Michael C. McMillen's 'The Entropic Taxi; Final Destination' at the Palais de Tokyo, Paris

"In a decaying society, art, if it is truthful, must also reflect decay." - Ernst Fischer

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To enter Michael C. McMillen's new installation at the Grand Palais -- Entropic Taxi; The Final Destination -- visitors need to open a creaking pair of double doors below a spot-lit wooden sign that announces their destination: ELSEWHERE. I'm betting that the hint of existentialism will go over well in Paris.

Once inside, they discover curious patchwork dwelling accented by a rusted-out 1930 Citroën Rosalie perched at a tilt above a pile of leaves. The car is an elegiac image: a forgotten relic that moldered in the Loire valley for decades before being hauled into Paris for McMillen's piece. Most of the other materials used in the installation came from McMillen's home in Santa Monica: he still lives in the home where he was raised by his grandparents and he has been collecting evocative junk for decades. Paris is the "final destination" of a great deal of California debris from the artist's backyard...

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McMillen's piece is one of a flock of installations assembled by co-curators Mary Brugerolle & Gérard Wajcman as part of an exhibition titled All that Falls: "From the Berlin Wall to the Twin Towers, the twenty-first century was born in the fall," they philosophize in the exhibition catalog's opening statement. Along with twenty-three other artist/particpants McMillen was selected because his art deals with the dialogue between decay and redemption.

Like other installations he has previously created in the United States, Entropic Taxi; Final Destination combines detritus, cultural artifacts, street signs and even film. The entire installation was built with a 5 degree tilt in both the walls and floor: McMillen notes that this "produces an odd sensation in the visitor that is hard to identify at first."

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Inside the installation's ramshackle dwelling -- a kind of post-industrial hobbit house and workshop -- they eventually come across a chair that faces video tower. This "curious stack of analog technology" shows four of McMillen's surreal homemade movies, which are there both to add narrative suggestions and to entertain.

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One of the goal's of McMillen's piece is to "take you out of Paris," and the quirky, abandoned vibe of Entropic Taxi certainly does that. The Citroën Rosalie that tilts outside might be seen as a symbol roaring-20s optimism, a relic of the brief window of optimism that was felt in Europe before so much of Europe fell to Fascism and Hitler. It is truly one delicious piece of rusted-out automotive history. Of course, Mc Millen has put it in front of you to let you see if it holds any symbolic meaning for you as an individual. If he has done his job, the beautiful decay of his installation will remind you -- as the curators of All that Falls propose -- that "There are falls, which, like curtains, reveal and open our eyes."

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All photos courtesy of Michael C. McMillen

Video: Michael McMillen prepares for his Palais de Tokyo Exhibition:
Final Destination from zac t on Vimeo.

The Entropic Taxi; Final Destination
All that Falls
The Palais de Tokyo
Through September 7, 2014

Artists:

Ronald Amstutz, Vasco Araújo, Julien Bismuth, Jean-Pascal Flavien, Dominique Ghesquière, Lola Gonzalez, Camille Henrot, Willy Kautz, Agnieszka Kurant, Julie Legrand, Urs Lüthi, Michael C. McMillen, Steve McQueen, Philip Metz, Deimantas Narkevicius, Tony Oursler, Daniel Pommereulle Benoit Pype, Delphine Reist, Lili Reynaud Dewar, Jimmy Robert, Miri Segal, Pablo Vargas Lugo. And with the participation of: Felix Baumgartner.

Universal Humanism or Identity Art? Which Works Better for You?

Whenever I meet people I always approach them from the standpoint of the most basic things we have in common. We each have a physical structure, a mind, emotions. We are all born in the same way and we all die. All of us want happiness and do not want to suffer. 
- the Dalai Lama XIV in The Art of Happiness: a Handbook for Living
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Nathan Oliveira, Couple with Red, 2003
Oil and galkyd on polyester canvas, 50 x 42 inches
© The Estate of Nathan Oliveira

When I look at the late Nathan Oliveira's painting Couple with Red I feel very strongly connected to its dual human presences who in turn are strongly connected to each other. Even though the two figures offer up only the scantest specifics Oliveira has invested them with a strong sense of humanity. Their rust-colored world feels separate from mine but I feel warmly invited into it. I really don't need to know exactly who the figures are as individuals: they are universal figures who share the "basic things" that the Dalai Lama mentions in his sagacious quote.

Couple with Red is an apolitical painting about how our humanity connects us and what we have in common. I'm going to characterize the approach of this painting as "Universal Humanism." It emanates an optimistic and utopian feeling of commonality. One of the essential elements of friendship -- and of a healthy society -- is the feeling of commonality.

When we as individuals feel excessive difference from others our social connections fracture and we retreat into smaller and smaller circles: I think of these metaphorical circles as "tribes" that keep us divided and create competition and conflict.

Yes, contemporary tribalism is a major problem -- just think about American politics and you will instantly know what I mean -- but commonality has its pitfalls too: hate groups can be built on themes of commonality.

Still, we all need friendship and we all need human connections. We can't survive or thrive as individuals or create any meaningful sense of identity without friends. In our polarized, fast-changing, aggressive society -- one in which the "self" is always being made insecure by consumerism -- personal identity is a fragile construction that needs to be defended and protected. Not surprisingly, identity is one of the leading themes of contemporary art.

In innumerable paintings, performances, videos, and installations, Postmodern artists concerned with identity have made political, sociological, cultural and personal points about the particularities of their situations. Gender, sexual orientation, ethnicity -- and other factors that have historically circumscribed, damaged and defined the lives of both groups and individuals -- are the raw material of Identity Art, which presents itself as being in opposition to hostile social and historical forces and contexts.

I am rather susceptible to Identity Art because it holds the possibility of broadening my understanding of others and increasing my empathy. I use art museums and galleries as my churches, and Identity Art -- when it works -- can be a kind of sermon that tells me how I might become a better person by understanding the situations of others. That is, of course, exactly what the artists who make Identity Art have in mind.

One artist who deals with identity in a way that speaks to me is Kerry James Marshall, whose works in many media have commented on race and black identity in a way that consistently strikes me as both authentic and aesthetically accomplished. Marshall, whose work is deeply rooted both in African-American history and his personal history has commented that: "You can't be born in Birmingham, Alabama, in 1955 and grow up in South Central [Los Angeles] near the Black Panthers headquarters, and not feel like you've got some kind of social responsibility." I buy that, and if I had the bucks I would buy his work too.

If you don't know Marshall's work take a few minutes to watch the video below and you will get a feeling of what his work looks like and where he is coming from.

   

 Of course, not every artist who deals with identity is as accomplished or articulate as Kerry Marshall. And not all Identity Art is good art: not by a long-shot. 

This brings me to one of the major problems with Identity Art: it can create a situation where really lame art seems to resist criticism because it stands for "good" progressive values. There is a great deal of Identity Art being made now that is shrill and contrived, but which gets a free pass from critics and curators because it presents its message as sacrosanct. As someone who writes about contemporary art I know that if I make critical comments about a work of art that deals with racism there is a chance I may be singled out as being racist, even if it is the aesthetics of the work that leave me cold. Identity art connects directly to hot-button social issues and that makes critical appraisals a real minefield. 

Speaking of minefields, a recent blog posted by Ryan Wong on Hyperallergic -- I am Joe Scanlan -- caused a number of small explosions. In his blog Wong -- a curator and writer -- claims that he invented an artist by the name of Joe Scanlan who was carefully designed to "test the limits" of what he calls "straight white male positionality within in the art world." Joe Scanlan, as Wong tells the story, invented Donelle Woolford, a black female artist. 

Amazingly -- or not amazingly, depending on how cynical you are about the New York art world -- Woolford's "work" was included in the 2014 Whitney Biennial. Ryan Wong claims that he was surprised "how long it took for the Joe Scanlan/Donelle Woolford project to be identified as racist." Here is the kicker: Wong's blog was a parody that added another layer of commentary to something real. Joe Scanlan is in fact a real artist who really did invent Donelle Woolford and who really does teach art at Princeton. 

There is a lot to discuss here, but for me one thing really stands out: I'm amazed that the work created by Scanlan for his invented artist Donelle Woolford actually made it into the Whitney. Woolford/Scanlan's contribution to the show included an off-site performance called Dick's Last Stand which "explores the central role given to the male sexual organ in both American art and politics." Isn't there anyone in New York with a sense of humor who immediately recognized that as parody, not art? Of course, I didn't recognize Wong's blog as a parody until it was pointed out to me. 

While heads spin and comment wars rage over all of this actual artists are left dealing with serious moral and philosophical questions such as "what do I want my art to say about the human condition?" One way that artists in the western tradition used to make statements about humanity was through allegory: they created stories and figures that symbolize and stand for ideas about human life. There seems to be a resurgence of ambitious allegorical painting going on right now -- I think I need to write a full blog about that -- but I'm presenting Patricia Watwood's remarkable Sleeping Venus below to provide an example.

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Patricia Watwood, Sleeping Venus, 2013, oil on canvas, 40" x 40"

In one sense Sleeping Venus is Identity Art: Watwood's allegorical image of the power of beauty as a tool of enlightenment has a hint of feminism about it. At the same time, it has something in common with the qualities that I admire in Nathan Oliveira's art. Sleeping Venus is a universal symbol of beauty, not a particular woman. If you have been looking at too much Identity Art -- or if you are determined to seek out every shred of political suggestion in every work of art -- you may see her as a privileged white woman.

When I look at works of art I am more interested than ever in a single question: "What do I have in common with the artist who made this?" Identity Art has its place -- although I do worry that in the wrong hands it can actually create divisiveness -- and I'm not going to say that we don't all need to know about the world's mis-alignments and injustices. Its just that at this point in my life I am so much more interested in what I have in common with others than in how we might be different.

Of course, I am a privileged white male, so maybe being able to approach art and people that way is my luxury. I'm always open to discussing that possibility...

'Oneira: I Dream the Self' at Studio C Gallery in Los Angeles

I recently made my way to downtown Los Angeles to view Oneira: I Dream the Self, a group exhibition which dealt with the personal interpretation of dreams from a female perspective. Oneira was organized by Peggy Nichols, an artist who has transformed her working space at the Santa Fe Art Colony in Los Angeles into an open-by-appointment gallery and also a space for artist's workshops. Her creation -- Studio C Gallery -- is dedicated to exhibiting and emphasizing the work of women artists as a vehicle in bringing attention to the feminine characteristics and trademarks of art making. 

After the show closed I was able to interview Peggy and ask her more about her gallery, the exhibition, and the the current situation of women artists.

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Peggy Nichols: the founder of Studio C Gallery

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Visitors at Studio C Gallery at the opening of the exhibition Oneira: I Dream the Self

Tell me how you got started giving shows in your studio? Also, what was the theme of the show you gave last year?

It's taken some time to find a "real" studio. I lived 20 years in a one bedroom apartment. I substituted a studio with a homemade tent that I had built out in the backyard. It was about the size of a pop up. It was ideal for awhile but became too small a space, as I started to produce larger work.

 I have often dreamed of having a sizeable enough studio where I could do my work but also create a salon type atmosphere, where other artists could come teach or share their work. This dream materialized about three years ago when I found a 2,200 sq. ft. studio space available at the Santa Fe Art Colony, in downtown Los Angeles. I jumped at the chance without hesitation.

  Studio C Gallery started from doing a two person show with my studio mate. That show received such a great response, I decided to do another show the following year. I had often thought of collaborating with other artists, in organizing a group exhibition. For years, I have been diligent in getting my work shown but gallery representation has eluded me. I've heard the same complaints from other artists, especially women artists. I thought, to myself, "I have the space, what if I go ahead and organize a show regardless and see what happens?"

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Serena Potter, All Her Cares, Oil on Panel, 32 x 36 inches

I started looking for artists about a year before I organized the show. I ended up with seven women artists. I chose artists that worked from the figure, which is my area of study. Last year's show was called The Disciplines: An Interpretation of the Figure by 7 Women Artists. The word Discipline is connotative of study or practice. Mastering the figure takes years of commitment. With this show, I wanted to emphasize women artist's abilities in this area. It's important to realize that women artists are just as proficient as men. The discipline show's intent was to show, to any viewer, that women are just as dedicated and accomplished. That was my purpose for doing the discipline show, as well as more shows to come.

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Jill Sykes, Ondoyant, Oil on canvas, 18 x 12 inches

What are some of the themes and ideas present in the works of Oneira: I Dream the Self

When I sent out the Open Call for the Oneira show, I asked artists to submit work that possessed their personal interpretation of dreaming. It could be unconscious dreams as in dreaming or conscious dreams as in imagination. I looked for pieces that reflected both. I might add here, that we received hundreds of submissions from women artists all over the world.

There were way too many submissions for me to handle myself. I asked my esteemed colleagues, Betty Ann Brown, Ph.D, Professor of Art History, California State University, Northridge and Ada Pullini Brown, Associate Professor of Art, Rio Hondo College, Whittier, CA, to assist me in jurying the show. We were astounded at the quality of work we received: it was truly impressive.

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Carolin Peters, Summoned, Oil on canvas, 84 x 114 inches (triptych)

I believe that some of this work has a varietal quality. Some work had similar characteristics of dreamscapes or characteristics that we might experience in normal dreaming but there was also a psychological element to the work. For instance, one piece of work, in particular, reflected a personal transition. This is evident, I believe, in Carolin Peters's prodigious painting Summoned. The subject of the painting seems to be of a woman who has walked through the dark night of the soul. She has survived the journey with two powerful steeds, positioned squarely at her side.

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Betty Shelton, The Trouble with Transcendence, Oil on paper, 30 x 40 inches

In another painting, The Trouble with Transcendence by Betty Shelton, a female figure lies motionless on a bed, cocooned in sheets. At the foot of the bed, stands a tattered dress form, looming at us in the foreground. It seems to suggest that we (women) have a difficult time transcending our false image and beliefs about ourselves. It could refer to idealism in beauty or the irrational fear we have of aging. These kinds of themes were an added bonus to the show. Dreams are mysterious even unnatural by our terms of normal conscious reality, but I believe there are aspects of dreaming that deliver messages to us if we are attentive. This is what I find fascinating about dreaming.

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Peggy Nichols, Dream of Crystal Diving, Oil on canvas, 48 x 60 inches

Can you briefly mention and describe a few of the works in the show?

Dreaming is a physical transformation into the unconscious, where our bodies can shape shift into whatever we desire. Tamara Ann Burgh's painting, Important Things Happen in the Woods has that characteristic with a metamorphic feeling. A woman stares back at us intensely, with acid green eyes. Antlers protrude through the top of her head. Her mouth morphs into a hawk's beak. She stands alone, at night, in the woods under a full moon. She exudes the fortitude of a shaman.

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Tamara Ann Burgh, Important Things Happen in the Woods, Watercolor, 22 x 18 inches

Many dreams have elements of the past in them. For example; we might dream of objects, such as toys or childhood friends. Seeing yourself as a child is quite common too. In Robin Hextrum's painting, Swept Away, a child's rocking horse floats, listing into the waves. The rocker lies on it's side, ready to submerge into the depths of the water.

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Robin Hextrum, Swept Away, Oil on canvas, 34 x 56 inches

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Salem Cade, Ripley's Garden, Oil on canvas, 36 x 32 inches

In Salem Cade's painting, Ripley's Garden, a fair-haired child stands in her Mother's dress, ready to enter a darkened attic room. An opened book, a letter and an old embroidered handbag lie nearby. She seems to represent crossing the threshold of childhood or the loss of innocence.

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Rowena Hannan, Prokne, Earthenware, 12 1/2 x 11 3/8 x 9 3/4 inches

Rowena Hannan's sawdust fired clay sculpture, titled Prokne, is a figure of a pensive child, sitting cross-legged, with a birdcage shaped head. The door of the birdcage is flung open yet she sits grounded, her apparent freedom unnoticed. Embossed by silkscreen onto the surface of the sculpture, in Greek text, is a prose from a Greek myth.

The story goes. Prokne was the daughter of Pandion, King of Athens. She had a beautiful sister named Philomela. Prokne was betrothed to a cruel husband,Tereus of Thrace. He raped her sister Philomela and cut out her tongue to keep the rape secret. Unable to speak, Philomela weaves a robe to divulge the rape to her sister, Prokne. The sisters plan to revenge the rape by killing Prokne's son and feeding him to Tereus. After Tereus finishes the meal, the sisters produce the head of the beheaded son. He realizes what has happened and pursues the sisters with an axe. As they are about to be overtaken by Tereus, the sisters pray to the Gods to be turned into birds. Prokne is turned into a swallow and Philomela is turned into a Nightingale.

 The prose reads: "Sister, my sister, O fleet small swallow. Thy way is long to the sun and the south but I fulfilled my heart's desired."

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Eleni Lyra, Archangel, Installation with photo, cloth and light (3 sets of hanging panels) 9' 9" x 6' 9"

Eleni Lyra's voluminous installation piece, Archangel, goes a bit further into the perception of archetypes appearing in dreams. There is a theory that we all dream together, that recurring themes appear over and over in our unconscious mind. For instance, the Archangel is a familiar figure in religion, art and mythology. Eleni's piece encompasses the room with layers of hanging sheer panels, as delicate as gossamer wings, depicting a sleeping woman. An angel appears behind her in radiant light.

 She is unaware of the vision as she sleeps in peaceful repose, behind floral curtains. The viewer is the witness of her dream or transformation.

 It is often that unusual objects appear in our dreams: something that we might pick up and use but has no functionality.

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Robyn Nichols, Noxious Lawn Companion. Medicinally complete. Beautifying Contradiction
Sterling silver (fantasy place setting), 16 x 14 x 9 inches

Robyn Nichols's sterling silver fantasy place setting is titled: Noxious Lawn Companion. Medicinally complete. Beautifying Contradiction. The plate and goblet are made of sinewy vines and sharp leaves of a dandelion, in sterling silver. The cutlery is fashioned into shapes that seem to swirl and drip. They seem to be in motion: they are objects that you may not feel like you can get a hold of. Her pieces have no function, other then to marvel at their imposing beauty.

How do you feel about the current situation of women artists, and specifically representational painters? 

If you ask the average educated person, which artist they admire the most, they most emphatically will choose a male artist. If you probe further and ask who their favored female artist is, they are hard pressed to say. A majority of the time they will give you a blank stare. Women artists are breezed over in Art history classes. It is a given. This is a real shame.

There may not be many noted women artists recorded throughout history but the few that made the list have been phenomenal artists. We seem to think that the world has changed dramatically better for women and in many ways it has but not so much for women artists, I believe, regardless of what anyone says. Women artists are not held in the same regard as men.

I believe that women artists are getting more exposure then ever before but if you look at statistics it still is not where it should be. I am referring to Micol Hebron's ongoing art project: The Gallery Tally. The statistics do not lie. Getting gallery representation for women artists is difficult.

It is interesting. When I was looking at women artists for the Discipline show, it was very difficult to find figurative artists. I found few woman painters doing figurative, representational work. Most are conceptual artists or abstract painters. This was surprising to me. Are artists inclined to follow trends because it may be easier to get into galleries? I wondered about that. I had a gallery tell me once that they thought I should incorporate street art into my work, such as graffiti before they would consider in handling my work. That floored me. I didn't know what to say. Figurative work can be considered old fashioned.

It seems that Art schools are rarely teaching classical drawing and painting technique these days, so interests lie in other forms of creating work, which is valid. Artists have always been tuned into the higher universe, the cause and flow of what is to come. It matters not, but for me, I am a perpetual student of the classical. I believe wholeheartedly that this is the base from where all artists should start, no matter where they end up.

What are some of the workshops you are planning?

 We have three Workshops planned this summer, at Studio C. Karen Atkinson of GYST, Inc. is doing a workshop designed to help guide artists through the important aspects of becoming an organized, professional artist. Then there is a workshop featuring both nude and clothed models in long poses for painters. Finally, Bill Perkins -- an art director at Disneytoons Studio -- will be doing a 3-Day intensive color workshop in late July.

There is information about all of these workshops available on the Studio C Facebook page.

Studio C on Facebook 

Oneira: I Dream the Self 

Participating Artists: Kaleeka Bond, Shaktima Brien, Ada Pullini Brown, Tamara Ann Burgh, Salem Cade, Rowena Hannan, Pamela Hassell, Robin Hextrum, Laura K. Johnston, Kathryn Jacobi, Eleni Lyra, Mary Ancilla Martinez, Hanneke Naterop, Peggy Nichols, Robyn Nichols, Star Padilla, Sierra Pecheur, Carolin Peters, Serena Potter, Linda Rand, Karrie Ross, Lorraine Serena, Betty Shelton, Jill Sykes, Hope Their, Page Turner, Shelli Tollman, Melora Walters, and Kimberly Webber

Zombie Conceptualism: The Next Art World Trend?

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On April 3rd of this year critic Walter Robinson first identified and blogged about "Zombie Formalism," a multi-various and market-savvy approach that he sees as characterizing a recent clustering of artworks that have proved popular with art world speculator/flippers. I'm not sure if Robinson thinks the collectors or the artists are the Zombies that his new ism refers to, but I find the name he chose for this phenomenon grimly apt.

"Zombie Formalism" tends to be easy to understand and it favors novelty and off-hand effects and images: you can be newly "undead" and still get it. Because of its air of easy-going warmed-overness, "Zombie Formalism" seems to have some attitudes in common with "New Casualism," a related set of trends in abstract painting.

What would happen -- I have wondered -- if some of the deadpan hipster apathy of "Zombie Formalism," and also some of its grim self-confidence, were to hybridize with Conceptualism? Could "Zombie Conceptualism" be next?

Would we get effortless, tossed off conceptual jokes designed to entertain the "undead?" It seems like we already have "Zombie Performance," what with scrotums being nailed to Red Square and an artist eating his own hip.

I'm thinking that "Zombie Conceptualism," might just take some of the forms and directions you see pictured below...

Zombie Conceptualism


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Badly Restored Jesus-ccino, Cocoa on latte foam, approx. 3 inches (diameter)

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Homage to Magritte, Vinyl letters on door, 78 x 30 inches

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CASH FOR YOUR ABEX!, inkjet print on copy paper on mailbox, 8 ½ x 11 inches

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My MFA Show, Alphabet soup letters on cream of tomato, 6 1/8 inches (diameter)

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Whatever, Finger-graffiti on fogged window, dimensions variable

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Low Budget Jenny Holzer, toe-writing in wet beach sand, 26 x 59 ¾ inches

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All Roads Lead to Art Basel, Wood-burned letters on Cedar, 4 1/4 x 17 1/2 inches

At Bergamot Station: Great Paintings for Every Taste

On a visit to Los Angeles a few days ago I saw enough terrific paintings to last me for awhile. I'm going to keep this blog short -- the images can do most of the talking -- but I do want to tell you that if you love painting you are going to be be impressed by the quality and variety of what you see at Santa Monica's Bergamot Station the next time you drop by.

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Robert Swain: The Form of Color
Installation at the Santa Monica Museum of Art, 2014, Courtesy of the Artist
Photo by Jeff McLane

After making my way through the exhausting L.A. traffic, walking into Robert Swain's installation The Form of Color at the Santa Monica Museum of Art was a refreshing and soul-cleansing experience. The installation, which is described as "immersive" is made up of 12 inch squares of color and is exquisitely and seamlessly installed and lit. I took an iPhone panorama -- the SMMOA is very nice about allowing photos -- that hopefully gives some idea of the unfolding and orderly serenity that one can feel just by scanning Swain's enveloping panels.

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The author's iPhone panorama of Robert Swain's The Form of Color

Sitting on one of the benches in the museum's main gallery now feels a little like being surrounded by Monet's late "Nymphéas" at the Musée de l'Orangerie in Paris: but the clarity and sense of order is unique. I don't think of myself as being a fan of hard-edged painting, but Swain's installation converted me. It is really, really beautiful. You would think with all those years of college behind me I could say something more original than that...

Moving right along, if you like looser approaches than Swain's -- much looser -- don't miss the spectacular two-man show featuring Ed Moses and Larry Poons at the William Turner Gallery just footsteps away from the SMMOA. The idea for this pairing apparently hit William Turner at Ed Moses' 85th birthday party three years ago when he noticed Moses and Poons standing on opposite sides of his gallery.

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Artist Ed Moses with his paintings Edward #1 and #2

Both artists are accomplished veterans -- Poons is 76 and Moses is now 88 -- and the sheer bravura confidence that each brings to their contrasting approaches is thrilling. Moses has a variety of works on view including some of his amazing "craquelare" works -- they are made with acrylic and other undisclosed ingredients -- as well as some "waterfall" and "grid" paintings.

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Larry Poons, Diamond Jim, acrylic on canvas, 76 1/2 x 102 inches

Because Poons' works need to be seen up close to be appreciated, I took some iPhone videos of his exquisitely glooby surfaces. Click on the video below for a quick virtual bird walk through one of his canvases:


At Copro Gallery -- in Bergamot's "T" building just north of the SMMOA -- artist Adam Miller is showing four oil paintings and three drawings under the title "The End of Arcadia." Miller's theatrical and carefully staged paintings explore a heavy theme -- the end of the American Empire -- but do so with images that can only be described as challengingly beautiful. After seeing Robert Swain's immersive color installation and the dazzling painterliness of Ed Moses and Larry Poons, Adam Miller's show is going to offer you something completely different.

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Adam Miller, Apollo and Daphne, oil on canvas 72 x 48 inches

Miller's paintings -- which are activated by the artist's dual commitments to Humanism and anti-authoritarianism -- show just how carefully their creator has studied Italian art and brought its narrative possibilities into a contemporary American context.

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Adam Miller, Night Watch, oil on canvas 60 x 72 inches

Hard-edge abstraction, painterly abstraction, contemporary realism/humanism: you can see superb examples of all three approaches at Bergamot Station all in about a 75 yard radius.

Another art-loving friend of mine has reminded me -- in talking about taste -- that "You have to stir the pot." If you can get to Bergamot Station before Adam Miller's show closes on June 7th and see the three shows mentioned in this blog, I can guarantee that your pot will indeed be stirred. If you don't like something you see there I will give you back the money you paid to read this blog: which is free. So is visiting Bergamot Station where parking, admission to the Santa Monica Museum of Art and admission to all the commercial galleries is also free.

Exhibition Information:

 Robert Swain: The Form of Color
The Santa Monica Museum of Art
May 17 - August 23rd

Ed Moses and Larry Poons: The Language of Painting
The William Turner Gallery
May 31 - July 19th

Adam Miller: Twilight in Arcadia
Copro Gallery
May 17 - June 7th

April Nordbee: Small Town Duchamp

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April Nordbee, a 29 year old mother of two who lives in Swedborg Falls, Wisconsin, has found her life completely changed over the past two years, all as the result of a lucky keystroke error she made during a Google search that caused her to discover the life and work of artist Marcel Duchamp (1887-1968). Nordbee's subsequent transformation from an LVN into a nationally recognized conceptual artist has both shocked and electrified the rust belt town of 35,000 where she grew up. "April certainly has shaken us up," says Roger Ballens, the town's mayor, "but she has also put us on the map and given the local economy a real shot in the arm."

"I was doing a search for duck stamp," Nordbee explains, "and I had just typed the 'c' in duck on my computer when my four year old Kevin slammed his T-Rex onto the keyboard to get my attention and BOOM up comes Marcel Duchamp on Wikipedia. After putting Kevin on his Elmo chair for a time out, I started to read about Duchamp -- Why not? I thought -- and when I saw the picture of his bottle rack I literally got goose bumps. It was like Duchamp was speaking to me personally, telling me 'Anything can be art and anyone can be an artist.'"

It was the first time Nordbee had ever heard of Duchamp -- a revolutionary modern artist who is considered the grandfather of Conceptualism -- but her interest in art wasn't anything new. Always good at drawing, a colored pencil sketch she made of a unicorn in 8th grade had earned her a second prize ribbon at a local fair, and Nordbee says that she would have either attended beauty school or art school had she not become pregnant with Cody, her oldest boy, who arrived just after high school graduation.

The years that followed graduation weren't easy ones: April and her sweetheart-turned-husband Ed had to move in with his parents while Ed learned welding at a local trade school. After baby Kevin arrived a few years later April was able to get her nursing degree by attending night classes, and the couple had been able to move to their own apartment just before Ed was laid off. "Things had just started looking up for us when Ed lost his job," Nordbee recalls, "and we didn't want to fall back on our parents again. If I hadn't discovered Marcel I don't know what we would have done."

"On the day that I accidentally googled Duchamp Ed was out earning some cash doing landscaping work. My head was just literally swimming thinking about Duchamp and I wanted to find a way that Ed could share in my excitement when he came home. I called my mother, who came and took the boys to her place for a sleepover, and then I got busy quickly. I put some chicken in the crockpot, turned Kevin's tricycle upside down in front of the fireplace and lit the fire.

When Ed came home he found me buck naked sitting at a chessboard with the wheel of Kevin's tricycle spinning gently behind me. I handed him a joint and said to him: 'I need to tell you all about the work of Marcel Duchamp.' I had been thinking about how to explain Duchamp to him, but he got it right away. He knows that all the manufacturing is going to China and when I told him being an artist means just signing things and becoming famous he was right on board with it. After I made a pledge to him -- 'neither of us will ever have a real job again'-- we made love on the floor next to the chessboard. It was the most beautiful night of our lives."

The next day Nordbee quit her job at a local manor care facility and had an image of Duchamp tattooed on her left arm. The bold tattoo, which showed Duchamp behind his famous "Bicycle Wheel" was her way of letting her family and friends know that she was a new person now: an artist who was re-making her life to reflect the art and ideas of a dead Frenchman they had never heard of.

Two weeks later Nordbee entered her first readymade -- simply titled 'Blender' -- in the annual juried show of the Swedborg Falls Art League. Although her piece was rejected by the exhibition committee Nordbee signed the work 'A. Nordbee' with a black sharpie and made free margaritas in it outside the local Kiwanis Hall during the opening night of the art league show, drawing quite a crowd. She also handed out over 200 postcards -- purchased earlier in the day at a local Christian bookstore -- each featuring a printed image of Jesus. Nordbee had altered each card by adding a touch of lipstick to Christ's lips with a red pastel and penciling the words 'He's got a hot ass' on the card's lower edge. When a brief story about Nordbee and the altered Jesus cards appeared in the Milwaukee Patch the next day, the blog went viral and comments had to be disabled. The cards became a hot item on eBay, selling for as much as $375.00.

Nordbee soon got a call from Bill Raines, the pastor of a church she had grown up attending:

"I stayed calm and told him that I still loved Jesus, but that Duchamp had shown me that you aren't going to get any attention for your work if you don't take a shot at some famous person or symbol or at least sex them up a bit. Besides, I know for a fact that his church was totally packed when he did a sermon about my piece the following Sunday: he actually e-mailed me to say thank you."

As a result of the Patch story, Nordbee also began to hear from a lot of out-of-towners, including a curator from the Milwaukee Art Museum and another from the Dia Art Foundation in New York. "I didn't know what a curator was at first, but I got that sorted out pretty quickly" Nordbee states. "They were very, very interested in me and the curator from the Dia told me that I was as a woman artist re-doing a man's art career I was a really big deal and that I could get grants."

A month later she was in the news again with a large-scale event called 'In Advance of Corporate Downsizing' that took place at an abandoned air conditioner plant. "Duchamp understood that artists and viewers are both participants in whatever the art is," Nordbee comments, "So I knew I had to go all out to show everyone a good time. My sister and I made an installation by hanging all the old broken equipment and tools we could find from the ceiling with wires, and then I signed all the urinals in the men's room. Ed had the genius idea to attach one of them to a beer keg so that if you flushed you could fill up a beer stein: you should have seen the line for that!"

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"In Advance" opened at 5AM on November 23, 2012 -- Black Friday -- and was billed as a "performance, concert and alternative to shopping at WalMart." A long queue of visitors, mostly young people and a lot of out-of-towners, snaked past the enlarged photos of Duchamp that had been bolted to the plant's fence, paying ten bucks each to gawk at the hanging tools. As the day wore on there was an ear-splitting concert by a local garage band who had christened themselves "Woman Ray," and a also a growing potluck of casseroles, brownies and tossed salads brought by well-wishers and served on paper plates. April and Ed Nordbee spent most of the day sitting behind a folding table playing chess on the plant's loading dock, selling Duchamp t-shirts, and taking it all in. "People were bringing me their blenders to sign -- I charged them five dollars for that -- and I also signed a few coffee grinders and some Tupperware."

By the New Year Nordbee had received enough attention and national press that her new public image had been secured: April Nordbee is now a brand, and also the subject of at least a dozen PhD theses in progress. "Apparently, I am the first female outsider/conceptualist to come out of this region, " Nordbee states with pride. "My timing was perfect." After her February, 2013 appearance on the Ellen DeGeneres show Nordbee signed a contract with a major gallery: her first show of readymades and signed found objects will open in New York this July. She also has licensing deals with Martha Stewart for a line of signature blenders and stainless steel backyard grills.

Although April Nordbee is now being heralded as a role model and an American success story, not everyone in Swedborg Falls is pleased. Crystal Anne Nordbee, the artist's opinionated 78-year-old paternal grandmother spoke her mind to reporter for USA Today:

"April doesn't call me anymore and I don't call her. Ever since she discovered that lazy-ass artist Duchamp April has become very greedy and self-involved. My late husband and I worked hard for everything we had -- we built this house with our own hands -- and I have no interest in so-called art by people who take no pride in what they put their name on. This country doesn't need greedy artists and overpaid CEOs who sell us over-priced worthless crap made by underpaid people in factories overseas. America needs doers and makers right now, not takers."

Author's Note: This piece is fiction intended as a commentary and social satire. April Nordbee, Swedborg Falls and its citizens are not real. Marcel Duchamp, on the other hand, was a very real and tremendously influential cultural figure.