Monday, April 22, 2013

On Pop Art, Anti-Pop and Eco-Pop

Cup(s) of the Day #121: Cup Cascade (detail)
An installation of 365 drawings by Gwyneth Leech
City Without Walls Gallery, Newark

I was in Newark at City Without Walls Gallery the other day, studying the artwork in a group show which included a large installation of my cup drawings. It was the last day of "Diptychs, Triptychs and Multiples, curated by Shira Toren, and I had made a final trek out from Manhattan on the train.

View from outside City Without Walls Gallery
6 Crawford Street, Lincoln Park, Newark
April 2013

The gallery is a beautiful, airy space, surrounded by some very transitional real estate, and reached by a short taxi ride from the the station or a brisk walk down Broad Street. On that recent April day, the Newark mean streets were softened by flowering trees. Outside the gallery, cherry blossoms framed the startlingly pink facade of the "Word Power Foundation Ministry Pentecostal Church" across the street, setting the tone for a consideration of pop art raised by Dan Bischoff in a recent article about the exhibition.

the Sunday Star Ledger, March 10, 2013

It started me thinking about the first pop art show I ever saw, which was at the Institute of Contemporary Art in Philadelphia in the late 60's or early 70's. It was called Really Real, the New Real, or some such. I was a kid accompanying my artist mother, and I vividly remember my bewildered disappointment. Realism for me back then was a painting that looked just like its subject. None of that was in the ICA show. I was most struck by Andy Warhol's Brillo box sculptures and Campbell soup can paintings. They were not virtuoso feats of representation, but flat, schematic replications of common things. To my youthful eyes, these art objects were banal and charmless.

Replicated Andy Warhol Brillo box sculpture in cardboard
at the recent Armory Art Fair in NYC, March 2013
The original Brillo box dated 1964, was synthetic polymer paint and silkscreen ink on wood
 and is in the permanent collection at MOMA

Decades later, I am now fascinated by the artifacts of my contemporary culture and have been particularly engaged with commercial paper coffee cups for some years. The Newark exhibition included a columnar installation of 365 of my coffee cup drawings, 16 feet high and suspended from the ceiling. In his review, Bischoff pinpointed the take-out cup as an iconic cultural object and read my installation as pop art revisited. The Starbucks cup and logo definitely outstrip Campbell's soup cans for recognition these days!

Cup Cascade, by Gwyneth Leech,  an installation of 365 drawings
in Diptychs, Triptychs and Multiples at City Without Walls Gallery, Newark
Artwork left to right: Judy GlasserYvette Cohen, Bill Dilworth, Gwyneth Leech, Paula Overbay, Robert Lobe

As I see it, my project differs from pop art in several regards. Whereas the pop artists faithfully replicated the logos and packaging details of their favored objects, evoking and sometimes engaging in industrial processes, I strive to make the logos disappear entirely, returning the cups to a purer archetypal form. In the process, the surface has become a canvas on which to exercise the artist's right to endless, unrepeating pictorial invention and variation. Thus, the project might actually be anti-pop, with it emphasis on the unique and hand made.
Also, despite the large number of cups that have accumulated during my cup-drawing years, each one is like a devotional object, dedicated to a social moment, raising up and enshrining an endless supply of a material otherwise bound for the waste-stream. So in fact, I would call it eco-pop rather than anti-pop.

 Claes Oldenburg, The Store and the Street, MOMA
Image: the NY Times

I had an opportunity to test this conclusion a few days ago when I visited the Claes Oldenburg exhibit just opened at MOMA, a master pop artist if ever there was one. Here are all the recognizable artifacts of his daily life in New York back in the 50s and 60s: clothes, furniture, logos, diner food, including a giant fabric hamburger and a large sandwich made of vinyl. But what is truly striking in this group of artwork is the rawness of the execution, its stridently handmade quality - ragged edges and dripping paint. This is not the cool and slick finish that has come to be most thought of as pop, or even of Oldenburg in his immaculately executed collaborations with Coosje Van Bruggen. This early Oldenburg artwork is a real melding of painting and sculpture. And his upcycling of corrugated cardboard into sculpture in the first gallery could just signal him as a founder eco-pop artist as well!

 Claes Oldenburg, The Store and the Street, MOMA

Finally, I have to report that my nine year old daughter, who accompanied her own artist mother to see the Oldenburg show, was much more appreciative than I was of my first pop art encounter all those decades ago. But then, she is a sophisticated New Yorker and MOMA is her second home.

Grace, age 9, April 2013, on our weekly visit to MOMA
She gave the Claes Oldenburg show two thumbs up

Diptychs, Triptychs and Multiples, curated by Shira Toren, was on view at City Without Walls in Newark from
March 2 - April 13th. It included works by La Thoriel Badenhausen, Marianne Barcellona, Yvette Cohen, Bill Dilworth, Rodolfo Edwards, Judy Glasser, Bernard Klevickas, Gwyneth Leech, Robert Lobe, Janie Milstein, Paula Overbay, Joan Reutershan and Lili Sheer. For more details click here.

Claes Oldenburg, the Store and the Street is now open at MOMA until August 14, 201. More information here.

Although the Newark show has closed, an installation of my coffee cup drawings is currently on view at Susan Teller Gallery, 568 Broadway in NYC, as part of Families / Cities SHIFT, though May 11, 2013. For more information, click here.

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Sunday, April 7, 2013

Openings and Closings: Cups on the Move

 Cup of the Day #120
"Across the Street", by Gwyneth Leech
India ink on upcycled paper coffee cups, 2013

It has been a big week of transitions: Gathering Place, No Longer Empty's exhibit in a disused storefront on West 8th Street, was not extended as had been hoped and my cup installation came down on Monday. (The space was leased by a commercial tenant. Ah, the gentrifying power of art!) Diptychs, Triptychs and Multiples at City Without Walls in Newark, entered its final week and Families/Cities Shift opened at Susan Teller Gallery in SoHo. For this third exhibit, I am showing a new installation of cups drawn in Ecuador and in New York City, with the underlying narrative of an immigrant's shifting idea of home.

I am especially excited about the exhibition at Susan Teller Gallery, because it is not often that I get to exhibit my artwork alongside that of my sister Kitty Leech (costume designer), mother Louise Leech (painter) and maternal grandparents Katharine McCollum Gallagher (poet/illustrator) and Michael J. Gallagher (WPA print-maker). Grandma K. and Grandpa Mike met at art school in Philadelphia in the 1920s. She was a flapper. He was a rough diamond from a Pennsylvania coal town.

 "Sunday Evening", by Michael J. Gallagher
Wood-engraving, 1936

In this iteration of the family show, Susan Teller has paired us with the Pinto family: Angelo Pinto and his wife Gertrude Dwyer Pinto (print-makers and painters), and their daughters, Anna Pinto (calligrapher) and Jody Pinto (environmental and public artist). It was a pleasure to meet Jody and Anna in the run-up to the show and to discover that our family stories crisscross and intersect through both New York City and Philadelphia, going back as far as the Philadelphia WPA print project in the 1940s where Michael and Angelo are thought to have met, and to the Barnes foundation where Angelo taught and my mother studied.

 Cup Cascade by Gwyneth Leech
In the background left to right: Paula Overbay and Bill Dilworth
City Without Walls, Newark

Along with this idea of shifting homes, I have been interested by the way my cup artworks keep changing context in each of these recent shows. In Diptychs, Triptychs and Multiples, a group show curated by Shira Toren, they are part of a larger idea about compounding and changing meaning through repetition. There I have hung a cascade of 365 cups, representing a year's accumulation, that spills down from the ceiling and makes visible a habit of consumption as well as a personal habit of idea generation. There are 12 other artists in this handsome show which is still up through next Saturday, April 13th.

  Cup Cascade by Gwyneth Leech
In the background, left to right, artwork by Bernard Klevickas, 
 La Thoriel Badenhausen, Janie Milstein  and Joan Reutershan
at City Without Walls, Newark

In Gathering Place the cups were part of yet another context emphasizing culture and commerce. Curated by Katherine Gressel and Jessica Whallen, the idea of community transformation was in the foreground. Neighborhood families as well those from far-flung parts of the boroughs gravitated to the space to sit with me and turn trash into art while sharing stories about a changing city. 

Drawing on cups with visitors
24 West 8th Street, March 2013

All the artists in Gathering Place shared an interest in community and site: from Jennifer Maravillas' map of changing land use in the Village, to Micki Spiller's temporary library of books by city authors and about the neighborhood, to Luisa Caldwell's shopping bag installation featuring ghostly glow-in-the dark drawings of shoes, evoking the departed shoe stores that so recently characterized the street. I had plenty of time to muse on change as I sat for hours in the window of #24. Whereas my cup drawings are often abstract, there I found myself depicting very specific architectural details: fire escapes, roof lines, wrought iron lamp posts, ornate shop fronts and doorways across the street.  

Skylights and studio windows 
along West 8th Street in Greenwich Village, 2013

After awhile, I no longer saw West 8th Street as a parade of failed businesses, but appreciated it as a place with good bones and a long history. I relished the tales local residents shared. And going back and forth along the block, I especially loved looking up at the many artists' studio windows still visible, telling a story about the neighborhood that goes back many generations. It is good to be reminded that our perceptions of architecture, artifacts and even personal history are mutable, all part of a constantly changing kaleidoscope of meaning in this most kaleidoscopic of cities.

West 8th Street in the 1950s. From an album on the Gothamist
This commercial architecture is still there in 2013

Families/Cities Shift is open Tuesdays - Saturdays 11-6pm at 568 Broadway, #502. Curated by Susan Teller, it is a special project for the New Museum's 2013 City Ideas Festival.
Artworks by Michael J. Gallagher, Katharine McCollum Gallagher, Louise Leech, Kitty Leech and Gwyneth Leech, Angelo Pinto, Gertrude Dwyer Pinto, Jody Pinto and Anna Pinto.
For more details click here.

Diptychs, Triptychs and Multiples, curated by Shira Toren, is on view at City Without Walls in Newark through Saturday April 13th. Including works by La Thoriel Badenhausen, Marianne Barcellona, Yvette Cohen, Bill Dilworth, Rodolfo Edwards, Judy Glasser, Bernard Klevickas, Gwyneth Leech, Robert Lobe, Janie Milstein, Paula Overbay, Joan Reutershan and Lili Sheer.
For more details click here.

Gathering Place ran from Feb 22 - March 22. Curated by Katherine Gressel and Jessica Whallen, it was No Longer Empty's inaugural Curatorial Lab Project. More information about the curators and artists here. NLE hope to continue doing  exhibitions in unused retail spaces on West 8th Street.