. Take your kids, who will love the balloons and the curtain and the piano and most of the videos at the very least. And hurry before it’s gone.

To motivate you, here is one of Creed’s videos. Needless to say this was a particular favorite of my daughter’s…

And here are some photos I took of the show…

Martin Creed
The Back Door
At the Park Avenue Armory through Aug 7
643 Park Ave, NYC
tickets are $15, available online or at the door

Thornton Dial, American Artist (1928 – 2016)

Thornton Dial.

Thornton Dial, self taught and internationally renowned artist, died this week at his home in Alabama. Photo courtesy of aptv.org

“Art is like a bright star up ahead in the darkness of the world… a guide for every person who is looking for something.”

Wise words, spoken from the heart by one of America’s greatest artists, Thornton Dial, who died this week at 87 years old. A self taught African American artist, Dial spent most of his professional life as a metal worker and created art in his back yard, in poverty and relative obscurity, until he was ‘discovered’ by the Atlanta folk art collector William Arnett at the age of 62.

By the mid nineties, Dial’s work was being shown in museums and galleries around the world and his reputation slowly grew, particularly among students and admirers of American folk artists. His work is now in the collections of major museums and he is widely regarded as one of the most important artists to emerge in the US during the second half of the twentieth century.

His work is complex, masterful, inspirational and intricate, and it pushes boundaries, raises uncomfortable issues and touches our hearts. He is at once “self taught” and a true master of his craft who will continue to blur the lines, categories and pigeonholes of the art world even though his time with us on the planet is over.

To dive deeper (which all of you should) check out this Studio360 podcast, this celebration of Dial’s life and work on hyperallergic, a fascinating article in the New Yorker about the complicated relationship between Dial, Arnett (his largest collector and champion) and the art world at large, and what I like to call the “official” obituary in the New York Times.

Looking at other people looking at themselves

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Or, in other words, putting this entire #selfie thing into an historical context that suddenly pushes the whole genre away from a general societal egotistical psychosis and towards a central part of the way human beings make sense of themselves and the world around them.

A Kaia Miller self portrai, as seen in a video as part of the show "ME" at Ricco Maresca gallery in NYC.

A Kaia Miller self portrai, as seen in a video as part of the show “ME” at ricco Maresca in NYC.

My friend Emily told me that her 12 year old daughter Kaia was going to be featured n a photography exhibit at Rico Maresca gallery in Chelsea. I looked at her Instagram (@growingrainbows) and was intrigued, but I have been growing increasingly skeptical of the constant flow of selfies and the apparent myopic obsession with ourselves that they seem to represent, so, to be honest, I was also a bit worried about what kind of person Kaia was growing into.

But I love Emily and I dutifully went to check out her kid’s work, just like I’d like my friends to look at my kid’s stuff if and when the time ever comes. And as I read the press release and looked around at the other work in the show, I was suddenly able to see that some of today’s selfies really are a part of an evolving body of work that is well worth checking out, sitting with, and mulling over.

Kaia Miller’s work is presented as a video, played on an iPad, in which the artist talks about the motivations behind each of her photographs. The images are for sale, but the only way to view them is via this video. And I found myself glued to the screen, curious about how she manipulated some of the images, impressed by her thoughtfulness, and captivated by the parallel universe digital fairy world she has created. I might not want to live there, but it’d be a nice place for an expedition-style vacation.

The show also includes Photomatic images from the 1940′s, and other surreal self portraits from artists like André Kertész and Berenice Abbott. Some images are familiar, while some I’ve never seen before. But they are all evidence of people grappling with self and self image and their place in the world.

self prtrait with gorilla mask soji Ueda

Self portrait with gorilla mask (1975) has always been one of my favorite images by Shoji Ueda.

It’s a show well worth seeing… but tomorrow is the last day, so hop to it. If you miss seeing the images live, there is always the gallery website, and a lovely piece by Adam Gopnik in the New Yorker that you can peruse at your leisure.

ME
Photographic Self Portraits
Through October 31 2015
Ricco Maresca Gallery
529 W 20th Street, third floor

Fairytales do come true, or the overnight sensation of painter Claude Lawrence (that was 30 years in the making)

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My Old Flame, acrylic on canvas, by Claude Lawrence

My Old Flame, acrylic on canvas, by Claude Lawrence

Once upon a time, there was a creative soul named Claude Lawrence. Born in Chicago, he moved to New York City and lived the artistic life of a jazz musician making music in venues all over the city and absorbing everything that the mythical NY of the 1970′s and 80′s had to offer.

He also loved to paint, and while it was not his main source of income, Claude painted and drew and made art with a dogged persistence, creating visual work which mirrored the lyrical and improvisational qualities of his music.

Eventually, Claude moved back to Chicago, dedicating most of his time to working with paints. He was an outsider, both by virtue of his location far from the center of the art world, and the fact that he was self taught.

Untitled 10, 1991, acrylic on canvas, by Claude Lawrence

Miss Rita, 1991, acrylic on canvas, by Claude Lawrence

But a year or two ago, the wind shifted direction, and a body of his work emerged from a storeroom where it had been hiding for many years. Collectors and galleries took note. Two pieces were shown in the Hamptons. Several more went to a gallery in Santa Fe. And suddenly, Claude Lawrence found himself in the collections of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, The National Gallery, The Brooklyn Museum, NOMA (The New Orleans Museum of Art), and The Studio Museum in Harlem, among others.

Which just goes to show you that hard work really does pay off, even if it takes awhile.

The Gerald Peters Gallery in New York is currently showing his work and the sky seems to be the limit. The show is up through March 26 and MOMA is sponsoring a reception and artist talk at the gallery this Wednesday (25 March) from 6 – 8 pm if you want to learn more.

Invasion, 1998, acrylic on paper, by Claude Lawrence

Untitled 190, acrylic on paper, by Claude Lawrence

Another thing I really don’t need, but totally want regardless

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Petronas Sign, by Brian Alfred. On view at Ameringer McEnery Yohe through March 14.

Petronas Sign, by Brian Alfred. On view at Ameringer McEnery Yohe through March 14.

Hands down, the award for best tittle of a gallery exhibit this season goes to painter and animator Brian Alfred. It Takes A Million Years To Become Diamonds So Let’s All Just Burn Like Coal Until The Sky Is Black is up at Ameringer McEnery Yohe in Chelsea for just one more week (through 14 March) and is absolutely worth the long trek through the cold and snow to go check out.

His (mostly) large scale graphic paintings are inspired by auto racing, but to me they seem more about the thrill of speed and how the regular world is abstracted when you move so quickly through it, and less about showy cars and the road. I say this because I can’t for the life of me imagine ever wanting a painting of a racetrack, or anything to do with one, and yet I absolutely fell in love with one of the smallest pieces in the show, Petronas Sign. I suppose I always did have a thing for signs…

One of these days I am going to be a person who goes to galleries in Chelsea and actually buys things. But for now, I count myself lucky to be able to experience and have my mind expanded by work like Brian’s.

It never hurts to be reminded of the potential diamond in every piece of coal.

Yesterday, at some point…

dustin yellin

Last night we went to the New York City Ballet and were treated both to 3 breathtaking and seminal works by Balenchine and to Dustin Yellin’s life-size multi-layered explosive chaotic ethereal glass collage sculpture installation pieces. They are called Psychogeoraphies and were commissioned as part of the NYC Ballet’s Art Series.

They are not to be missed.

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Yesterday, at some point is a series of photographs that describe a moment I experienced during the previous day (mostly). The posts are meant to be stand alone images, though at times I can’t control myself, and I end up expanding the caption into a more lengthy bit of text. Hopefully the extra information is useful, or at least interesting. If not, feel free to ignore it.

El Anatsui!

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Anthem for A-Nu by El Anatsui at the Mnuchin Gallery in NYC

A small but powerful woodland elf admires Anthem for A-Nu by El Anatsui at the Mnuchin Gallery in NYC

This past weekend, on our way to yet another Halloween party with our daughter (which, I might add, had quite possibly the best holiday themed snacks I’ve seen outside of Pinterest) we stopped by the Mnuchin Gallery to have our breath taken away by the beautiful work of the Ghanaian artist El Anatsui.

We knew what we were getting into, as we’d seen his work in a retrospective at the Brooklyn Museum and literally couldn’t stop talking about it for weeks afterwards. Josh and I had a friendly-ish who-can-take-the-best-photo-of-the-show competition, which we both lost. The work is monumental and tactile and three dimensional in a way that makes it difficult to capture with an iPhone. And yet I continue to try…

Metas II by El Anatsui

a detail of Metas II, one of the pieces in the Mnuchin show.

This detail gives you a bit of an idea of how the pieces are constructed… they are sculptures and quilts and installations all in one, transforming locally common found objects (basically trash) into profound and moving pieces of social and cultural commentary. El Anatsui has been described as a post industrial african urban pointillist, and while that doesn’t roll off the tongue all that easily, I think it’s an accurate description of his work.

This Art 21 video does a great job of describing his process and is well worth watching. Even my 6 year old daughter was mesmerized.

The exhibit, consisting entirely of work made in the past year, is not to be missed, and it’s open through mid December. If you can’t deal with the upper east side, there is another show of his work at Jack Shainman in Chelsea, but you have to get there before the 15th of this month. If you want to learn a bit more about the work, check out this slide show on the New York Times’ site… it has images from the Brooklyn Museum as well as a bit more information about the artist.

Disciples, by El Anatsui at the Mnuchin Gallery.

Disciples, by El Anatsui at the Mnuchin Gallery.

Every time a new person walked into the space, you could hear them gasp with wonder. In these strange and uncertain times, with so much craziness going on in the world, it is lovely to know that there is still a way to tap into our childlike sense of wonder.

Please go and see this man’s work and tap into yours.