Thursday, January 26, 2012

Spots Before My Eyes: An Open Ended Encounter with Damien Hirst

A visitor to Hypergraphia at the Flatiron observed, "there is the infinite variety of things, then there is an infinite variation of one thing. Your installation is the latter". I like that a lot! Infinite is out of my reach, but it is true that each time I draw or paint on a paper coffee cup - always the one shape and surface texture - a new image emerges.

 Cup of the Day #99 by Gwyneth Leech
Homage to Damien Dot Cup - state 1
Colored India ink on upcycled white paper cup

This came back to me shortly after I entered Gagosian Gallery on 24th Street to look at the Damien Hirst Spotravaganza on view. At first it was just acres of spots, but as I wandered the huge galleries I noted with appreciation that no two canvases are alike. He too is engaged in the infinite variation of one thing, in this case grids of multicolored spots on pristine white canvas. Principally the colors and sizes of the spots vary, as do the sizes and shapes of the canvases, but within each group of shapes and sizes are further variations. I especially appreciated the different meta-patterns emerging from whites spaces between spots in a set of circular canvases in the rear gallery. 

The edges of paintings caught my eye also. Where the spots are huge and sit right at the edges, the canvases seem to bulge and contract. In another room a very long canvas contained the spots on three sides, but cut through all of them on the vertical - spots by the yard!

 Cup of the Day #99 by Gwyneth Leech
Homage to Damien Dot Cup - state 2
Colored India ink on upcycled white paper cup

All of this was interesting enough to take me to the second Gagosian gallery on 21st street. When I walked in the door and saw the same display of large and small canvases, with the same tonal effects of highly pigmented spots on pristine white canvases I was suddenly filled with a feeling of exhaustion. But plunging in I enjoyed the extremes of scale - in some paintings the spots so tiny that I could barely make them out hanging next to one the length of a football field. I also made the fun discovery that when you stand close to the wall the spots turn into rows. 

Overall I have to say, I like the spot paintings to the extent that they remind me of those strips of candy dots on white paper that we used to buy as kids! Funny then that some of the spot studies shown in an accompanying book are actually arrays of venoms. Some candy strip that!

  Cup of the Day #99 by Gwyneth Leech
Homage to Damien Dot Cup - state 3
Colored India ink on upcycled white paper cup

At this point, I would love to show you some photos of the spot painting shows, but the security guards said no cameras. I was tempted to photograph the Hirst gift shop through the window on 24th street, where a pile of Hirst coffee mugs was plainly to be seen on a plinth (a colored dot in the bottom of each), but respecting his intellectual property, I returned to the Flatiron window and drew a Damien Hirst homage spot cup and hung it up.

The color swatches on the white background looked all wrong hanging there. So I took it down again and considered. Would I leave all that negative space? Let Damien have it; I would follow the call of the fractal! Before long, a positive lace of smaller and smaller dots encased the cup, knitting it up until it found its proper place amongst the Hypergraphia cup drawings.  

 Cup of the Day #99 by Gwyneth Leech
Homage to Damien Dot Cup - finished state
Colored India ink on upcycled white paper cup

This is what I learned form the experience - painting free hand circles of color is hard! If my project of infinite variation involved that kind of pristine execution I would hire a stable of workers too. As it is, my approach has a lot to do with impulse, error and chance - of which there is an infinite amount in the world. It really is an open-ended proposition.

"And for that matter", said my husband, "so is a cup."

Good photos of Damien's spots at Gagosian can be seen on Blake Gopnik's Daily Pic.
And here is a posting of 10 spot reviews over on GalleristNY.

Monday, January 23, 2012

Alice through the Plate Glass: Observers Observed

Saturday January 21st was a significant day - it marked the start of the final month of Hypergraphia in the Prow. This really is it - the home stretch. No more extensions. In four weeks time, on Saturday February 18 starting at 2PM the cups will come down. 

Cup of the Day #98
Down Jackets by Gwyneth Leech
India ink on upcycled white paper cup

In the meantime, Winter is finally here in earnest; down jackets, fur coats and hats abound outside the windows. Wicked winds whip around the Prow, blowing hair to crazy tangled heights. 

Cup of the Day #98
Down Jackets by Gwyneth Leech
India ink on upcycled white paper cup

Even in this bitter weather, people stop to study the installation. I enjoy drawing the viewers on cups as they linger, staring in. Then I hang up the cup drawings right away. Now the observers are intently staring out at other people staring in. Something very Alice-like about that.

Snow day in the Prow, January 21, 2012
On Fifth Avenue looking north towards 23rd Street

The heat differential between inside and outside has grown more extreme. The Flatiron's steam radiators lining the Prow hiss and bang, coming on and going off in no discernible pattern. The cups positively dance in swirling drafts and my daily take-out cup of tea cools too quickly after I arrive in the morning. 

View of Hypergraphia
From Fifth Avenue, looking east

It finally snowed over the weekend, enough to cover the sidewalks, creating a white frame for the Prow. All of a sudden the white patterns and negative spaces on the cups pop out and look fragile and lacey against the new backdrop. The installation is chameleon-like in that way, responding to the color and light framing it. I wandered back and forth on the platform, re-arranging the middle section. The composition is three dimensional and infinitely variable.

View from the inside, looking north west, towards 23rd and Fifth

So, in just four more weeks, my five month residency in the Sprint Flatiron Prow Artspace will be done and it will be time to dismantle and move on. Until then, in fair weather or foul, in shirt sleeves or wrapped in wool (depending on the heating situation) I will be in the Prow drawing, hanging and rearranging cups, receiving guests and watching people watch me as I watch the world go by. 

Inside view, looking north east 
Towards Madison Square Park

Saturday, January 21, 2012

Coffee with Cattelan and Kandinsky

As an artist currently suspending my artworks, I have a strong professional curiosity about the Cattelan installation, "All", still showing at the Guggenheim Museum through this weekend. I made it there on a bitterly cold afternoon and was pleased that the much vaunted lines were not in evidence. 

Cup of the Dy #97
Kandinsky cup by Gwyneth Leech
India ink on light ochre printed paper cup

Inside, I ambled up the ramp, taking photos along with the other viewers and studying the awesome array of white ropes and heavy slings, metal brackets, platforms and hanging frames. The overall effect is monumental and unforgettable. I peered over the walls of the spiral again and again, taking in the vertiginous views, wondering at the weight of the hanging objects and at my feeling of unease for the visitors standing below them on the ground floor of the rotunda.

Cattelan, "All"
Guggenheim Museum, New York

As for the objects themselves, it is a cacophonous jumble at first, but the eye does take in individual pieces surprisingly well as one's viewing position constantly shifts while walking up and then down the spiral.

Spoiled as I am by my hanging cups dancing in the convection inside the Flatiron Prow, I found the Cattelan installation lacking in animation. Nothing moves, except a wax boy who drums intermittently from his seat on a hanging farm cart. But then, the lack of animation seems to be the point. I felt almost overwhelmed by taxidermied animals, skeletons and wax figures in various death poses. Interspersed is cheerier fare - an elongated shopping cart, the Hollywood sign seen from behind, an impossibly elongated fussball table, an occasional kooky photograph - but the ensemble speaks of mortality and feels like a giant, unwieldy commemorative collage. 

I came across an encyclopedic exhibition catalogue on a shelf, which shows each of the artworks in its original setting. In museums and galleries, with space and context they operate quite differently. Did I read somewhere that Cattelan has said he is not going to make any more art? Perhaps then, this giant installation is deliberately a funereal monument.

Seeking something lighter to contemplate, I detoured into "Kandinsky at the Bauhaus", a small exhibit of his paintings from 1923-33, on view in a side gallery. What a pleasure! The Bauhaus period lent a geometric formality to the compositions that is absent from his later work, but the lovely colors and dancing forms look as if they were painted just yesterday. I was especially taken with Komposition #8, a lively painting of straight lines, geometric shapes and bright colors. If the Cattelan installation were transposed into an abstract painting, it might look something like this.

 Vasily Kandinsky , “Komposition 8″ (Composition 8), July, 1923. Oil on canvas, (140 x 201 cm) 55 1/8 x 79 1/8 inches. Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York. Solomon R. Guggenheim Founding Collection, By gift.

As if this encounter with Kandinsky were not enough pleasure, I realized that the gallery backed on to Cafe #3, itself a study in lines and shapes against the bare winter trees of Central Park. Who could resist a quick Illy espresso macchiato sipped at a bright white table before a final spin down the Spiral and out again into the freezing afternoon.

 Cafe 3, Guggenheim Museum, New York

Catalan runs only through Sunday January 22nd, but the Kandinsky is ongoing, and of course the cafe never goes away. All info. on the Guggenheim website, here.

As a postscript, giving the lie to Cattelan's declaration of artistic cessation, he opens a new art venture in Chelsea in February under the wing of Anna Kustera Gallery. Read all about in this article by Jerry Saltz in New York Magazine by clicking here.

Wednesday, January 18, 2012

The Cup Drawings by Night

I have been told that 350,000 to 500,000 people view the Flatiron Building in New York City... every week!

And it seems that a lot of them are taking photographs of the Hypergraphia cups installation in the Flatiron Prow Artspace.

Couple and Cups
Photo by Marc Dalio

Out of curiosity, I began to collect photos of Hypergraphia that I came across online - on Flickr, Tumblr, Tweetpics, Facebook, Google+ as well as Statigram and other photo sharing sites for Instagram and cell phone photos.
I was astonished at the resulting collection. So many outstanding images! I love seeing the installation through the eyes of so many different people!

Coffee Cup Bokeh

I am especially intrigued by the night life of Hypergraphia. I have experienced for myself the jewel-like effect of the windows lit on a dark winter evening, but unlike the habits revealed in the time stamps of cell-phone wielding pedestrians, I have never lingered there between midnight and 6am.

Photo by Mark Abramsom

 Photo by Osten Zen Design

In this post are just a few of my favorite night shots.

Coming up in 2012: a museum show of the best photographs of Hypergraphia in the Prow. More details to come, but if you took some photos of the installation in New York City, or know someone who did, be sure to send me a link: gwynethl(at)earthlink(dot)net.
Spread the word!

In the meantime, I continue to draw in the window during daylight hours, Tuesday - Saturday, 11am - 2pm  through February 18th.

 Photo by Richard Kranzler

Photo by Boy Culure

 Petra-McKenzie, Statigram

 Photo by Danielle

Photo by Shoko

Saturday, January 14, 2012

Experience This! Taking a Spin through the Carsten Höller Exhibit

Experience at the New Museum finally closes this weekend, but I haven't stopped thinking about it. In fact, some of it popped up on a cup just today.

I saw the exhibition twice, the first time a race through on a Saturday afternoon. I was able to appreciate the whole thing from about five different perspectives and art historical viewpoints without reading a single word. Because I am a genius - not! I had prior help in the form of three distinguished art historians and critics who spoke engagingly and showed slides for an hour in the basement lecture hall at the museum, in a panel talk called "The Wondrous Worlds of Dr. Höller". I listened while covertly drinking a cup of tea and then taking notes on the empty.

Cup of the Day #96  by Gwyneth Leech
Twists and Turns and Notes from Experience 
India ink on upcycled white paper take-out cup

Having considered Experience as imminent vs. transcendental art, as a hall of wonders, a clinic for the inducement of elevated states without the use of mind-altering drugs, an embodiment of animal and vegetal architecture, a game of seeing and shifting perspectives, and having explored the idea that the long lines are all part of the show (patterns of procession and unusual social engagement) I now had a firm foundation for threading the crowds upstairs. Thank you Ken Johnson, Spyridon Papapetros and Jesse Prinz!

I delighted in the ascending scale of the magic mushrooms on the ground floor, appreciating their monumentality (Papapetros). When a woman staggered over in strange goggles and asked me to take her photo, Papapetros' words came back again - the unusual social interaction is all part of the show. I happily snapped with her iphone and asked to peek through the goggles that turn everything upside down -  altered perspectives without psychotropic drugs (Johnson).
Mushroom Monuments
Carsten Höller Experience
At the New Museum

Upstairs in the galleries - which I visited 2nd, 3rd, 4th to get the overall picture - the famous silver slide burrowed straight through the cement floors! How fabulous. Here was  Papapetros' animal architecture of "burrowing, netting and nesting". In the middle gallery I gathered with strangers to exclaim as shrieking figures hurtled past inside the tube. Yes, it was a piece of animated sculpture.

The top gallery housed the entrance to the slide, a hanging sculpture of metal bird cages containing live canaries and a mirrored carousel which inches along in slow motion - altered perceptions again. Bemused viewers dangled their feet and watched the changing reflections, calm and casual in contrast to the anxiety mounting in the line of people nearest the mouth of the slide. Relieved that I had no time to wait for the slide, I just took in the spectacle as an observer. Then I trotted down to the 2nd floor to watch people stagger out into a blinking gallery full of brightly colored animal casts.

Cup of the Day #96  by Gwyneth Leech
Twists and Turns and Notes from Experience 
India ink on upcycled white paper take-out cup

Jesse Prinz opined that the feeling of fear produced by the slide changes perception, heightening a feeling of the sublime. Certainly the riders seemed rather changed as they staggered through the gallery after completing their turns, but I am not sure they knew what they were looking at. I did not try the flotation tank, because the line was several hours long, but I certainly did enjoy waving my arms in front of the infrared camera in a side room with other New Yorkers as our regulation black attire was turned to white on the screen.

Mirrored Carousel
Carsten Höller Experience
At the New Museum

In a strange and unusual turn of events, when I got home my 15 year old daughter begged me to take her to see the Höller show. What, she really wants to go to a museum!? Yes, everyone was talking about it at school! So we went together one late afternoon the week before it closed. This time the line for the slide was only 45 minutes long. We joined the end and found it oddly enjoyable to pass the time watching the slowly rotating carousel and listening to the canaries singing in response to the intermittent screaming of people in descent.

Tunnel slide
Carsten Höller Experience
At the New Museum

When it came our turn, as the museum guards gave us helmets and instructions, we were exhorted to be good sports and vocalize on the way down. So we did, gustily, during the 5 second twisting plunge to the 2nd floor. There I got unsteadily to my feet and I have to say, I did find the blinking lights of terra firma to be quite sublime.

We continued on through the exhibit and after exploring every nook and cranny and interactive activity, with and without upside down goggles, I asked my daughter:
"So what is your final word on the Carsten Höller show?"

"Queasy," she replied. "Can we go home now?

Design for apartment building with slides
Carsten Höller Experience
At the New Museum

Wednesday, January 11, 2012

Where Do Ideas Come From? Finding the Bottomless Cup

Where do ideas come from? Every time I sit down to write about this I draw a blank.
So I went for a walk, a swim and a hot shower. As usual, these activities of motion unleashed a torrent of wordy narratives in my head, even a concept or two, possibly valuable.

Cup of the Day #95
Raining Words, by Gwyneth Leech
India ink on upcycled white paper coffee cup

For me there are two distinct kinds of ideas - the wordy ones, and the visual ones.
Apparently the visual ideas reside in a completely separate part of the brain from the words and since production of visual ideas generally relies on sitting or standing still, bringing them forth can be a trickier proposition.

When I am painting a large canvas in the studio, it is all about executing an idea already conceived. Discoveries and new directions certainly happen as I go along, but for me the struggle is about how to get the painting to more closely match the images in my head. Having said that, the first brush marks reveal limitless possibilities. Then as a painting progresses and decisions are made these options diminish, until at last only one brush mark will fit. I often feel a sense of loss as I paint. Each state could be the starting point for innumerable new artworks, but unlike in the digital realm, going back to an exact prior state is never possible.

But where does the initial idea spring from, the vision bright enough to launch a painting?

Listening for the muse in the Flatiron Prow
Yes, I think about those cup and string phones all the time!
 Photo by Theresa DeSalvio

I was having lunch at Eisenberg's Coffee Shop with composer and singing colleague, Martha Sullivan after finishing up in the Flatiron window and we were discussing the topic. (As a quick aside, there are a number of things I like about Eisenberg's, an unreconstructed lunch counter on Fifth Avenue at 22nd Street: their hot pastrami sandwiches, the owner's flamboyant shirts and the sign outside which says "Either you get it or you don't.")

Drawing with composer, Martha Sullivan 
and sculptor, Hu Bing in the Prow
 Photo by Theresa DeSalvio

Over my pastrami sandwich, I had a sudden insight. (Yes, ideas also come from conversation + food!) I have been making art since I was a kid and there have been only a few periods in my life when I made no art at all: during my first year at the University of Pennsylvania (no Fine Art major back then), right after I had both my children and after 9-11. I did plenty of writing in those periods, but my visual muse fled and was nowhere to be found. And how did I get back into art-making? By drawing on things that had no apparent value - envelopes, programs, photocopies, music. No one saw these, they weren't meant to exhibited. I did them while I was busy with other things - like taking notes in anthropology classes, feeding children or sitting on the subway. But eventually, these drawings led me back to my sketchbooks and from there to the painting studio. The ideas came pouring out as very small drawings - brain to hand to paper - which I then labored to turn into larger compositions.

 Drawing in the Prow
December 2011
 Photo by Theresa DeSalvio

The coffee cup story is similar. While my narrative brain was otherwise engaged at school meetings, artist meetings and at my part-time job as a choral singer, my art brain just took care of itself and made friends with the surface of handy paper coffee cups. It crept up on me while I wasn't paying attention. Now each time I sit down with art materials and a cup, the shape, the surface, the curve, the variety of colors and prints, all continue to act as catalysts and set my hand on a new journey. This time, the artwork is finished directly on the cup - no digging things out of notebooks later, no copying and scaling up from sketches which can be a deadening exercise.

Passing Christmas Tree
Cups in the Flatiron Prow
December 2011

Making art on cups is currently the core of my studio practice and for three year now the ideas just keep coming, each one different. Talk about a bottomless cup!

Readily available and of no value to anyone else but me in their used state, paper cups allow me to risk everything. Nothing lost, everything gained. In short, they are a very useful form.
I like to say, Bach had inventions, Shakespeare had sonnets - and I have coffee cups.

Cups in the Flatiron Prow
December 2011

Friday, January 6, 2012

My Date with De Kooning

I always forget that MOMA is open on Mondays! How many Tuesday have found me there, surprised that the galleries are closed!?

 Seated Woman 1, by Stephen Roxborough
Gwyneth Leech's Hypergraphia Installation 
in the Flatiron Prow, 2011

But on a recent Monday, my day off from the Hypergraphia exhibit at the Flatiron, I remembered and made it in time for a member's morning with Willem de Kooning. Vigorous stuff before the first coffee of the day!  I was lucky to land on a docent-led tour and learned a lot.

Channeling De Kooning
Gwyneth Leech's Hypergraphia installation
in the Flatiron Prow, 2011

In the early rooms, a lot of influences are on view: the paintings conjure up Matisse, De Chirico, Picasso, even Hans Holbein in an exquisite pencil drawing of his wife, Elaine de Kooning from 1947.
From there he starts to splinter and jive, the work going in all directions at once, mixing and matching it with figuration and angular abstractions. The black and white paintings knocked my socks off. He could have stayed right there to the end of his days, but not de Kooning.

Willem De Kooning
Untitled, Oil on Board, 1937

Every time he got comfortable with a way of working, he moved on. He never tired of mixing it up between figuration and abstraction, but the how of it kept changing. The history of the female nude in the landscape is joyously reworked in all sorts of ways, for decades.

Willem de Kooning 
Painting, 1948, Oil and enamel on canvas

The docent talked at length about the painting "Woman 1",  about the two years he struggled with it, how it was abandoned, rolled up in the studio until Myer Shapiro told him how important it was, and how it should be exhibited with the other versions of the "Woman" series. In fact, it was shown at the Sidney Janis gallery in 1953 and made everyone mad. Good times. That's when artists know they are onto something.

 Willem de Kooning
Seated Woman, 1940
Oil and charcoal on Masonite

I was especially fascinated by the description of de Kooning's painting  process: the sheets of newspaper adhered at the end of a work day to keep the paint wet overnight, the scraping back, the painting wet into wet, the constant reworking of the same canvas, the collage elements pinned on as reference, then removed at the end, of cut out shapes pasted here and there to try things out.  All add up to deliberation disguised as insouciant aggression. I know how very difficult this immediacy is to achieve, having killed many a promising start to a painting. Once that initial gesture is put down, how hard it is to change it, how hard to keep the painting open and fresh.

Willem de Kooning
Woman 1, 1950-52
Oil on canvas, 6' 3 7/8" x 58"

On the wall at the entrance to the exhibit are six enlarged photos of the different states of "Woman 1". Fascinating! Each is a complete statement in itself, a painting then scraped away and gone forever. I hurried back and forth between these photos and the finished version. In the final painting hanging on the museum wall he breaks through at last from angularity and Picassoesque cubism to something different - raw, fluid, organic, ugly and irresistible. 

Willem de Kooning 
Untitled,  oil on canvas, 1987

I left the de Kooning show with an overwhelming urge to paint. Seven decades of unbridled art making! I want that too.