René Moncada’s exhibition at the Jane St. Art Center beautifully presents some of his best-known artworks. These include videos of his performance art, such as: footage and images of his series I AM THE BEST ARTIST René murals; his ecological performances since 1972 in Venezuela educating the public of the dangers of contaminating the environment; the sculptures of knotted string woven on live models which he identifies as living sculptures; and fascinating sculptures created with Styrofoam and found objects. Much of his work is controversial and still provokes outcry from a wide range of critics. One such work presents a female figure entitled “Miss Construed.”
René arrived in NYC in the early 1970s, where he began a lifelong relationship with his wife Joanne. With her help he focused on his art and was on his way, exploring and experimenting with challenging ideas and materials.
One such work is I AM THE BEST ARTIST René, a huge street mural painted on a 50’ long wall at street level in Soho from the 1970s – 1990s. This was not a static piece. It was tagged over repeatedly by other artists and then repainted over and over by him, a constantly evolving artwork, a constant performance piece. Jane St. Art Center has on display videos and photos of him working on this wall, a fascinating look at an artist in action, engaging with his peers (often hostile to his unabashed declaration of self-worth).
While this remains his signature work, another major theme in his art is his philosophy which claims that women are Nature’s Paragon, which he explains by saying “There is nothing more powerful than that upon which every woman sits; this is indeed the seat of power.” The female vulva and labia are the foundational concept to express his world view and his struggle against censorship in art.
The essence of his work is his respect for, and love of women, and female sexual images are everywhere: discovered in a Mott’s Apple Juice label (later changed by the company!); in beautifully carved wood bas-relief; in his signature drawings of the goddess/woman in flowing labia robes; and in natural shapes like caves. These elegant drawings of forms emerging in space have a delicacy and sensitivity that deny any outside criticism of vulgarity. His daily practice of making these drawings create a quintessential record of how ‘woman as muse’ is central to his art. He has self-named these vulvic forms ‘Renés’. Perhaps unexpectedly, once you have ‘explored’ his way of seeing it is hard not to think of them as a ‘René’.
The performative aspect of René’s work is central to his practice. In one performance series, he knots haute couture string dresses on women’s nude bodies, turning them into elegant living sculptures. The photo documentation of the performance then becomes its own work of art, equally challenging and stimulating.
Moncada’s use of found materials goes back to the 1970s. The string used in his body art and the plastics and metals in his sculpture are all recycled materials. Rock forms made from Styrofoam, a material that has become an ecological dilemma, are hand painted naturalistically and heaped in massive piles or tied in found plastic chains, painted to resemble metal. He also creates ’high art’ sculptures using these ‘low art’ materials, painted to resemble bronze and rock with a dazzling deceptive reality. The rocks resemble the natural formations treasured by the Chinese people called Scholar or Spiritual Rocks, adding another level of interest.
Perhaps his finest work though is his life story, as seen told in video interviews. For example, he was brought to the United States in 1964 to play baseball for the St. Louis Cardinals. In NYC he worked as an art director and illustrator for ‘gentlemen’s’ magazines. In his own unique and highly entertaining way he tells of the women he has met and loved throughout his life and the art that ensued. His sense of humor and his unabashed passion for women’s rights and their essential power shines throughout his work.
Also available at the Jane St. Art Center are the following books:
RENÉ – I AM THE BEST ARTIST, NATURE’S AMASSADOR
DON ONE – THE FIRST ONE – THE LAST ONE – THE ONLY ONE: SAGA OF AN ESTROGEN ADDICT AND THE WOMEN HE MANAGED TO DEBRIEF
Water is life. For those of us who have clean water in abundance, it is hard to imagine what life would mean without it. The lack of clean water overshadows the entire life of women living in countries without it, as it is their responsibility to provide water for the household.
Ethiopian born Aïda Muluneh chose water as the theme for her exhibition at the Textile Museum of Canada, capturing many aspects about the lack of it and how it determines the lives of women and girls, both ecologically and socially, even limiting their access to education and, as an outcome, their chance for a better future.
All the images in the exhibition are focused on the search for water. We are immediately mesmerized by the strong colors and dramatic atmosphere of The Shackles of Limitations. It is the largest image in the exhibition, mounted directly on the wall. It was photographed on the salt lakes of Dallol, so the water the woman walks in is useless. It is a terrible fact that Ethiopia, a country with a great underground water reserve, doesn’t have access to it because of the lack of irrigation – such a sad paradox.
This photograph has so many layers. It is beautiful but dramatic, colorful, realistic and surrealistic at the same time. The beauty is almost idyllic. The woman walking in ankle deep water holding a striped umbrella could be seen at any beach. The sky is cloudless. It must be terribly hot there. The water is so dirty that it doesn’t even reflect the sky. The lines of jerrycans she pulls after herself are not part of a child’s toy but part of her job, as she is supposed to fill them with clean water. All of the cans are empty as she looks and moves ahead. The idyll suddenly turns into a drama.
The colors are outstanding. Muluneh said that she found photography in the darkroom of her high school in Calgary. Eventually she added the primary colours: red, blue and yellow to black and white. The woman’s red dress, the blue sky and the yellow cans create a contrasted composition. The parallel horizontal blocks of the sky, the water and the cans are broken by the standing figure, emphasising her loneliness and the difficulty of her task.
Muluneh describes photojournalism as a specific language. There are realistic elements in this image: the water, the sky, the jerrycans—even the woman. However, through the process of her image-making all her photographs become surrealistic, opening an imaginary gate to another, more spiritual world.
In the cities in Africa, access to clean water is the norm, as Mirage of Privilege shows. White bottles filled with water occupy the background around a woman’s head. The reds dots on the bottles symbolize blood, pointing at the close relationship between water and blood, as we can’t live without both. In the rural areas people are less fortunate. Unfilled Promises depicts the same woman holding a tin cup in the rain. I remember having a very similar, painted and rusty cup in my hand, running in the rain as a child. It would overflow in a few minutes as we had plenty of rain. It may be that in Africa, after long periods of drought people will be full of hope when rain finally arrives. But will this weak rain ever fill that cup?
Inside a house, in front of a blue door a woman sits. The composition reminds me of paintings of the virgin Mary in churches. The woman sits in a Madonna-like pose but there is no child. Her lap is empty. And instead of iconic Christian symbols, cleaning tools surround her, in this piece titled, A woman’s work. The jebena, the Ethiopian coffee pot on the ground represents the woman’s traditional role. The broom shows her responsibility to keep the house clean. In the window on the right sits another version of her, turning our attention to the outside, that also has to be taken care of by women. She looks longingly through a window that opens to the sky on the left side with a promise of a better future. We can only hope that it won’t be another unfulfilled promise.
The woman from the window with the clay water pot (an insera) tied to her back reappears in Beside the door. A better dressed woman with some authority stands in front of the door watching the two women carrying clay water pots, their backs arched, and exhausted, they must make their way back and forth to the water source so many times – and it is not over yet. It hits us strongly that these women work very hard, and their work requires lots of strength and sacrifice; the last being strongly encouraged by religion. Muluneh, as part of a family of mixed religions that include both Christian and Muslim, stated that for her, religion is not a practice, it is a culture and a way of life. She uses imagery from both religions as her photographs are heavily influenced by both cultures. Her colours and some compositions are inspired by paintings in orthodox Christian churches, while the landscapes, customs and most of the motifs comes from her Ethiopian Muslim background.
We are amazed by the rich and beautiful garments the women wear in the photographs. The inspiration comes from traditional regional Ethiopian dresses. They are all bright coloured: red, blue or yellow but differ slightly depending on the social status of the women who wear them. It seems that women having higher status can leave their necks and arms uncovered, while poorer, rural women are covered from neck to toe. All their heads are covered. Their bodies are painted but I see a little more in those colours than just traditional ornamentation. Many women have painted the top half of their faces in dark blue with white in the remaining area. I see two worlds combined in it, as Muluneh was born in Africa and grew up in Canada; a meeting of black and North American cultures; building a bridge between them. As the artist stated in her tour, that being an African means that there are complex layers in them, different interpretations, but at the same time at the core their roots and heritage and their culture are really deep in them and that is what she really wants to celebrate. It doesn’t mean that she focuses on the past. She considers cultures as evolving entities, having an open window into the future as well. Afro-futurism, a hope for a better future is always an important element in her work.
I was glued to the ground in front of the radiant, decorative qualities of another beautiful, staged photograph, Star Shine, Moon Glow. I found it challenging to understand its many layers, the universal and the actual, region related meanings. Like all the others, it is an illusionary composition. The landscape is a desert one with rocks and sand covering everything, a place not suitable for humans. Still a young girl sits in the middle of it. She is looking to the left, into an unseen far distance that I interpreted as her wish to be somewhere else. The white stripes on the road in front of her, that almost hurt my eyes, are leading in a different direction. Still, she sits. There is a huge full moon above the sand and rock in the middle of the background, a scary one, too close to the Earth. She sits there with an extremely strong presence that comes mainly from the bright primary colors with which she has been depicted. The blue of her dress is contrasted by the red wings. Those wings are huge and I connect with them easily. When I was a young teenager, we wanted to fly, high up over the mountains, up into the sky, so, along with my cousins, we started to construct wings, following Leonardo da Vinci’s drawings. We’d steal the metal wires and canvases we needed to accomplish making them, but we were discovered and stopped before attempting flight, so after a good beating our wings were taken away, both literally and symbolically. So, looking at those wings, I thought, I understand this. This is her way out. Then, after taking a second look, I recognized how light those wings were, being made of red fabric – no way they can lift anything. They seem more like decorative elements, like butterfly wings. But still, I knew I had missed important elements of this narrative, so I started over. Being a woman, I knew a full moon can represent our monthly cycle, so the red colour might bring blood into the picture. So, this is a girl at the beginning of her womanhood stuck in the middle of a desert. That was the point, confirmed when I decided to read Muluneh’s comment on the work in order to discover the whole story. I learned that girls can’t attend school in Ethiopia when they are menstruating because of the lack of water in bathrooms. The days they miss every month affects their education. So, instead of flying, this girl is a caged bird. She has little chance to walk the striped road either, as she is trapped by the limits of her natural cycle.
Knowing the way to tomorrow feels to me like a conclusion to the exhibition. The women are still searching for water. In some areas they need to travel a long way to find any. The landscape is a cruel one. The woman in red, carrying the insera, sits on the rock, exhausted. The other woman with the jerrycans stands on the top of the rock and indicates something in the distance — a water well or a better future or both. As Muluneh said about this work, “I assume there must be a glimpse of a thought that she has in the hopes that a better tomorrow will come for those she is caring for.”
Let’s hope that the road will carry them into new worlds of possibilities. Into a better future, to places with social justice, gender equity and above all – access to water.
Images are courtesy of the artist and the Textile Museum of Canada. The exhibition is open till the end of September, 2022 at the Textile Museum of Canada, 55 Centre Ave, Toronto
Ford Crull’s paintings are known for their symbology, gestural forms and kaleidoscopic spaces. Originally from Seattle, Crull emerged in the Lower East Side in the early ‘80s and has continued to exude the rugged spirit of that explosive cultural era in New York City. In his latest solo exhibition, Many Rivers to Cross, recently at the Happy Hour Gallery, Crull embraces an abstract musicality in artworks that have been, for the most part, painted during the Pandemic.
Along with his embrace of prismatic colors and profound lights and darks, Ford Crull presents a quiet spiritualism that has only deepened with time. Hearts dissolve into faces, crosses become clovers and stars, butterflies merge with hearts, and stars melt into astral light. Incomplete asemic phrases, as random as a thought but as profound as an incantation float in and out of the painting straddling both form and meaning. In Now Not Seen a flock of hearts flutters into a blue field while the words “Now Not Seen” float brokenly down about them.
The largest of the paintings, (and the namesake of the show), Many Rivers to Cross has the epic proportions and drama of a true romantic painting as it emanates a glowing musicality. The shimmering golden light through the brushwork of a burning red field has a power and hopefulness as fierce as a bonfire creating the ultimate transformation. It is the ecstasy of space and being, the power of light and dark, and the passage of day to night that is the paradoxical twilight/dawn world of Ford Crull.
Some works from Many Rivers to Cross are curated into the current group exhibition, The Living Water, through September 15 at the Happy Hour Gallery 670 Mtk Hwy, Water Mill. NY 11976
Onirica, an Italian adjective that translates as “dream-like” in English, is the uniting concept of the work of two New York-based artists: Melinda Stickney-Gibson and Gary Gissler. The delicate drawings of Stickney-Gibson are sensitive meditations on the texture of memory as fine lines and forms flicker through layered shadows of consciousness. A tall installation Place for Being, made of layers of thin paper flow down from the ceiling and across the gallery floor in a glowing waterfall of honey-colored vellum. Nostalgic photos are hidden among the folds as well as brief diaristic phrases and hand drawn shapes. As a visual poet, Ms. Stickney-Gibson incorporates written words as suggestive notations, while her brittle paper layers and delicate forms echo the trembling edges of nature.
Gary Gissler’s obsessively microscopic drawings on prepared panels invite close examination with a magnifying glass helpfully provided by the gallery. Profane phrases such as f**k this or f**k that repeat in a meditative repetitive cycle that creates undulating patterns from seemingly asemic writing. This preoccupation with words as symbols representing meaning as well as the actual words created by the literal marks and forms themselves balances representation with abstraction and meaning with aimlessness. Gissler is a master of the power of scale as he compels the viewer to experience themselves reduced in size in order to study the words, and repeat them one-by-one to themselves as they experience the minute and infinitely divisible as mantra.
As in dreams, both artists convey the poetry of symbol and substance at once rational and random, nevertheless relaying a tale of archetypal mythic power for which these artists serve as oracles.
Onirica, a two-person exhibition of paintings and drawings by Melinda Stickney-Gibson and small works by Gary Gissler, runs through 28 August, 2022 at Castello Spaces located at Fondamenta San Giuseppe, Castello 780, Venice, Italy.
Featured Artists: Halldór Ásgeirsson, Heimir Björgúlfsson, Solomon Enos, Leslie Gleim, Hamilton Kobayashi, Mucyo, Michelle Schwengel-Regala, Arngunnur Ýr. Dedicated to the memories of Hawai’i painter Hamilton Kobayashi and French geologist Jean Francheteau. Exhibition Venue: East Hawai’i Cultural Center, Hilo, Hawai’i Island, Hawai’i, USA. https://ehcc.org/content/terra-forme
Terra Forme regards the Earth as a vast, diverse, and dynamically evolving entity. Adapted from the science fiction term: terraforming, the exhibition title describes the long-term transformation of an alien environment to support human life. Kīlauea volcano has added nearly 900 acres of new landmass to Hawai’i Island, but it is only in deep time, geologic time of 25,000 years, that the area will develop into a full and viable ecosystem.
In 2021, the curator flew to view dramatic volcanic eruptions in two disparate global locations: Fagradalsfjall on the Reykjanes Peninsula of Iceland and Kīlauea, the youngest and most active Hawaiian shield volcano located on Hawai’i Island, the largest in the island chain. He was further fascinated by volcanoes that lay beneath different forms of water: Öræfajökull in Iceland threatening massive floods and widespread destruction when its superheated magma violently meets its glacier cap; and the rising seamount, Kamaʻehuakanaloa, that is predicted to break the ocean surface in a conservative estimate of 50,000 more years to become Hawaii’s youngest island.
A gathering of volcano-inspired artworks by artists from Iceland, Hawai’i, and Africa, Terra Forme embraces concepts of geomorphology, deep time, and indigenous beliefs. The paintings by Honolulu-based Hamilton Kobayashi capture the fiery energy and palpable heat of Kilauea’s eruptions. The spectacularly detailed photographic images by Honolulu-based photographer Leslie Gleim taken from a helicopter flying over active lava flows contrast with those of older lava fields rejuvenated by new growths of ferns and ‘ohi’a lehua trees. The paintings by LA-based Icelandic artist Heimir Björgúlfsson portray resilient winged inhabitants that return to and adapt to the new environs of Kilauea’s post-eruption caldera: a koa’e kea (white-tailed tropicbird), pueo (owl), and pulelehua (Kamehameha butterfly).
The concept of new land through terraforming is taken to fantastical heights with the work of Honolulu-based native Hawaiian Solomon Enos and Icelandic artist Arngunnur Ýr. Enos presents a strikingly different vision of new landscapes with flying islands suspended aloft and trailing clouds. Ýr’s triptychs, each linked by a continuous horizon line, are unified panoramic combinations of geographically disparate locations in Iceland, Oregon, and Hawai’i where she has visited or resided.
A lava lake is a rare characteristic of volcanoes and three artists including Hamilton Kobayashi depict it in their artworks. The Rwanda-based artist Mucyo presents a bleach process painting referencing the world’s largest permanent lava lake: Mount Nyiragongo in the Democratic Republic of the Congo near its border with Rwanda. The lava lake in the inner summit crater of Mount Erebus, the highest active volcano in Antarctica, has been present for the last fifty years. Based on her visit there, Honolulu-based artist Michelle Schwengel-Regala created a twisted sculptural abstraction made of multihued anodized aluminum evoking a crater and its rim above which are suspended dangerous lava bombs of the same material that are in real life violently ejected by volcanic eruptions. Iceland-based Halldor Ásgeirsson also presents abstracted works with an entire wall mounted with small colored works on paper that represent elves freed from the lava stones that held them captive until released by a torch wielded by the artist.
Volcanic activities act as potent agents of change not only of topography, but they shape thinking as well. Eruptions have often been interpreted by indigenous communities as the results of godly displeasures. In two separate paintings, the artist Mucyo depicts the Congo-Rwanda sibling volcano goddesses Nyiragongo and Nyamuragira from Africa’s Rift Valley. Eruptions occur when the younger sister Nyamuragira attempts to assuage her older sibling’s discontent. A world away, the artist Enos offers a monochromatic fractionated figure that incorporates the Polynesian volcano goddess Pele (Pere in Tahiti) whose vigorous arguments with her sister Nāmakaokaha’i, a powerful ocean deity, are manifested through active lava flows.
Both installations by Ásgeirsson and Mucyo incorporate volcanic material sourced from their countries, Iceland and Rwanda respectively. Ásgeirsson arranges volcanic glass droplets in a widening spiral that originates with a large lava piece brought from a recent Icelandic eruption. Mucyo’s installation begins with a wall-mounted painting of Nyiragongo that flows onto the floor with scattered pieces of Rwandan mica and feathering trails of black sand. Accompanying this is a live recording of female elders recounting volcano mythologies in Lingala, their native tongue.
The works created by the artists of Terra Forme help us to appreciate powerful natural phenomena that fall outside the boundaries of human lifetimes, experiences, and beliefs, prompting us to reflect about time on this planet, its care, and our place in the cosmos.