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The C.A.C.A. Review
An occasional publication of the Chicago Art Critics Association
October, 2003, Volume 4, Number 1

Table of Contents:
Derrida, by Corey Postiglione
Paul Sierra , by Jeff Huebner
An Art Museum in Brasilia, by Fred Camper
Scott Anderson and Cyber-Landscape, by John Brunetti
Sumakshi Sing, by Polly Ullrich
Vadim Katznelson, by Victor M. Cassidy

Directed by Kirby Dick and Amy Ziering Kofman, 2002
Gene Siskel Film Center
School of the Art Institute of Chicago
by Corey Postiglione

I told a friend of mine (who incidentally teaches English at a public high school) that I was going to see the film Derrida at the Gene Siskel Film Center. He said, "Who?" This is what makes this film so difficult to assess: Who exactly was it made for? This is really the central challenge to the filmmakers.

Jacques Derrida, who is well known within certain academic circles as the father of deconstruction, is a daunting subject. Do you try to articulate Derrida’s revolutionary linguistic theories, which have had a dramatic impact on recent cultural theory including the visual arts? Or do you try to reveal the nature of the man behind the theories? The filmmakers opt for the latter, which turns out to be the right the decision. The film, for anyone with some knowledge and understanding of deconstruction, is quite enjoyable. Eighty-seven minutes pass by without a tedious moment, due to the director’s thoughtful balance of talking heads, spirited cinematography, and periodic doses of humor. What also saves the film from trying to be a visual equivalent of Derrida’s theories is the restraint used in the editing. There are cuts and jumps in time, and it does have an overall collage effect, but it is carefully calibrated to keep its subject from getting lost in cinematic tricks.

This is a film that could have been deadly given its impenetrable subject matter (let’s face it: only a few experts in the field can really do this work with any credibility). The term "deconstruction" has been so casually used by everyone from filmmakers such as Woody Allen to designers of bathrooms that it almost has lost its Derridean program as an analytical (not an evaluative) process that investigates the very nature of meaning. The film does allow Derrida to discuss some of the tenets of deconstruction, like when he states matter-of-factly that the text always unravels from the inside; that its own use of language betrays its intended meaning.

There are voice-over excerpts from Derrida’s writings (several from the 90s), but in the main this is a portrait of the man. What we get from this documentary is a look into Derrida’s everyday existence, both the professional and the mundane. We see him at important lectures, as well as at home relaxing in his library or simply sitting down in his small kitchen to breakfast. He appears to be a patient man with a sense of humor. In one scene that does to some degree try to playfully mimic the unreliability of speech (parole), we see the sound man struggling to place the microphone on Derrida’s jacket, and in so doing causes his voice to be break apart like a bad cell-phone connection. It works because Derrida is oblivious to the situation and continues to conduct the interview. Another humorous scene involves Derrida’s brother relating how their mother thought he misspelled "difference" (his famous neologism).

There are touching moments when Derrida recalls his childhood in Algiers and the abuse that plagued him as a Jew. In South Africa (after visiting the tiny cell where Nelson Mandela was held during the apartheid years), he discusses the difficulty of forgiveness and absolute forgiveness. We sense a deep connection here to his own past.

Throughout the film’s interviews there are seeming contradictions. For example, Derrida is reluctant to talk about how he met his wife, or any intimacies regarding their relationship. However, in another scene he surprisingly suggests that he would like to know the details of Hegel’s love life. When questioned about these inconsistencies (in another context) he admits with a smile that he still embraces irony.

Even though at times he is reticent to answer the interviewers’ questions, much is still revealed of his character. He emerges a man of great intelligence, seemingly endless patience, and a capacity for humor. Ultimately, the film succeeds as an intimate portrait of a man of letters, accessible to the uninitiated, who at the same time just happens to be one of the most influential philosophers of the late twentieth century.

Paul Sierra
Oskar Friedl Gallery
300 W. Superior St.
reviewed by Jeff Huebner

The paintings of veteran Chicago artist Paul Sierra have always been more symbolic than topical, though that doesn’t mean his narratives can’t refer to current events or human concerns. They’re richly allusive that way. Even his large-sized landscapes—which are invariably created with a calculating eye toward the marketplace—seem to reside on some interior metaphysical plane, their dense foliage and other natural features rendered with a hallucinant palette and fervid brushwork whose effect is by turns sensual and sinister. Sierra’s paintings often set up an unsettling tension between reality and fiction, pictorial and psychological space; images could refer to dreams, memories, myths, or even mystical states—reimagined vistas that frequently recall his native Cuba, from which the 59-year-old artist has been exiled since he and his family fled on a boat in 1961.

During the 1980s, when he began painting full time, Sierra gained an international audience—and critical attention—via a series of traveling exhibits that launched the "Latino Art Boom," and his work became identified with what’s been called "Magical Realism," a Latin-American-bred cultural sensibility characterized by a mingling of quotidian events with the surreal and supernatural. More parochially, Sierra’s narrative, figurative expressionism also fits into the post-"Fantastic Images"/Imagist style of Chicago painting—indeed, his work was represented by Phyllis Kind Gallery through most of the 1990s. These days, he splits his allegiance between Aldo Castillo Gallery and Oskar Friedl Gallery in Chicago (among other places).

Sierra’s work often draws on Greek mythology as a way to illustrate universal themes, and that’s the case with his current exhibit at Friedl, "The Icarus Chronicles." Its ten oils on canvas—the artist’s primary medium—have been culled from the past decade, though more than half have been created within the last two years. Their subject is Icarus, who escapes from Crete’s Labyrinth with wings fabricated by his artist-father Deadelus but flies so high that the sun’s heat melts the fastening wax and he plunges to his death. The paintings depict figures—some nude, some in businessmen’s garb, some winged—that are flying or falling or leaping or crash-landing, in either urban or natural settings.

The "danger of hubris" is only the most immediate, literal interpretation. In a conversation, Sierra also talked about his fear of heights, of failure: "As an artist you create in isolation, but in order to make a living you’ve got to put your work out there—and then you can be shot down by anyone." The mythical figure could also represent the artist’s sense of geographic dislocation, or is it a metaphor for his own works’ high-wire balance of the earthbound and the ethereal? Of commercial and artistic imperatives?

In the wake of September 11, "The Icarus Chronicles" acquires a more disturbing and poignant subtext. Although the series was begun years before the terrorist attacks and the resulting wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, it’s also possible to see it as a statement about the hubris of American policies in the Middle East. Inescapably, one is also reminded of the people who jumped from the upper floors of the World Trade Center, especially of AP photographer Richard Drew’s iconic "Falling Man" picture that appeared in many newspapers (and led to charges that they exploited a man’s death). Those moments are uncannily evoked in Icarus #5 (2001), with a figure tumbling into a burning cloud, and Icarus #6 (2003), with another teetering on the edge of a skyscraper.

Sierra remarks that he made the "extra effort" in the last two years to steer clear of such horrific associations, having his Icaruses freefalling in darkness, or into landscapes. "I didn’t want to have anything to do with it," he says. He’s not being disingenuous, yet topical readings are the risks that Sierra takes in his ongoing lyrical flights from literalness, still refusing to fall flat on his face.

An Art Museum in Brasilia
Fred Camper

Invited to curate and speak on four programs of Stan Brakhage films in Belo Horizonte, Brazil, I’ve been exploring this amazing country. I began by going to Brasilia, the capital, a planned city built on the central plain in the late 1950s, regarded by many as a monstrous failure because it is oriented around the automobile to the extent that it attempts to abolish the conventional street as a place of social contact.

But the residents have responded to the initial failure. In many cases the traditional street has returned, complete with storefronts. Residents congregate, and meet each other, near shopping areas. And not everyone can afford cars, so there are lots of buses, and even one subway line. Still, it’s hard to be completely positive about a city whose center is defined not by a public square but by the interchange between its two principal roadways—at which sits a television tower. But what’s really stunning is how much great architecture there is. Washington, D.C. was never like this!

The principal architect was Oscar Niemeyer, and most of his more famous buildings, such as the president's residence, the Palácio da Alvorada (Palace of the Dawn), are inspired, poetic, even dreamy. My two favorites among the Niemeyer buildings I saw are two small, lesser-known ones, both located west of the television tower (most of the principal government buildings are east of it). One was a wonderful small church, the Igreja de N. S. da Paz. The other, the art museum, is the Memorial dos Povos Indígenas, or Memorial for the Indigenous People. Niemeyer built it in 1982 as a museum of indigenous art, but it was first used for modern exhibits, and restored to its intended use only in 1999.

Art-museum design poses a special problem for an architect. The most common "successes" either sport great architecture with forms so strong they interfere with art viewing (Frank Lloyd Wright’s Guggenheim in New York), or architecture so bland and mediocre that it doesn't much interfere with the art, or anything else (some of Thomas Beebe's Art Institute galleries). The great exceptions to this unfortunate dualism among the museums I've seen are the three by Louis Kahn, especially the sublime Kimbell Museum in Fort Worth, whose mystical approach to space and light is subtle enough that the architecture not only doesn't interfere with the art, but steps back from it, creating a gently enchanted atmosphere that enhances art viewing. Although it stands alongside the Kimbell in terms of its design, Niemeyer's Memorial for the Indigenous People is not even one of the 44 sites shown on the official tourist map.

A curving walkway leads up to a rounded white building. The interior gallery is in the shape a of large circle, glass on the inside of which leads to an open, circular courtyard; an organically shaped, curving concrete canopy above it covers only a small part of the sky, making for constantly shifting views of its form and the shadows it casts. Not long after I began looking at the art, moving back and forth from the inside to the outside of the museum's circular pathway, I was overcome by a tremendous feeling of well-being, as if the pieces of a broken world had suddenly been put back together in a new way, as if things formerly disconnected were making harmonious chords for the first time. And I realized how right the circle felt for displaying this art, and how inappropriate the rectilinear spaces of most galleries and museums are for the display of the art of native North or South Americans, with its deep ties to nature.

A statement by one Chief Aritana on the gallery wall calls the museum "different from any other one I have seen," continuing that "the free and open space makes us feel as if we are in our villages, in touch with the sky." The relationship of the interior space to the circular courtyard, and the way its overhead shape and shadow changes as you traverse the circle, are among the things that connect, with an inexplicably mysterious power, this museum to the natural world from which the art within it has been created.

Niemeyer's museum made me wonder if each different type of art has a gallery architecture that will best display it. But then I saw his 1996 Museum of Contemporary Art in Niterói (Museu de Arte Contemporânea de Niterói), just across the bay from Rio de Janeiro. Also a round building, and a sublime piece of architecture in part because of the relationship of its form to the surrounding landscape, it has a wide circular corridor whose gallery accommodated quite generously the very good rectilinear geometrical abstractions of the Brazilian painter Hermelindo Fiaminghi, making the failure of the Guggenheim's narrow aisles all the more apparent.

Scott Anderson and Cyber-Landscape
Chicago Cultural Center
78 E. Washington St.
reviewed by John Brunetti

Becoming disoriented by Scott Anderson’s new paintings during September at the Chicago Cultural Center made me think about the evolving relationship of the viewer to the landscape. These days, people seem to look less toward the horizon, or even down the block, to determine where they are physically and in other ways, and more into the LED screens of lap-tops, computer games, Palm Pilots, and cell phones. That Scott Anderson attempts to address this cultural development with the seemingly archaic medium of oil painting is one of the more curious discourses generated by his work.

Anderson’s desolate, post-apocalyptic interiors/ exteriors are hybrids of architecture and technology that consume available space with orgiastic clashes of brilliant, artificial colors and tentacle-like forms. While it is easy to become consumed with attempting to identify the pop-culture inspirations for Anderson’s obsolescent technological innovations—his drawing skills suggest those of the talented adolescent boy in study hall who could combine the lust for engines and human anatomy with a virginal innocence—it is his subtle and more mischievous manipulations of spatial relationships that provide the more compelling irritants in his work.

The terms "near" and "far" are no longer relevant distinctions when attempting to interpret space in one of Anderson’s paintings. Each perception can apply to several areas of a painting simultaneously, as sharply focused contours and dramatic shifts in the scale of objects disrupt traditional depth-of-field relationships. Anderson’s interpretations of space reflect the click-and-drag mentally of twenty-first-century culture, where individuals can piece together a landscape through cyber-space without having their feet touch the ground they are viewing. In Anderson’s paintings, one visits numerous places without ever being able to visually stop anywhere long enough to get one’s bearings. Surfing has replaced scanning in the cyber-landscape, and artificiality carries the weight of a new reality.

Sumakshi Sing
Gallery 400
1240 W. Harrison St.
by Polly Ullrich

"Void," an aptly named exhibition by Sumakshi Singh at Gallery 400, is an attempt to suggest the breadth of the cosmos through a sharp attentiveness toward its slightest details. A brisk glance at the show by a careless viewer gives the impression of emptiness, that there is nothing there to see, except for dinged-up white walls, a cement floor, and a stained ceiling in the gallery. Yet . . . look closer: see the tattered butterfly wing whirling on the sprayed-yellow cobweb at the edge of a sunny window; see the tiny, clay lichens and mushrooms painted and then settled into nooks and crannies by the artist; see the finger smudges, the pokes, the dents, the hairline cracks on walls, all teased out of and carefully expanded from the leavings of other exhibitions. Singh’s "art," such as it is, has an insignificance that suddenly turns on its head and resounds with the infinite.

This is art that is almost invisible, forcing the viewer to wonder, where is it, exactly? Is it the tiny lichens, is it the wall cracks, is it that fluff of dust in the corner? From this point of view, the sprinkler system on the ceiling begins to look interesting. There’s a huge crack on a gallery wall with mirrors propped on each end, producing an infinite regression of cracks and imperfections. With these tiny, minimalist and compressed gestures, Singh means us to lose our bearings—we are made to search concertedly for art, any art, within the eccentric leftovers of past activities and empty rooms, and suddenly everything seems potentially to be art. The boundaries and categories that have pinned art to certain media and practices are toppled, and the rest of the world suddenly expands, seems ripe for aesthetic content and teleological meaning.

"Void" is part of a wider effort in other ways as well. It is the third in a six-part series of locally produced exhibitions titled "At the Edge: Innovative Art in Chicago," all of which are specifically created for the Gallery 400 space. This is the second year of the project, which is scheduled to run for at least three years.

Vadim Katznelson
Roy Boyd Gallery
739 N. Wells St.
by Victor M. Cassidy

Yum, yum, yum! Luscious, glistening, wavy stripes of thick, white, acrylic paint mixed with rich blues, reds, yellows, greens, or browns. Every surface shimmers: the colors seem to change with the light. Some color fields have unlimited depth like the sky. Vague forms float through others. This work is so very tactile that the artist, Vadim Katznelson, was prompted to supply a sample of the paint he uses so visitors could hold it in their hands instead of touching his paintings.

Katznelson showed three groups of new paintings at Roy Boyd Gallery in September and October. Gandalf, which filled the entire north wall of the gallery, comprises 116 squares, each 12-inches square, arranged in ten roughly vertical rows. Sorcerer’s Apprentice, installed in the gallery stairwell, consisted of 23 paintings measuring 12 by 12 or 12 by 20 inches. There was a separate exhibition of Katznelson’s easel paintings in the back of the gallery.

Each piece in Gandalf and Sorcerer’s Apprentice is mounted flat to the wall without a frame. The artist places squares of mylar on glass, squeegees on paint at the top of each square, then spreads it directly downwards, leaving tracks in the surface. Surplus paint makes a little flare at the bottom. Paint spreads over the sides of each square, activating the edges.

According to Katznelson, this show continues his "investigation in painting as object making" and explores "how to free paint from the constraints of its support." In the installations, the "individual square slabs of paint are removed from their visible support, free to engage the wall and activate the interior architectural space," he states. The installations are "playful," he adds, and "could be arranged in many different ways."

Katznelson gets a variety of color effects through this process. In Gandalf, there are three rows of blue squares, all located together, whose abstract patterns seem to hang in space, suggesting the sea or the northern lights. Some of the green squares recall spring landscapes. Patterns in the brown and yellow squares appear abstract and sturdy. The red squares suggest gloriously fattening flavors of ice cream.

The Sorcerer’s Apprentice paintings have an entirely different feel, in part because each color field is divided with horizontal lines into five areas. Roughly half of these pieces are blue and white, while the others are black and white. More sober and orderly than Gandalf , this work seems to come out of the artist’s earlier pattern pieces, which were easel paintings. Now and then we see touches of yellow in these works and surfaces that could be photographic. This show is a series of cheering encounters with little painted personalities. There is an air of pure delight It left me in an excellent mood.

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