April and Art in New York

by Virginia Westphal Uhl


I grabbed the chance for a free place to stay, and headed to New York City for five days of gallery and museum crawling. My own work has addressed time, place, and spiritual connection. Since leaving school (SJSU MFA Spring 2009), my new dream is to make art with the potential to promote social justice and peace and reconciliation. I hope to open American’s hearts to the people of the Middle East. Defining this new direction is challenging and I am researching narratives. While in New York, I sought art that responded to issues of social injustice. Here is what I liked best:

1 Kent-Gallery,-Irving-Petlin,-GazaGuernica,-2009-oil-linen-diptych

Having read about Irving Petlin (Art in America, Mar.2010), I sought out his work, particularly Gaza/Guernica at the Kent Gallery in Chelsea. Alas, the gallery was closed the week I was there, but this painting is also in the current show, Mad Men (through May 1, 2010) http://www.kentgallery.com/exhibitions/2010/02_men/13.html.

2 Dumas,Sleep-of-Reason,-09small3 Dumas,-Mindblocks,-09,-small

I found Marlene Dumas’ Against the Wall painting exhibition, at David Zwirner, gallery powerful and painful. http://www.davidzwirner.com/exhibitions/206/. Dumas (originally from South Africa, now living in the Netherlands) paints quickly from news photographs. These works, mostly completed in the last year, are rendered in Dumas’ minimal, gestural technique of quick dry strokes. Known for figurative paintings, she says here she wanted to “tackle space” rather than “always zoom in on the human body and the human face”. One self-portrait, however, with the evocative title of The Sleep of Reason is included.

4 Dumas,-Figure-in-a-Landscape,-2010-smaller

The title of the show, Against the Wall, reflects the literal nature of its content as well as Dumas’ political sentiment and artistic process. She states she is “not against the State of Israel or the state of Palestine, but I am against the wall”. The titles of some of the works depict their subjects, but also her struggle with her medium, as she says, “A painting needs a wall to object to”.

William Kentridge

At New York Museum of Modern Art, after wading through the hordes of international tourists, I had the opportunity to sit completely through William Kentridge’s Black Box/Chambre Noire, which is part of the William Kentridge Five Themes exhibition. I saw this exhibition at MOMA San Francisco, but was unable to get a seat in front of the magical puppet theatre that is the Black Box. Kentridge has created a mechanical/miniaturized, amazingly analog plus digital, theater to present his operatic story of the 1904 massacre by German forces of the Hereros in the German colony of Namibia. His story includes six eerie and quirky characters that move along their tracks to Sarastro’s aria amid animated backdrops of Kentridge’s drawings.

Kentridge’s interest in the story was its general invisibility, particularly in light of his ongoing questioning of Enlightenment and Colonialism. In the Namibia massacre, the Kaiser wiped out a whole population for the sake of Germany’s honor – the sorts of causes and effects Kentridge sees as still prevalent today.

The Black Box, sung in German, was commissioned by Deutsche Bank for the Deutsche Guggenheim in Berlin. I did understand the narrator, Megaphone man’s, lettering of Trauer Arbeit to mean “grief work”, and having never heard of the Hereros, did get the gist. I am going to school on genius and Master of social commentary, William Kentridge.

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I visited the Whitney Biennial http://www.whitney.org/Exhibitions/2010Biennial, and wanted my money back. The last Biennial I saw was 2006. That show was somewhat uneven, but I came away with a real appreciation for the conceptual underpinnings of the art in that show. This year’s exhibition was sophomoric. Generally, when the work was conceptual, it was too intellectual. There was a broad mix of mid-career and emerging artists. Many of the mid-career artists’ work felt stale, as did the venue itself. Here are some examples of why I was disgusted:

7 Robt-Grosvenor,-untitled,-09,-fiberglass,-flocking-aluminum,small

Sculptures by mid-career artists Richard Aldridge and Robert Grosvenor looked like they were created in the 1960s or 70s (the Whitney Biennial website does not list dates for the pieces). I didn’t understand why they were in a 2010 exhibition of present day contemporary art. I had a similar strongly negative reaction to the work of eight or ten more artists in the show. I left the museum feeling lethargic, not uplifted, even though I liked a few pieces a lot. Dawn Clements drawing was wonderful. It would have been exciting for it to continue around several walls in the room, and I loved the sculpture, Baby, by Thomas Houseago.


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The weather was warm and beautiful in New York, while it was cold and rainy in the Bay Area. Flowering trees were everywhere, and with the exception of dully trudging through the Whitney Museum, seeing art in Springtime Manhattan was inspiring. I’m itching to get into my own studio.

Virginia Westphal Uhl abandoned the corporate world for an MFA Degree at San Jose State University. She paints, produces artist books and works in printmaking.

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