Spirit Faces: Anna-Wili Highfield at Olsen Gruin in New York City

by Christopher Hart Chambers

Up front by the gallery’s storefront window on the Orchard Street strip on the Lower East Side of Manhattan, which is now perhaps the premier location for current fine art, stands a construction of sheet brass shards, with straight, thin brass rods projecting outwards in all directions, extending like rays of light or exclamation points. Each has a pearl at the end. Two life sized cut outs of female hands gloved in black spray paint are scratched with squiggly linear designs revealing the underlying brass color. Towards the base, wingy thingies repeat the five fingers, and other formations of cut out metal sheeting describe a face, a horse’s leg and hoof, a braid, and assorted crumpled abstractions. This all stands atop a black metal dowel welded to a waist high, four legged pedestal. This display device is used throughout this exhibition of ten free standing sculptures. One piece describes a horse head, another a goat with a hairy beard. The entire showing has a feathery feel, and in fact there are a few feathers involved in constructing the work, as well as reindeer fur, wool, and sea urchin spines. Birds are a frequent theme; and  human faces or masks, and the ever present female hand, either painted black or in blue velvet. Spikey protuberances abound and swirling appendages all allude to something about space and time. The work has a sketchy ornamental flavor; she avoids solid concrete form, instead indicating presence through innuendo in whispy renditions wherein the animal and human subjects are dreamlike stand ins for intention. They’re like like a glam rock fashionista Max Ernst. There are also a few small works along the same vein mounted on the walls.

Ms. Highfield hails from Sydney, and the work gives the impression of spiritual or mystical, even metaphysical allusions. The exhibition’s title, Spirit Faces, clearly refers to aboriginal culture. (Ms. Gruin, the gallery director, hastened to inform with a wink, “We are not a marsupial gallery. We do show some of the best work coming out of Australia, but we also represent talent from all over.”) Mounted on the back wall of the gallery is a life sized rendition of a roaring male lion’s head. Dangling rope and yarn complete his mane. So, indigenous wildlife is not Ms. Highfield’s exclusive inspiration, it is more about chimera. Near the lion, a fragmented human mask has a couple of tweety birds flitting about it. Loopy wires suspend the little birds while visually acting as trails to their paths of flight. Throughout the exhibition whirling brass wires enact an indication of the invisible made tangible; indicating time and motion. The recurring theme of feminine hands lends an element of self portraiture to the work; a portrayal of the interaction between the physical act of the artist’s creative practice and the more ethereal nature of her subject matter.

Journey of the Spirit: Jizi at WhiteBox in New York City

Jizi, art, china
Jizi, Ark from Heaven, 2013, ink on paper, 124 x 249 cm / 48.75” x 98”

by Dominque Nahas

JIZI: Journey of the Spirit is an eye-opening exhibition of exhilarating contemporary shanshui style works made of ink on paper by one of the originators of China’s “New Ink Painting” school of artists, Wang Yunchan (1941- 2015), otherwise known as Jizi. Jizi was not academically trained but was an erudite self-educated individual steeped in Eastern and Western traditions of literature and painting. His own mature paintings have multiple ideational provenances. One of their origin points is a style of fifth century Chinese painting that emphasizes fantastical imagery to with mountain and water images, and are further grounded in later tradition of formal brushstroke developments exemplified through the work of landscape painter Shi Tao (1642-1707) and his canonical writings Thoughts on Painting. Jizi only became known to a wider public in the Chinese art world and beyond in the last ten years of his life, that period of production taking place in his modest studio in the Guanzhuang district of Beijing. By that period of his life he was consistently honing his works, eliminating all unnecessary elements, making monumentally dense, powerful works, “…whose large brushstrokes…” as described by art historian, museum curator, critic and the artist’s son Wang Chunchen in his monograph on Jizi’s life and art, “…made the voids seem like strokes and the strokes seem like voids.”Dr. Wang continues, “…Naturally, my father’s life was devoted to exploring his own art, but when he found a form that he believed to be his own, it was an art that belonged to China.” Such a statement also confirms my feelings about how unique Jizi’s aesthetic achievement – taking traditional ink painting, remaining true to a great degree to its originary principles, rules and objectives as written down in theses by literati masters of eons past while simultaneously taking ink-painting out of its culturally-circumscribed Asian identity and making it, somehow, come alive in a universal way to audiences in the East and West has not gone unnoticed. Jizi’s mature work took decades of devotion and intense willpower to achieve. His legacy is quite remarkably a brilliant amalgamation of traditional brush effects brought to the point of intense expressive urgency that while remaining securely rooted in centuries-old Asian ink-wash painting tradition, also tips the work into the realm of spectral imagination, into what Westerner art-historians would call romantic, even symbolist territory. Jizi’s artworks, like their ancient predecessors, are philosophical musings infused with Daoist imagery and motifs and stress the interrelationship of the human presence vis-à-vis the cosmic universe. In order to make this point such paintings have traditionally depicted tiny figures in vast landscapes (although Jizi does not included direct depictions of the full human form in any of his work;) to depict the vastness of the cosmos that is beyond human comprehension. Again, traditionally, such paintings depict natural forces by suggestively painting the landscape using a variety of naturalistic patterns, outer conditions suggestive of inner states of mind or moods, all of which invoke the way of the Dao. Jizi takes on this painterly tradition, remains true to its essential primordializing and essentializing spirit, but ramps it up, hybridizes it. Jizi has tremendous powers of invention, even wit, but without a hint of irony. Through his

Jizi, scroll, japan
Jizi, Ark from Heaven, 2013, ink on paper, 124 x 249 cm / 48.75” x 98”

astounding brushwork he finds ways and means of anthropromorphisizing the Dao (for example using the image of the boat in Ark of Heaven of 2013, and the use of a radiant human profile set against celestial halo in Sky Aura, 2009) as he teasingly inflects transhistorical cultural Western snippets in the work. For example in Between Earth and Sky of 2009 his global landscape places that might as well be drawn from an interplanetary sketchbook one sees crenelated structures referring to the great Wall, crumbling, set against drawn the ruins of Greco-Roman pediments and entablatures. It is impossible to see such passages in Jizi’s work and not reflect on Thomas Cole’s 1837 Course of Empire: Desolation painterly masterpiece, a meditation on the forces of history and eventual disintegrating passage of earthly ambitions and powers. In many of Jizi’s later work we sense that he invokes a circulatory stream of Western influences that reverberate through his works. When we gaze at Jizi’s exalted, ferocious brushstrokes, his cascading, swirling line work that captures the interplay of voids and plenitudes we feel something ancient but also remarkably alive and pertinent to our own time, something cinematic. Jizi’s works have kinship with the mystical throbbing of visionary science-fiction movies of the like of Andrey Tarovsky. In Jizi’s paintings we feel the space age and space traveling to the infinite reaches of the cosmos just as much as we are in the presence of Ming and Sung masters of the brush and ink. Whipsawed into yet other time and space continuums Jizi’s artworks also lead us into the imaginal depths of demiurgic worlds and underworld scenes with their concomitant sensations of dread and oceanic awe in the drawings of William Blake, the scintillating glints of clouds and air in the most numinous engravings of Gustave Doré and the mezzotint illustrations of John Martin. His visual energetics that compel the postmodern mind’s eye to take in what he has to offer, which is unnervingly complex and contradictory. Jizi’s artworks are unexpectedly large–scale while his brushstrokes, depictions and compositions have an exhilaratingly fierce quality to them that bespeaks both of estrangement and deeply sonorous feelings of rapture. The apotheosis of Jizi’s aesthetic mastery and fervid complexity is embodied in his monumentally sized masterwork The Great Scroll of Dao which is 1 meter high and 40 meters long. This artwork giant scrollwork contains no images of humans but is strictly confined to multi-dimensional shifting perspectives of changing landscape elements pertaining to air, water, sky, water and rock. The Great Scroll is staggering in its complexity and rapturous beauty with passages that stun the mind with their imbricated passion and delicacy. In this work all of the varying passions, sensations, feelings, sensations, thoughts of Jizi are embodied through the application of his brush and ink on paper. In doing so he created a self-portrait of his innermost being, depicting a variety of patterns that refer and infer to cosmic and vital chi energy that courses through this, what is essentially an abstract painting that crackles with devotional intensity and psychical alertness.

dArt International Back Pages

by Steve Rockwell

“Stuart Regen, a prominent art dealer and the executive producer of the highly successful film Leaving Las Vegas, has died. He was 39.” So read the August 20, 1998 obituary in the Los Angeles Times. Earlier that year Regen had been featured on the cover of the premier issue of dArt International with his dog, Gordo. Regen was delighted to have had Gordo as the cover dog for the feature story, Gallery Dogs. Shaun Caley, Regen’s widow confided in me that he had proudly showed it off to the nurses in the hospital.

dArt International, really an afterthought to the bookwork, Meditations on Space, ended up serving as a continuation of it – the magazine now a basket into which leftover material might be tossed. The photos of Stuart and Gordo being prime examples. The Gallery Dogs cover story was inspired by the many dog lovers that I encountered in the gallery world through the book project. My Regen entry read, “I walked from North Almont and down the lane to the Regen Projects Gallery. Gordo the dog observed my approach. Chip said, ‘Gordo is like the symbol of the gallery. He’ll lick you to death.’ Gordo jumped up on me. Chip said, ‘Down, Gordo! Down…’”

In my opening editorial column I described the dArt project as a whim, missives that would have to be fired, one dart at a time. The seeming casualness of tacking together these “darts” has long since evaporated. I’ve had to climb into the silo, from time to time, in order to recalibrate the launch coordinates. The current flipping over dArt back pages has much to do with this recalibration and foundational inspection process.

Looking back, without my visits to 175 art galleries in Europe and North America between September 1995 and January 1996, it is unlikely that there would be a dArt magazine. The compilation of material for the book served as an introduction to the gallery world as a whole. As Los Angeles art dealer, Dan Bernier, observed after I suggested that my project was really a performance, “Well, if you look at it that way, you’ve got yourself a hell of  a resume.”

Going back even further, those Meditations on Space gallery notations have a direct link to the 1988-89 Gallery Space project, a floor sculpture shaped by the documentation of 64 visits to art galleries in Toronto. The threads of these works spring from an interest in Sol LeWitt’s oeuvre, particularly his Location of a Square drawing and Variations of Incomplete Open Cubes. While I liked that LeWitt’s forms were executed by means of a set of instructions, I found their wording needlessly complicated. By limiting variables and enlisting galleries to participate in the filling out of a simple form, Gallery Space, the sculpture, would develop over time through the data it generated. Not only did structural details take shape, such as the positioning of door in an open cube, but the project turned out to be a machine to fulfill its own exhibition. Gallery Space and other information-based works of mine had their solo exhibition at the Arnold Gottlieb Gallery in Toronto January 1989. Tom Gottlieb, the 63rd participant, had asked me, “Are you exhibiting these anywhere?”

Steve Rockwell, Gallery Space (Form #57), 1988
Steve Rockwell, Gallery Space (Form #57), 1988, laser print and ink, 11″ x 8.5″

The Gallery Space piece had been my response to the proliferation of personal computers. I had hoped to show how data collection framed as a simple program might produce a work of art. The gathering of information had been made personal through their performance. In order to have the form filled out by the gallery personnel, it was necessary to make a successful pitch. Out of 69 of my presentations in the gallery project, five had declined to take part. A vital component of the piece had been a participation that somehow needed to be wrested by means of a contest. The arena of action had been a 64-square game board, the model of which I carried around with me when making my pitch.

On the other hand, Meditations on Space, having been global in scope, simulated surfing the net. Instead of a virtiual hit, my plan was to show up in person. The encounter was subsequently recorded in my book, Dominique Nahas noting that it resembled a “Tweet.” In his introduction to Meditations on Space, Earl Miller viewed the documented gallery visits as a “…meditiation to satirically critique the stereotype of the art gallery as a self-contained space for an Essentialist, spiritual experience.”

The premier issue of dArt was collated and stitched at our dining room table with the help of a group of friends. A few days later I was on a plane to Los Angeles for its release. From the list of art writers provided for me by Lynn Sharpless at Angles Gallery, I drew my first dArt editorial contributors. Michael Darling is now Chief Curator at the Museum of Contemporary Art, Chicago. Jan Tümlir has accrued multiple teaching credits throughout California, and he maintains his contributions to leading art publications.

By the time the third dArt had been lobbed, the L.A. roster had grown with the addition of Michael Duncan, Jody Zellen, Christopher Miles, Jeremy Rosenberg, and novelist Bruce Bauman. Later contributors included Clayton Campbell, Shana Nys Dambrot, George Melrod, Craig Stephens, and Peter Frank. The acid intonations of Duncan’s cover story in dArt #3, Testing the Fabric of the New Color Field, burned holes, not only in the then much-hyped New Color Field, but into the prevailing 90s culture mores generally. Of it, Duncan wrote, “with its fear of emotion and penchant for easy cynicism – has turned vacuous simplemindedness into a comic, nihilistic style: the slacker esthetic.” His critique on the Luckman Gallery, Cal State LA show, Color Fields, tagged Monique Prieto, Laura Owens, Ingrid Calame, and Pae White, as slackers. Duncan rather championed the work of artists Linda Besemer, Polly Apfelbaum, and Penelope Krebs.

My first New York contributors came about through a meeting with Gail Swithenbank through artist Carl Skelton. Gail had worked with Review magazine. From the list of art writers, with which she had provided me, April Kingsley and Dominique Nahas had responded. I had a positive meeting with April at a wine bar in Soho. She had liked that I didn’t muck up my type with superfluous graphics. Dominique invited me to the studio of his wife, Margaret Evangeline, in Chelsea. He assured me that it would be fun. Once past the clunky, metal door, and into Margaret’s studio in the Starrett-Lehigh Building on 26th Street, it was a transit from dimly-lit concrete into this blinding white, expansive space. On a hot Manhattan summer afternoon, a selection of cold beer and white wine was welcomed. Joining us was early dArt contributor and friend, artist Carl Skelton. We perched on stools in the studio’s galley kitchen. Dominique wanted to know a bit about the philosophy behind dArt. After my hopscotch from floor sculpture to book, and from book to magazine, Dominique made the request to be my New York editor. My reflexive response was, “Sure,” to which I received a kick from Carl, sitting next to me. Leaning forward, he mimed under his breath, “You don’t know who he is.”

From here, dArt’s New York contingent grew. Jeanne Wilkinson, like April and Dominique, had written for Review, while Robert Curcio had contributed to Cover, both journals having long since ceased publication. Christopher Chambers contacted me soon afterwards. Robert Mahoney had been recommended by Dominique. Gae Savannah, Kóan Jeff Baysa, D. Dominick Lombardi, Valery Oisteanu, Thalia Vrachopoulos, Mary Hrbacek, and Edward Rubin continue to contribute for dArt. I got to know Ed at San Antonio’s Luminaria event as part of an art press group. I met Dominick Lombardi, dArt’s U.S. editor, at one of Roger Smith Hotel’s Lab Gallery dinner openings. We got together in Chelsea the next day and came up with a plan to reach other U.S. art centers. Dominick made the connections. With the help of Joe Seipel in Richmond, Virginia, and Bill FitzGibbons in San Antonio, Texas, we put together theme-based issues of dArt focusing on each city’s respective art scenes.

From the start, art fairs fit the dArt mandate and gave it a boost. Just as the internet had been a formative influence on the magazine, doubtless the art fair phenomenon was greatly helped by the connectivity that the internet made possible. Robert Curcio, co-founder and co-producer of the Scope Art Show, described the conditions that gave rise to the art fairs as being, “a perfect storm.” Scope debuted their fair in May 2002 at the Gershwin Hotel in New York. It was here that dArt caught the east coast art fair wave that washed up in Miami later that year.

Robert Berman in a Julian Wasser photo
Santa Monica art dealer Robert Berman in a Julian Wasser photo. Wasser’s photo behind Berman has Duchamp Playing Chess with a Nude (Eve Babitz) at a Duchamp Retrospective, Pasadena Art Museum, 1963

A few years earlier, the Absolut Vodka-sponsored L.A. International Biennial Art Invitational had helped give dArt some West Coast exposure. The fair had been an opportunity for local galleries to work with international galleries, and for artists to show internationally. For many it would have been the first time. The fair’s co-founder, Robert Berman regards it as “a success for all. It should happen again. Let’s find another Absolut!” His partner in the project, William Turner would, no doubt agree.

With dArt now in its 20th year of publication, I’ve had the nagging feeling lately that its founding blocks are being papered over by the pages of the magazine itself. Yet, dArt was never intended to be a work of art in the conspicuous sense. However, I continue to make it the subject and substance of my own art practice. Lately, it has taken the form of paper-making. There is enough of an accumulation of back issues to lay the groundwork for a new body of work. In that sense, it’s a return to the beginning. My effort has been, it seems, about the ground of art itself – its making, exhibition, and subsequent written critique.