Friday, October 29, 2010

Chelsea: The Best Show in Town

If you're headed for the Chelsea gallery district in New York, as we were yesterday morning, here's a great way to go: get yourself to the 14th Street subway station and walk west on 14th to 10th Avenue, where you'll find stairs leading up to the wonderful High Line Park, recently reclaimed from an old elevated railway line that ran up the west side of the city, above the traffic. The steel railroad tracks are still visible among the plants and grasses and small trees that line the boardwalk...

... high above street level and the city's constant roar, and you're offered fine views of the river and the city below. Here's a glimpse of the Empire State Building...

You end up, currently, at the lower end of the gallery district, at 20th Street, where there's a charming piece of entropic art by Valerie Hagerty.

But work continues on a northward extension of the path, just visible through the chain link fence.

Now you're going to have to forgive me for a rave. We saw a great deal of art in Chelsea, much of it ho-hum, some of it more appealing to the eye and mind. But I'm choosing to ignore the rest and write about the Best Show in Town. (Well, I have to admit I haven't seen them all, and a good number of the big-name galleries were closed for installation. But I'm choosing to call this the Best Show in Town.)

It's at the Jack Shainman Gallery, and the artist is a Cuban named Yoan Capote. The show's title is "Mental States." The first work we encounter is a massive seascape in stark, deeply impasto'ed black and white...

(The decent images come courtesy of the gallery; the crummy ones are mine)

Gaze at it for a while, approach it a little more closely, and you discover that what you thought were thick swaths of black paint are actually densely massed barbed fish hooks. Suddenly, the huge painting becomes not merely beautiful, but dangerous.

Though epic in scale, this is poetic work which relies heavily on the richly associative quality of metaphor. (I'm reminded very much of the tradition of magical realism in Latin-American literature--a tradition also evident in Latino art of recent years.) The next work we come across in Capote's show is a crude representation of the Stars and Stripes, created out of bricks and mortar. A parallel pair of videos...

... allow us to watch its creation, cut out as a rectangular window from a wall that opens out to a view of a blue stretch of ocean, and we realize that this work is not only an object of seductive beauty in itself, but also a poignant reminder of the split between the United States and the tiny island so few miles off its coast; the flag embodies not only the spirit of freedom, but also its denial--a poignant symbol of the wall that seals off access to the promise.

That promise is evoked again in Capote's large-scale fish-hook paintings of New York.


Though he lives in Cuba today, the artist experienced first-hand the siren call of the Big Apple on a visit a few years ago, and these paintings powerfully suggest both its seductions and its dangers for an artist--and an immigrant. The barb of the hook is unmistakable.

It is said that all art is political. If you take the time to think it through, the politics of Capote's art range from international issues of freedom, world capitalism and the history of colonialism to the personal and sexual, and its themes are as evident in the objects he creates as in his paintings. Compare, for example, the massive "Status Quo"...

... to the more modestly-scaled "Beautiful People."

The former, despite its avoirdupois and its seriousness of intention, is a rather humorous indictment of social injustice and inequality, in which the scale of the ordinary, dull bronze is heavily outweighed by its huge, polished golden counterpart. "Beautiful People", when closed, evokes the serene minimalist aesthetic of a Donald Judd...

Opened up, it delights in every form of sexual penetration know to the human species...

The politics of human sexuality is pursued in secrecy, beneath the polished veneer of respectability. (Pornography, by the way, is strictly censored by the political authorities in Cuba.) Capote is not afraid to have fun with his subversions.

I love the way Capote is able to make art that is at once beautiful to look at, radically simple in its compression of idea and image, and radically complex in associative meanings. It's the kind of art that compels you to keep looking even when you think you've got the message, whose presence is a reminder of the best of which we humans are capable. The exquisitely carved pair of sneakers in Carrera marble is at once a humorous commentary on the pretensions of art history, the "market" and the "value" of art, and finally nothing more than an admirable, beautiful and seductive object in itself.

(This image should be white, white, white!)

If ever I saw a "museum-quality" show in a commercial gallery, this one is it. It is extraordinary not only in its range, depth and scale, but also in the quality of the artist's workmanship and the passion of his ideas. If I had any influence with museum curators, I'd say, Take note!

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