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Terrorist or graffiti tagger? Os Gêmeos’s The Giant of Boston

A mural by the Brazilian street artists Os Gêmeos, installed in Boston as part of their first US solo show at the Institute of Contemporary Art, has drawn some divisive comments and stirred up debate about cultural understanding.

The twin brothers painted the 70-foot-tall mural The Giant of Boston depicting a boy wearing a red jacket wrapped around his head in the city’s high-traffic area of Dewey Square (the figure of a shrouded graffiti tagger is a common motif in the artists’ work). But when the local Fox news affiliate posted an image of the mural on its Facebook page and asked its readers, “What does it look like to you?” some responded with bigoted comments: “terrorist”, “towel head”, “Mooselim protected by Obama!” and “a Muslim woman in a head scarf holding an AK-47 in her hands”. The figure isn’t holding anything in its hands, but the image used by Fox features a crane in front of the mural that could look like a gun.


Eric Magnuson
The Art Newspaper


Josiah McElheny’s “Island Universe.”

On the face of it, Bob Dylan’s surreal, sardonic, incendiary poetry has little in common with artist Josiah McElheny’s professorial aesthetic – a sensibility that traffics in science, self-consciousness, and shiny surfaces.

McElheny makes art deliberately, methodically, and critically.

But Dylan cries out for quotation on many occasions, I find. And McElheny’s compelling show at the Institute of Contemporary Art, “Some Pictures of the Infinite,” just happens to be one of them.

“Inside the museums,” sang Dylan in “Visions of Johanna,” a twangy, portent-filled song from the great 1966 album “Blonde on Blonde,” “infinity goes up on trial.”

The same verse goes on, of course, to give us the unforgettable images of Mona Lisa with the highway blues (“you can tell by the way she smiles”) and – in a climax of inspired rhymes – a jelly-faced woman with a mustache saying, “Jeez I can’t find my knees.”

But it’s that notion of museums putting infinity on trial – staking their own claims on timelessness, insulating their contents from the endlessness of the outside world – that lingers in the puzzled mind, and which seems so apposite to McElheny’s “Some Pictures of the Infinite.”

It’s a show, after all, about infinity. It’s also about museums, mirrors, modernism, multiverses, revolution, the Big Bang, and much more.


Sebastian Smee
Boston Globe

Mark Bradford with his work “Scorched Earth” (2006). (A.J. Zanyk/The Ohio State University)

Of the opportunities once facing Mark Bradford, who is 6 foot 8, hoop dreams were probably among the more viable ones.

In the mid-1970s Mr. Bradford, then a teenager, shocked everyone — including himself — by growing 10 inches in a single summer. Strangers on the streets here in his hometown kept badgering him with unsolicited suggestions. “They would say, ‘If I were your height, I would be a basketball player and make a million dollars,’ ” Mr. Bradford said in an interview in September at his studio.

Instead he became an apprentice in his mother’s beauty shop. “It was my first defiant act,” he said.

Now 49, Mr. Bradford has the physical stature and refined, fluid movements of an athlete. But the endpapers he once used for curling hair have since found their way into his abstract collages, with titles referring to musicians like Tupac Shakur and Smokey Robinson. These, along with his political, spoofy videos (in one he’s in a Lakers-inspired purple-and-gold hoop skirt, attempting to dunk a basketball), and mammoth paintings made from layers of glued-together posters torn from the fences of abandoned lots near his studio, have earned Mr. Bradford a 2009 MacArthur grant. And a 10-year survey of his paintings, sculptures and video installations, organized by the Wexner Center for the Arts in Columbus, Ohio, has recently opened at the Institute of Contemporary Art in Boston, where it will remain through March 13.


Dorothy Spears
New York Times

Mark Bradford’s “A Truly Rich Man Is One Whose Children Run Into His Arms Even When His Hands Are Empty.’’ (Joanne Rathe/Globe Staff)

Imposing and even quite grand at a distance, Mark Bradford’s paintings, like the sprawling cities they evoke, suggest ruins up close.

They are ruins — the ruins of other modes of communication, other forms of speech. One over the other, Bradford layers old billboard signs, maps, and street posters. They’re salvaged, shredded, stripped, glued on, and rubbed back.

Working intuitively, he converts all these materials and more into works of art that are dense with history, freighted not only with political and social readings but with an abiding, poignant silence.

It’s the silence that gets under your skin. To wander around Bradford’s superb survey show at the Institute of Contemporary Art is to oscillate between the desire to get up close and even to touch (the impulse to run your fingers over their corrugated surfaces is almost impossible to resist) and a growing sense that you are in fact looking on from unreadable distances, like a general watching a chaotic battle from the top of a distant knoll, or an uncomprehending politician flying high over a disaster zone.


Sebastian Smee
Boston Globe

Spilling across half a dozen rooms at the Institute of Contemporary Art, Tara Donovan’s hypnotic work subdues thought the same way that viral infections subdue the body. Struggling against the initial effect is pointless. Most of these works are so straightforwardly beautiful, so right, that you have no choice but to submit.

And yet, just like the immune system, the mind bounces back – possibly even with a new spring in its step.

Donovan’s show comes exclusively to Boston hard upon the news that she has been awarded a MacArthur Foundation Fellowship “genius grant.” It includes rolls of adding machine paper piled on the floor, Styrofoam cups suspended from the ceiling, and enough plastic drinking straws to cover a wall.
As a proposition about beauty, it is utterly unlikely. But a proposition it is, and it’s one of the most stimulating I’ve come across.

To be bowled over by the beauty of, for instance, oodles of strips of Mylar folded and clustered and arrayed on the floor so they resemble a kind of floor-hugging, hemispherical marine life – at once velvety and glittering, soft and shiny – is not something most of us would anticipate. Nor would many of us expect a transparent wall filled with polyester film – layers of it folding, twisting, and swishing like molten sugar or caramel-colored hair – to be among the most beautiful things you would see all year.
It’s this unforeseeable element that accounts for the delight Donovan’s work prompts.

But behind the delight, qualms lurk. For Donovan deliberately favors materials that most of us prefer not to think about: plastic cups, straws, buttons, toothpicks, Styrofoam, and Scotch tape.

We don’t want to think about them because, when we do, we find them unbeautiful. In fact, when the Greek philosopher Plotinus defined the ugly as that which makes the soul “shrink within itself, denies the thing, turns away from it, resentful and alienated from it,” I’m betting it was precisely the humble plastic drinking cup he had in mind.

Plastic cups and Styrofoam and most of the other materials employed by Donovan represent cheapness, waste, unbridled consumption, litter. Especially when seen in abundance, and abundance is at the heart of what Donovan does: One work here uses more than 1 million 7-ounce plastic cups.

But Plotinus also remarked upon our failure to “habitually examine or in any way question ordinary things.” We would be amazed at these ordinary things, he suggested, “if we were familiar with them and someone explained their powers.”

Donovan doesn’t exactly explain the powers of, say, clear plastic buttons. But she demonstrates properties many of us never expected them to have. One of the finest pieces here, called “Bluffs,” is a structure made from buttons held together by glue. It rises from the floor like a crystalline landscape of Chinese mountains, or stalagmites, or an underwater grotto. As a large structure made from small things, it’s impressive.

But the most remarkable thing about it is that it never comes into focus. The buttons, due to the massively combined effect of shifting degrees of opacity and transparency, blur light, beguiling the eye.

Elsewhere in the show, strips of Scotch tape standing on edge proliferate across a whole floor (“Nebulous”), so they resemble a soft, scattered fog, while Styrofoam cups suspended from the ceiling in biomorphic arrangements (“Untitled (Styrofoam Cups)” are backlit, giving them a warmth and expansiveness that suggest the beneficence of nature.

Of course, it’s nice to encounter almost any proposition about beauty these days – even one as potentially ironic as Donovan’s. Until a few years ago, beauty’s repression in contemporary art was almost absolute. No one talked about it, hardly anyone peddled in it. If they did, they did it furtively, guiltily, always making out that other things – more “important” things – were on their mind.

Beauty has enjoyed a bit of a comeback in recent years. But there has been something willed and strained about the revival. Most recent discussions of beauty are about as appealing as a laborious explanation of a bad joke.

Donovan’s unabashedly beautiful work is a step or two forward from all this. It is not only beautiful, it is relaxed about being so, leaving her scope to admit all kinds of subtleties and ironies into her fantastically simple, if labor-intensive, forms.

Above all, she seems engaged by a very particular trio of contradictions: between contraction and relaxation, between containment and spillage, between coolness and warmth.

The fat rolls of adding machine paper used in “Moiré,” for instance, are tightly wound to hold their spiral forms. But without unraveling them, Donovan lets them sprawl on the floor, nestling against and on top of one another like coiled snakes. Gravity gives them no choice but to relax and spill out of their “ideal” shape. The result is an image of indolence as suggestive as Dalí’s melting clocks.

Or consider Donovan’s large cube consisting entirely of toothpicks. This signature piece resulted from a chance discovery in the studio, which ICA curators Jen Mergel and Nicholas Baume recount in the catalog.

Donovan “knocked over a big box of toothpicks, picked it up, and then noticed that the spilled contents had latticed into a shape that echoed the perfect corner of their container.”

“A lot of art making comes from just paying attention to accidental discoveries,” says Donovan. Her boxes of toothpicks and pins seem marvelous because they set the idea of containment, measurement, and precise proportions against an apprehension of anarchy (let each toothpick fall where it may!) and relaxation (no binding agent holds them together).

For me, the work using polyester film (“Untitled”) was, hands-down, the most beautiful. Commissioned by the ICA for this show, it is a long, thin display case that can be seen from both sides of the wall it occupies, like a stained glass window. Irradiated by light from the harbor, the strips of film take on the magnificent caramel color I mentioned earlier, but they also create strange optical effects akin to a kaleidoscope when seen head-on.

Seen from the harbor looking in, color drains away, but what remains – random linear patterns created by the bunching and layering of the film – is like a grisaille version of the same image, giving it a whole new dimension.

At the beginning of the movie “Sex, Lies and Videotape,” the uptight character played by Andie MacDowell confesses to her therapist that she’s “gotten real concerned about what’s gonna happen to all the garbage.”

“You know,” she continues, “we have to run out of places to put this stuff eventually.”
Donovan finds no helpful solution to the problem, and her work is unlikely to allay our anxieties about mass production and senseless consumption. But it suggests an attentiveness to beauty, in its unlikeliest manifestations, that may be the first condition of any improvement.

Sebastian Smee
Boston Globe

Suffering writ large…”The Two Fridas”, by Frida Kahlo

Among the 15 or so personal questions I throw at artists for the weekly G2 interview Portrait of the Artist, there is one that tends to make people think more than any other – do you suffer for your art?

“Yes,” said both Jane Birkin and Michael Ball without missing a beat – they get crippling stage fright. Painter Lucy Jones, who has cerebral palsy, admitted that she is often in a great deal of pain after kneeling for hours before a canvas. But Herbie Hancock didn’t like the question. “No,” he said. “I just don’t look at art and life that way.”

I was very interested, therefore, to hear what the panel at yesterday’s debate at London’s Institute of Contemporary Arts, called “Should artists suffer for their art?”, would make of the issue. As the art historian and curator Tim Marlow was quick to point out – addressing the packed room alongside collector David Roberts, sculptor and curator Soraya Rodriguez and performance artist Mark McGowan – the image of the penniless artist quietly expiring in a Parisian garret assumed its emotive power during the Romantic period.

So do we, as today’s consumers of art, still expect its creators to suffer? Do we still picture them in a modern-day equivalent of the draughty attic?

The panel agreed on the fact that the vast majority of artists – with big earners like Hirst and Jeff Koons as notable exceptions – find it very difficult to make a living from their work. This fact can be both liberating, allowing them to further push the boundaries without worrying about whether or not the piece will sell, and galvanising, preventing them from settling into complacency and becoming stale. Mark McGowan’s own provocative (and innately difficult to sell) works have included pushing a peanut around London with his nose, and crawling the streets of New York wearing a George Bush mask and an invitation to “kick my ass” (many people took him up on it). He said that artists should strive to preserve art’s “economy of the spirit”, rather than thinking about how to earn a living from it. Soraya Rodriguez agreed – although she said she’d rather refer to the artist’s necessary poverty as a “struggle”. “If life is easy for an artist,” she said, “will their art be any good?”

By the same token, an artist’s more profound suffering – whether emotional or psychological – can often seem to enhance their work. Some works (the paintings of Van Gogh or Goya, the photographs of Robert Mapplethorpe, and the music of Ella Fitzgerald and Amy Winehouse, to name a few) are inseparable from their creators’ personal pain. We are – as Marlow said last night, quoting Damien Hirst – a “trauma culture”, expecting to watch an artist’s suffering play out on canvas or stage or screen – and relating to them through it.

They may not all call it suffering, but every artist I’ve spoken to for Portrait – even those whose art has brought them fame and fortune – has described the real sacrifices, whether personal or economic, that they have made to dedicate themselves to their work. Yet very few of them have said they regret them.

As the ICA panel concluded, for the best artists, the drive to create is so strong that it can withstand almost any amount of suffering – and the life experience it gives them serves only to make their works more powerful.

Laura Barnett
Guardian Unlimited