Friday, December 22, 2006

Ron Mueck, Annie Leibovitz, John Currin

Last Sunday, I saw two exhibitions at the Brooklyn Museum: Ron Mueck and Annie Leibovitz: A Photographer's Life, 1990-2005. Mueck made puppets for children's television before moving to sculpture, while Leibovitz's photos first appeared in Rolling Stone, Vanity Fair and Vogue. Both artists thus began their careers in popular culture before they were taken up by the mainstream art world.

Mueck creates very lifelike sculptures out of fibreglass and silicone, almost Madame Tussaud, except they are much bigger or smaller than life-size. I liked The Spooning Couple, a small and delicate piece, in which the man and woman look so alone though lying down in that most intimate position. The other piece that held my attention was that of a young adolescent boy squatting down and looking sideways at himself in a mirror. It seems to capture so subtly youth's vulnerability. I did not find the other pieces interesting. Too often I had the impression that technique overwhelmed the message. Must the woman lying pensive in bed be of such a gigantic size? I sensed not joy but fetishization of technique.

The Leibovitz exhibition I found disappointing too. The celebrities are shot with all their glamorous allure and power, and not much more. I did not see the empathetic insight or the critical commentary of, say, Diane Arbus. Two photos were powerful. The first was of Brad Pitt, lying in bed, wearing leopard print pants. His orange shirt, and his blond shock of hair, glow in the orange-red light of the room. The photo brings out the androgyny that lurks behind that masculine form. The second photo was a head-and-shoulder shot of Mark Morris, with a mysterious facial expression, a mixture of concentration, pain and ecstasy. Only by looking at the tilt of the head, and the slight incline of the shoulder can one tell that the American choreographer had been caught dancing.

Yesterday I visited the Gagosian Gallery, on Madison Avenue between 76th and 77th, for the first time to see the John Currin exhibition. I had seen his work in a solo exhibition at the Whitney two (?) years ago, and enjoyed it very much. This time was no difference. Currin's paintings allude to Old Masters portraits, 1970s Playboy magazine ads, and mid-twentieth century films. That mixture of high and popular art often produces potent effects.

I was particularly drawn to a full-length vertical portrait of a tall, skinny woman pulling down her filmy underwear. The white gauzy material is echoed in the porcelain table-set placed unnaturalistically on the floor in front of her: one teapot, one tea-cup, one sugar bowl, one cream bowl, one plate, one salt shaker, one pepper shaker. Her nipples and lips are multiplied in the floral wallpaper behind her. On her left, an intricate candle holder, shaped like an epergne, carries a candle in one of its seven side-holders. The tall, skinny, white candle is lit, and its flame casts a glow on the top of the candle, the same gold band that can be seen around the woman's long slender neck. If the intricate work of the candle holder suggests the maze-like complexity of female sexuality, the flame pays tribute to her mind.

The same study of body and mind, or soul, can be seen in the other works in the exhibition. Porcelain tableware is a motif, as is the candle. Many of the women are reading a book, often while lying in bed. Other paintings depict graphic sexual acts; the favored position is that of a man behind a woman, thrusting into her sex. I think some of the paintings fail for a lack of body or of soul, but when they come together, as in the painting of the skinny woman, the union left a deep impression on me.


Greg said...

Interesting account, Jee Leong. The John Currin exhibition, especially from your description of the piece with the tall woman, sounds very worth seeing. (Yesterday I wanted a museum break & ended up very disappointed when I visited the Whitney (there was a Bauhaus-related exhibit, Kiki Smith, Hopper, & other things) & found myself uninterested in almost everything. So much of what I looked at seemed like (to use your word) dull "fetishization"--sometimes fetishization of concepts, and sometimes fetishization of techniques. So I'm interested & grateful to hear of an exhibition I think I could actually enjoy. Maybe I'll go.)

Harry said...

From what I've seen of Mueck's work, he's a classic example of a one-trick pony. When it works it's a very good trick, though. Dead Dad, which is an ultra-realistic sculpture of his fathers naked corpse, 2/3 size, displayed on the floor, really struck me; the size seemed to say something about death and vulnerability and so on. But you're right, it's not an endlessly re-workable idea.

Jee Leong Koh said...

Hi Greg,
the John Currin is worth a look. The new paintings take up only one room (another room is given over to his drawings), so it makes for a nice short visit.

Hi Harry,
one-trick-pony is a good description of Mueck, I think. Dead Dad is not in the current exhbition. The crowd was more fascinated watching the video on his production techniques, than viewing the art works. A damning judgment, I thought.

Jee Leong