Wednesday, July 05, 2006

A Change of Pace

We should probably be talking about North Korean missiles today, Bush. Or the crisis in Gaza. Or the death of Ken Lay... but let's have a change of pace instead. Let's talk about art.

It has been on my mind to talk about this since last Friday, when Ellie and I did a round of the West side galleries with a group of the artists we work with. We stopped by a good number of galleries and saw a good deal of work--some interesting, some... not so much. But I want to talk to you about three of them. The only thing they have in common is that they're, well, not newcomers any more. They have reached a respectable ago, something like my own. And they share very special qualities of vision, commitment, dedication.

Let's start with the painter Ed Moses, who has long outlived, triumphantly, all predictions of the death of painting and the superannuation of abstraction. He's an unapologetic and exuberantly abstract painter, at this point such a master of his medium that he makes it look like a breeze. It's not. Reportedly, he throws a lot out. What we get to see is the success stories, the results of years of experience and maturation. His paintings are typically big and bold, and their energy is boundless. They are also beautiful--a quality that, along with the act of painting itself--was for a while considered too embarrassing even to discuss in high art circles. Beauty, absurdly, was dismissed as being "decorative", and therefore beyond the pale of acceptable mainstream art.

Well, look at Moses now, continuing to thumb his nose at art world snobbery. His current exhibition is a series of, um, tapestries--if you can imagine! Nothing more "decorative" than that! And these are tapestries of absolute and impudently stunning beauty. They replicate (enough of a sin in itself, in a world where "originality" is held at a premium) an earlier series of paintings with extraordinary faithfulness to the painterly genius and the spirit of the originals, right down to the energy of the "brushstrokes" and paint texture, and the use of glittery threads to suggest the glitter additive that Moses cheekily included in his medium. The message here is, eat your heart out, art snobs. You spend your time agonizing about theory, aesthetic propriety and relevance to current "issues". How's this for sheer, bloody-minded assertion of the painter's need to follow his own vision without compromise or concession?

Okay, then on to Elsa Rady. Masterful work, again--to use an expression that is maybe loaded with old-fashioned sexist baggage, but still does the trick. Rady's ceramic works have long glowed with a kind of classical beauty (that word, again!), seducing both the eye and the sense of touch--or at least the almost irresistible desire to touch (hands off, though!) and the very real sensual imagination of how it would be to touch, if only you could: you feel this work in the palms of your hands, in the fingertips. Rady's work has always played the line between that vulnerable quality of dangerous fragility and the inherent power of structural strength. It speaks to us of our own human condition, our strength and weakness, the troubling ephemerality of our own nature.

Rady's new work includes "platforms" for her sculptural ceramic objects, suspended elegantly from the gallery ceiling with taut, silvery cables. Her immaculately-crafted, vase-like objects--white, but with a touch of the color of that dark dirt from which the clay originated--rest at different angles on their stands and, below, a single cable weighted with a metal plumb drops to a point just a hair above the gallery floor. The suggestion, as I read it, is that this is all about balance and precision, about stasis and the bare suggetion of the possibility of movement, about safety and risk. The end result is so beautiful, it can take your breath away.

As can the work of the last of these three artists, James Turrell, long associated with the California Light/Space movement that started in the 1960s, and still at work creating wonderful, illusory works in which the only media are, well, light and space. The edges of his wall pieces are so sharp and flat, you're not sure whether the delicate, constantly shifting display of light you're witnessing is on the wall or in the wall. It's a mesmerizing effect.

Then there's the big, gallery-sized work, which you enter only after shedding your outdoor shoes and donning a pair of white booties to protect the purity of the installation. It's blue. You walk through blueness of increasing intensity until you reach, at the far end of the space, the brink of the void. Here, if you stand alone, everything in your peripheral disappears. The space in front of you is undefined by sides, ends, or corners, and your mind takes off, if you allow it, into blue nothingness. If you allow it, time recedes, along with the rest of the gritty detail of your life, and everything is unadulterated presence. For a meditator, it's a seductive invitation into mind-lessness, into the experience of pure being...

There you go, then, Bush. A bit on the esoteric side for today, perhaps, but I trust you'll have gone along with me for these few minutes. With many of your cronies in the US Congress demanding the demise of the National Endowment for the Arts and other such "unnecessary frills", I hope that once in a while you give some thought to the vitally important role the arts play in our lives, and for our need to support and nurture artists such as these--some of whom have few commercial prospects but contribute significantly to our culture in ways that cannot be accounted for financially. I hope your Laura takes the time to explain these things to you from time to time, since I believe she understands them better than you do. I hope you sometimes listen to her, Bush.

(For Southern California residents, you'll find these shows as follows: Ed Moses at Bobbie Greenfield Gallery, Bergamot Station; Elsa Rady at Craig Krull Gallery, Bergamot Station; and James Turrell at Griffin, 2902 Nebraska, a mere stone's throw from Bergamot.)


Fred said...

Thanks for the reviews, Peter. Maybe it's time for another trip to Bergamot Station.

David said...

Peter, thanks for the update. Saw the 2 at Bergamot (loved Ed's tapestries!), but would have missed the Turrell. Was wondering what had happened to Griffin.

nick said...

great, perceptive comments on the ed moses tapestries. i work at magnolia editions, the print studio where the weaving process was developed. if you're interested, more tapestries can be seen at, nick