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by Grant Mandarino
Love comes in many forms: a grandmother’s warm embrace, a new boyfriend’s tentative kiss, a major military offensive. I was surprised this Valentine’s Day to discover the lack of reflection on the ever perplexing love of art in the major art magazines. Love, after all, must be the foundation of the discerning taste of the collector and the spectacle-lust of the biennial visitor. Contemporary art-love obliges one to accept the terms of an "open relationship." A willingness to appreciate new infatuations alongside the pleasure of accustomed joys is as essential as knowing where to look and who to watch.

Although not devoted to the subject, love does pop up in some of the mags under review this month. The February 2010 Artforum includes an interview with Kaja Silverman, professor of rhetoric at UC Berkeley, about her new book Flesh of My Flesh. Famous for her work on psychoanalytic theories of desire and "the gaze," the new tome swaps these penetrating themes for broader fare. According to the effusive introduction written by UCLA professor of art history George Baker, an editor of October, the intricacies of human relationships, love and "time-based art" are Silverman’s main points of reference, handled with an inquisitive care only she can provide.

Another article of note is New York-based artist Joe Scanlan’s worried piece on Felix Gonzalez-Torres. Scanlan, who clearly likes the artist, nevertheless wonders what it means when Gonzalez-Torres’ spills of candy cease to be episodes in communal sharing and become just another museum acquisition. What happens when subversive candy carpets lose their flavor? Nothing tastes great when it’s served in a cafeteria; that’s the story of the avant-garde I guess.

This month’s Art in Americacontains a piece by sometime Artnet Magazine contributor Peter Plagens on James Brooks, one of the "underdogs" of the original Abstract Expressionist movement. Plagens writes at length about his own preference for overlooked artists like Brooks and compares it to his father’s love for lesser leading men like Ralph Meeker (of Kiss Me Deadly fame). In a similar vein, Vatican-approved videoiste Bill Viola pens an appreciation of the work of artist Peter Campus, one of the early innovators of video art and a participant in three Whitney Biennials.

Besides the now-dated sampler of Performa 09 reviews, the February issue of AiA has three more articles well worth the cover price. The first is an interview with the Belgian painter Luc Tuymans, currently enjoying his first American retrospective in a three-decade-long career. The show began at the Wexner Center last September and is currently on view at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art. It is curated by Helen Molesworth (recently given a leadership position at the Institute for Contemporary Art in Boston) and Madeleine Grynztejn (director of the Museum of Contemporary Art, Chicago). Tuymans also has a new series of works entitled "Against the Day" (the title of a Thomas Pynchon novel, as well as a phrase from a rather ominous Bible verse) up at the Moderna Museet in Malmö, Sweden. Tuymans typically mounts shows organized around a central theme, and the American retrospective is the first time his work has been shown more or less chronologically, with several earlier series are re-created.

"How does Tuymans keep up with such a busy schedule?" you might ask. Well, apparently he is known as being one of the fastest painters on the planet, rumored to finish a work in a single day! In the interview, Tuymans roughly outlines his process, from light coloring in the morning to brushstrokes in the afternoon, adding that he made about 3,000+ drawings a year while he was an art student. 

In addition to his lightning speed, Tuymans is known as a painter of "detachment," drawn to near-abstract renderings of bodies and historical introspection. "Tuymans’ oeuvre constitutes a personal reflection on the circumstances of what was once called Western Civilization," argues the interviewer, artist/writer Steel Stillman. Some of this reflection touches on the European inheritance of WWII, not in the extreme of Anselm Kiefer’s paintings per se, but more tangentially, like the work of Gerhard Richter. This, we are told, comes partially from Tuymans’ familial past, which includes relatives who fought on both sides of World War II. How any of this content is in any way particular to Tuymans, compared to the thousands of other artists about whom the same might be said, remains unexplained. 

A second feature written by Richard Vine, managing director of the magazine, takes the career of Xing Danwen as a reflection of the development of Chinese art photography, from "reportage to ever greater artifice and personal control" since the late 1970s. It’s more great biographical stuff. Born during the second year of Mao’s ham-fisted cultural revolution -- her first name, Danwen, apparently translates to "Red Culture" (like hippies who named their kids things like "River" or "Eden") -- Xing trained as a painter at the Central Academy of Fine Arts in Beijing in the approved "realist" style, but also took photographs on the side. After graduation, she was posted to a government agency in the provincial capital of Xi’an, where she was born. Bored out of her mind, Xing took advantage of corrupt higher-ups and skedaddled back to the capital, where she resided illegally. A year later, she married a foreigner and spent some time in Germany, where she sold her first prints and received commissions for further photographic work.

Xing is primarily known in the West for her 2002-2003 "disCONNEXION" series featuring high-definition close-ups of discarded computer parts and high-tech waste that has ended up in vast dumps across China. More recently she has been making altered digital images of the giant residential complexes that have spread like kudzu across China’s capital cities in the last decade and a half. It is her documentary photos of the early ‘90s Beijing art scene, however, that Vine singles out for praise.

Although not a regular participant, Xing was a consistent witness of the early performance art milieu that sprang up in the city during this time and culminated around a working-class neighborhood re-named the "East Village" (in homage to the NYC artistic hot-spot of the ‘80s). Xing’s photographs of the artists and antics of this clique capture a brief moment of no-holds-barred expression that would soon be obliterated by government restriction and demolition, or else muffled by fame and fortune. Several of these images are currently on view at the Haines Gallery in San Francisco, and will be published in a book later this spring.

Finally, the magazine devotes a lengthy article to the riff-full works of Simon Starling, recipient of the 2005 Turner Prize. Starling originally studied photography at the Nottingham Polytechnic and Glasgow School of Art in the early ‘90s but has since moved on to employ a remarkable variety of materials and methods, including video, sculpture and cars. For a 2006 piece entitled Autoxylopyrocycloboros, for instance, Starling and another man rode across a Scottish lake in a 22-foot-long wooden steamboat that was slowly taken apart to feed the boiler, until the vessel sank. In other words, the boat provided its own means of propulsion.

The authors of the text, married sculptors Wade Saunders and Anne Rochette, call this work "the stuff of Tom and Jerry cartoons," which is apt; but to the literary-minded, Starling’s stunt immediately recalls the story of Jason and the Argonauts, who dismantle their ship only to re-build an exact copy of it from the pieces, a story beloved (and belabored) by the French Structuralist Roland Barthes. In recent years Starling has started to play off the work of Henry Moore. A 2008 piece called Silver Particle/Bronze (After Henry Moore), on view at Musée d’Art Contemporain du Val de Marne in Paris last fall, parodies Moore’s biomorphism via photography and an electron microscope.

In an inset review of a show of Starling’s work at the Casey Kaplan gallery in New York, Nancy Princenthal characterizes Starling as one of several contemporary artists -- Matthew Ritchie, Terence Koh and the Bruce High Quality Foundation -- who play history "as a Google game, in which everything is a click away from something else." I’m not sure if Princenthal means this as a jibe or just a neutral description (and also: what’s a "Google game"?), but it certainly speaks to wide purview of recent works -- Alec Soth’s recent photobooks, for instance.

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Even though the conceited cultural troglodytes at The New Criterion are pretty much irrelevant -- they hate art so much, why are they even in the business? -- it’s good to check in occasionally just to see what they’ve got going. The staunchly conservative "review of the arts and intellectual life" was launched in 1982 by art critic Hilton Kramer after he left the New York Times in disgust at the appalling state of criticism then in practice -- you know, all that multicultural hogwash. Kramer edits the magazine in collaboration with Roger Kimball, an unrepentant toff who reviews art for The National Review and heads Encounter Books, publisher of such fine titles as How the Obama Administration Threatens Our National Security, and In Praise of Prejudice.

The February’s glowing panegyric for Irving Kristol, "godfather of modern conservatism," is no great surprise. Love is blind, after all. More surprising for a journal otherwise devoted to limited government and free markets is a review of the latest biography of Ayn Rand that compares this capitalist paragon to Stalin. Rand is described as a paranoid megalomaniac whose verbose faux-philosophic novels are as enjoyable and intellectually stimulating as eating your own face off (I’m paraphrasing). For once I agree with a New Criterion author, but given that the article has drawn over 24 pages of reader responses on the magazine website, plenty of Rand loyalists remain ever ready to defend their mad, dead queen.

As for the art reviews, they’re a mixed bag. Wall Street Journal art critic Karen Wilkin nitpicks her way through an exhibition of works by Cézanne, Picasso and Mondrian on view at the Gemeentemuseum in The Hague, while painter and professor Mario Naves unloads his spleen on Gabriel Orozco, whose work is of course the subject of a major retrospective at MoMA right now. Nitpickery and insults, typically at tedious length and generally without intelligence or wit, this is the right wing’s idea of "art criticism." Showing a bit more promise is conservative wunderkind James Panero’s brief visit to the burgeoning art scene in Bushwick, Brooklyn (where "pigeon coops are common. . . and birds often circle above the rooftops"), but alas, although nice, the prose is a bit prosaic.

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But never mind the bollocks -- what’s up with Flash Art? Dating back to 1967, the Milan-based art journal has long been conspicuously cosmopolitan, jam-packed with reports on all manner of new art, notably from Europe, by a huge stable of contributors, European and otherwise. In fact, many of the articles and reviews are translated, which sometimes makes for awkward phrases -- which plenty of English-as-an-original-language art pubs give you as a matter of course.

This month’s Flash Art consists of the usual plethora of reviews and news items, but also several features. The three best deal with well-worn names and ideas. First off is a piece by Massimiliano Gioni, director of special exhibitions at the New Museum and artistic director of the Fondazione Nicola Trussardi in Milan, who somehow also has time to commit to paper an extensive analysis of the work of Tacita Dean. A charming British artist who seems to travel the world in search of interesting subjects, which she then converts into long, meditative, poetic films (she also makes photos and drawings), Dean is "the Richard Serra of vision" Gioni writes, describing her work as "an allegory of time."

The slowness of Dean’s films, in combination with the regular appearances of older folks, artistic or otherwise, are the key to their meaning, according to Gioni. A work featuring the late Merce Cunningham performing an immobile dance to the silence of John Cage’s famous 4’ 33’’ that was recently exhibited at Gioni’s Fondazione is discussed at length. The patience this work requires and the stillness it evokes may be the answer to our hyper-paced surroundings, leading Gioni to wonder whether the new "ultimate weapon" of the avant-garde may be, strange as it may sound, boredom. It’s not so new, really -- the idea was so prevalent in the early days of video art that William Wegman’s short, funny vids were treated as a major revelation when first shown at Sonnabend Gallery in the 1970s.

Long used to sticking it to the powers that be, German conceptualist Hans Haacke is interviewed by Los Angeles-based artist and Cal Arts faculty member Sam Durant about his contribution to an exhibition called "The Fear Society" that appeared concurrently with last year’s Venice Biennale. Haacke’s contribution, featuring a 1994 photograph of a three-year-old living in a Palestinian refugee camp near Bethlehem, was originally included in a 2007 show called "Desert Generation" that was organized jointly by Israeli and Palestinian artists in opposition to the occupation of the West Bank. Friends of Haacke’s that worked on that earlier effort collaborated again with the artist for "The Fear Society." While clearly critical of the Israeli state’s policies, Haacke does not approve of the gathering chorus of calls for a cultural and academic boycott that country, calling it "counter-productive." Instead he promotes further joint efforts like the ones he worked with in 2007 and establishing bridges with critical artists working within Israel. "It would be strategically and morally wrong to discontinue exchanges with these critics," he concludes. And just when "critical" Israeli artists like Udi Aloni are themselves getting onboard with the idea of a cultural boycott, too!

Finally, the Paris-based collective artist Claire Fontaine presents a series of aphorisms on the concept of the readymade. Fontaine, a "readymade artist," is in reality a cover for her two "assistants," James Thornhill and Fulvia Carnevale, who lifted the name from a popular brand of French notebooks. Thornhill is a British-born artist and Carnevale an Italian who teaches philosophy at a university in France; together they produce what is enthusiastically described as "a version of neoconceptual art that looks like other people’s work." Huh!? Didn’t Elaine Sturtevant, Sherrie Levine, Mike Bidlo and a bunch of other people play that game for all its worth more than ten years ago? Even the whole idea of adopting a "readymade artist" persona is pretty old hat by this point, isn’t it? (Remember Rrose Sélavy? Anyone?)

The problem with Fontaine’s speculations on the readymade is that they are totally contrived and dull. The text meanders from one quote to another without offering any insight except that Duchamp was cryptic and that anti-estheticism has ceased to be radical. These are rather sophomoric conclusions if you ask me. Still, you’ve got to give the artist credit for raising a ruckus at the most recent Art Basel Miami Beach when one of their works, a neon sign à la Jenny Holzer that proclaimed "Capitalism kills love" was removed prior to opening day for being "too political." Duchamp never did that.

GRANT MANDARINO is an art writer based in Ann Arbor, Mich.