Francis Bacon once wrote, "Read not to contradict and confute; nor to find talk and discourse; but to weigh and consider." The sentence exaggerates. Some books are maligne and require contradiction. As Dr. Johnson knew, talk is one of the pleasures of life, and if books enrich conversation, then so much the better. But the sentiment is surely right. We need to allow the ideas of others to act upon us, to try them on to see if they fit, to live with them for a while to test their humanity.
The same holds for the visual arts, and it was in the spirit of Bacon's advice about reading that I toured some galleries in Chelsea. A man of books and not brushes, I fortified myself with two more knowledgeable friends. Matthew Milliner, a student in art history at Princeton, shares my skeptical eye and critical assessment of the contemporary art scene. Like me, he is quick to contradict and confute. John Silvis is the founder and director of the New York Center for Art and Media, a thriving semester-in-New York program for students at Christian colleges and universities sponsored by Bethel University. He enjoys both a more informed and more sympathetic view of the relationship between Christian faith and today's art world. John's voice speaks in favor of weighing and considering. Happily, we all take pleasure in talk and discourse.
Located on the west side of Manhattan, Chelsea is an extraordinary phenomenon. Home to more than two hundred commercial galleries, most congregated from 23rd to 26th Streets between 10th and 11th Avenues, a visit can be overwhelming. Much of the work on display is little more than expensive contemporary kitsch, an equivalent of Saturday Evening Post cover art for our present age of well-paid, transgressive self-congratulation. Yawn. Some is lovely but geared toward satisfying a market for bland, decorative pieces that can give a contemporary look to corporate offices. That's better than posters labeled "Inspire" or "Courage," but it's not something I need to go to New York to see.
But John knows the gallery scene well. He took us to see some good and interesting work. It's a tour worth repeating.
A good place to start is an extensive exhibition of Tim Hawkinson's work at the PaceWildenstein (525 West 22nd Street). Currently featured in a show at the J. Paul Getty Museum in Los Angeles, Hawkinson is an influential figure, an artist's artist whose work in a wide range of media has an incomplete, exploratory feel that invites further development.
The title of the exhibition, "How Man Is Knit," conveys Hawkinson's interest in the plasticity of the human body. A ceramic sculpture titled "Head Plant" is a vase filled with a half dozen stems, each capped by an ear or a nose or lips. A series of photomontages manipulate body parts to create mouths within ears within noses within fingers.
One need not go into very many Chelsea galleries to see that Hawkinson's interest in reconfiguring the human body is a dominant theme in contemporary art. A dismembered, disfigured, dissected, and rearranged human body seems to preoccupy the aesthetic imaginations of many contemporary artists. And is this surprising? We live in an age of body piercings, sex-change operations, donated sperm, and rented wombs. These forms of cutting and inserting and rearranging seem almost quaintly modest in light of scientific promises of a soon-to-be-perfected system of genetic engineering. Before long we will be cutting and rearranging at the most basic level. By my reading of his work, Hawkinson shows us our culture of physical manipulation, but he does little to help us understand or formulate a moral response.
An interest in human flesh and its aesthetic possibilities animates the work of a rising star, Glenn Brown, on exhibit at the Gagosian Gallery (555 West 24th Street). The show features a number of oil paintings that blend high baroque and rococo visual dynamism and color with fleshy textures drawn from inside the human body. For example, an oval painting seems to capture the movement and rich, decorative detail of Jean-Honoré Fragonard's "The Swing" while transposing the billowing gown and texture of foliage into masses of muscle and tissue stripped of skin. The effect feels like a combination of frescos in the great Jesuit church in Rome, the Gesu, with the notorious contemporary exhibit of dissected humans, "Bodies," that was first shown in Germany and is now on tour in various U.S. cities.
The gallery notes for Brown's exhibition give us the usual tired buzzwords: perverse, carnivalesque, disturbs. I thought otherwise. Laying aside the histrionic use of color, Brown's paintings have an immediate aesthetic appeal because he is transposing his own vision into the some of the most perfectly composed scenes in Western art. His work is no more disturbing than the thought of Cezanne filling in a coloring book of Old Masters. Like the rococo tradition Brown draws upon, the effect is quite conservative, made all the more so by the many layers of quotation from the visual tradition of Western art.
The exhibition of Michael Kalmbach's large-scale, vertically oriented watercolor paintings at the Robert Miller Gallery (524 West 26th Street) was one of the highlights of the day. The depth and richness of his watercolor technique compels the eye, and his archetypical, dreamlike figures are evocative. The gallery has unfortunately placed one of Kalmbach's least interesting pieces in the window, a comic-pornographic scene that could be titled "Pinocchio Does Deep Throat." But don't be put off. Once inside you will find the work of an artist engaging and interesting.
One painting is composed of three brown, primal swirls that spin off small, pale bodies of human life. Another painting portrays a primal Eve who carries all humanity in her womb. These studies of Genesis are winning, but, on the whole, the symbolic universe inhabited by Kalmbach's figures suffers from the idiosyncrasy and incoherence of invented mythologies. This is a widespread problem for contemporary artists who want to give their work a narrative setting. The post-Christian West lacks a settled visual vocabulary. And an adolescent imagination sometimes dominates, another common limitation these days. Nonetheless, in this exhibit there are paintings that I found myself wanting to take home.
David LaChappelle is a photographer best known for his ability to capture (and celebrate) the raunchy, spray-on glamour of contemporary celebrity culture. His new work, "Awakening," is on display at the Tony Shafrazi Gallery (544 West 26th Street). LaChappelle shows a striking interest in unashamedly didactic and non-ironic themes of judgment and cleansing by water. A large mural of computer-manipulated photography depicts an apocalyptic flood that destroys consumerism (Starbucks) and empire (Caesar's Palace). A whole series of photographs of individuals suspended in water and illuminated by soft, diffused light suggests baptismal transfiguration. Another photomural shows us churchgoers shocked by the reality of grace that illumines a flood-destroyed church.
I found myself thinking that LaChappelle, heir to the establishment Warhol tradition in New York, wants us to see something new. In these images, the glamour of our fifteen minutes of fame gets washed away in water and judgment rather than winked at with the knowing eye of critique. If this is a sign of the times, then maybe I can hope for a wholesale cleansing of the haughty, dismissive knowingness that dominates elite culture.
The large photographic images of Andreas Gursky, on exhibit at the Matthew Marks Gallery (523 West 22nd Street), ravish the eye. His pictures of Formula One racing teams servicing their cars are tensed with human energy and technological beauty. Imaginary volcanic islands ("James Bond Islands") are remarkable studies in gray and green that achieve brilliant compositional harmony. A racetrack in Bahrain takes on an abstract black-and-white beauty. These are fully realized works of artextraordinary and timeless.
One can only see so much in one day, but I recommend pressing on to a see the video works of Bill Viola at the James Cohan Gallery (533 West 26th Street). Viola's work is part of The Tristan Project, a multimedia production of Wagner's Tristan und Isolde. These videos shimmer, pulse, and plunge with the passion and mystical ambition of Wagner's music. One is visually compelled and manipulated, and, in that sense, Viola's work is Wagnerian in effect. After seeing Viola's videos, I now regret that I missed the May 2nd and 5th performance of The Tristan Project at Lincoln Center. I guess I'll have to wait until it comes to Omaha.
R.R. Reno is an associate professor of theology at Creighton University.