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November 2010
Published by Artists of Utah
Page 5   

Art Reel
Travis Nikolai

In the basement below Broadway's Frosty Darling, in a small gallery that opened quietly a few months ago, Travis Nikolai has installed a new exhibit of multi-media paintings entitled Hot Young Suicides: Audition for the 27 Club. Those who visited Artists of Utah's 35 x 35 exhibit last year will remember Nikolai's refrigerator-based installation "Pan-Gallactic Reality," which won a People's Choice award. In this interview, recorded at that time, Nikolai discusses his thematic interests, the appeal of material-based work and his movement between painting and installation. In his current show at the Stolen and Escaped Gallery, Nikolai's rough and frequently dark works focus "on feelings of misanthropy, outsider-ness, depression, death and most specifically suicide." The artist has dedicated the exhibit to "all those [gay, lesbian and transgender] who have recently ended their lives, pointless casualties in what is so obviously the great civil rights struggle of our day."

Film Review
A Conflicted Radiance
A new film on Jean-Michel Basquiat

Of the people who know the childlike, energy-filled, and massively busy works of Jean-Michel Basquiat, most are familiar with the orbiting cautionary tale of success and the art market which consumed and destroyed him, as typified in the 1996 eponymous Hollywood film.

The newly released The Radiant Child contributes an excellent human dimension to that story, a sad portrait of the artist which praises the depth of his work and examines the subjects of his struggles. It is crafted lovingly: bright, lively edits and grainy hand-held film give it an intimate touch, a rarity. One of the great resources of the film is director Tamra Davis' raw interview with Basquiat reflecting candidly on his situation. There's a hypnotism looking into the the long-dead artist's face: he was such a charmer and a cipher. But unfortunately this documentary is not just about the work of the artist and the artist himself, and around that issue Radiant Child is discomforting.

The problem with this film is that it is a praising retrospective of a martyred young artist by all his friends, patrons, collectors and admirers, who seem to have grown up, sleeked up, and landed careers as psychiatrists, designers and massively influential curators. Their youthful freedom and immaturity was something Basquiat didn't live through. It is not unrealistic to expect people to grow up, but the contrast between the youthful energy of Basquiat's era and the established, wealthy art world remembering it loads the film with tension.

If Basquiat's story is admirable and tragic it is because he was a fragile creative soul who was destroyed by his skyrocketing success--which he was unable to adapt to--and the art market's insatiable appetite for "the new." The film is peopled by the individuals who contributed to his success and continue to work within that market, yet they never reveal direct remorse or accountability for their role in the whole destructive process which led to his demise. Rene Ricard’s early Art Forum cover story on Basquiat, for example, is presented with little scrutiny from the filmmakers as a prescient chance for the artist’s star to rise, yet the journalist’s words -- “the next person I wrote about needed to be totally unknown, terribly young, very ambitious, I wanted to latch onto a career that I could watch and write about for a long time” -- seem more than a little bit foreboding and parasitic given the context. To this day curators like Diego Cortez and artist Kenny Scharf are quick to take credit for exposing Basquiat to the world at large, but nowhere is there a sound bite from any of these people acknowledging the possibility that their friend was destroyed by the repetitive machine that is their bread and butter. The film does an interesting tap-dance of condemning these insatiable market forces while only referring to the participants in the art game obliquely, “this artificial world,” in some cases, and anonymously in others, placing blame on a faceless "new crowd" of doting groupies that the filmmakers do not provide a spokesperson for. One is left to wonder who this evil art world is composed of, if not the artists, critics, collectors, curators, and gallery owners interviewed in this film.

To Radiant Child's benefit, it excellently portrays Basquiat's work, especially with a series of side-by-side comparisons of various visual and cultural influences to Basquiat’s pieces that literally pop with color and artistic virtue. There is some truly priceless footage of a fellow with a Ph.D. stuttering and stumbling as he attempts to interview Basquiat and backpedal from the racial implications of calling the artist’s work primitive, and the film's connection of his work to be-bop and jazz is a neat insight. It gives the viewer an honest, loving picture of Jean-Michel's rise and fall in the words of the people closest to him. What it fails to do is critique the overall consumptive art market of which they are a part. In fact, the film's treatment of Basquiat's inability to survive as heroic reinforces the mentality that destroyed him. It lapses into a predictable "good die young/'too rare for this world" kind of mantra that fails to engage with the real problems behind a system that quickly consumes a unique style and simultaneously stifles it from changing and demands that it evolve. The collectors and curators ceaselessly argue for the validity of the works in the highest language possible, and their values ever inflate. Now is it a requirement that a film looking back on the career of a young iconographic artist pick apart the mechanics of art-world capitalism? No. But by making this film at this time the interviewees and participants in Basquiat's life and career are put in a very uncomfortable, one could say complicit, position.

Exhibition Review: Park City
A Finely Stitched Line
Quilt Art at Temple Har Shalom

The line between art and craft may be no finer than when quilts are the topic of discussion. Quilts have resided happily in the craft category for centuries, but in the last 30 years or so, some quilts have made their way off of beds and on to walls. These are known as art quilts and are commanding high prices in the art market and providing cachet in museum collections.

All art quilts are not created equal, however. The relative novelty of a quilt on the wall doesn’t necessarily catapult it into fine art territory. As with all art, some people are just plain better at it than others, and a high quality art quilt demonstrates a mastery of subject, design and content – as well as technical ability.

The Israeli Quilt Exhibit at the Temple Har Shalom in Park City evinces a mixture of quality, though the collection as a whole is interesting in that the quilts are all made by Israelis and focus on the theme of spirituality, music, the cycle of life and the City of Jerusalem. The setting is also stunningly beautiful with mountain views out the numerous Temple windows and lots of natural light in the main area. Unfortunately, however, some of the quilts have been relegated to dark stairwells and hallways, which is somewhat of a disservice to the art as a whole.

Of the 10 artists in the exhibit, three rise to the top with their quilts. One of the best is right at the entrance and is a self-portrait by Hava Katzir.|1| Her use of color and light is remarkable and illustrates superior technical ability in the quilt’s execution. According to the bio provided for the exhibit, Katir was born in 1963 and lives in Mevaseret Zion where she teaches quilting in her studio and has dedicated her life to the art of quilting. This conscious focus on her art is evident in two other quilts in the exhibit. Completely different in style, "The Show Must Not Go On"|2| and "Music in Nature"|3| illustrate the range of the artist’s talent with their excellent focus on color and design.

The second noteworthy artist is Ita Ziv. Born in Russia in 1945, she immigrated to Israel soon thereafter. Her original profession was as a children’s clothing designer and professional makeup artist. Currently she focuses mainly on modern quilts, and her works are recognized by the transparent and plastic material she uses. One quilt in the exhibit is particularly innovative in this regard. Composed of multiple layers of plastic bags, the artist cut through tiny sections formed by gold stitching to expose the different colors and designs that comprise "Recycling."|4|

Ziv explores the transparent component of organza fabric in her quilt "People – Searching I" |5| and shows excellent mastery of color and line in the use of a striped background fabric that has been cut into small irregular shapes and pieced back together. "Renewal" |6| uses some of the same techniques as "People" and is particularly clever in its incorporation of menorahs into its leaf design.

Ofra Danon brings a lighter and more humorous touch to the exhibit. Born in 1951 on Kibbutz Yiftach in Upper Galilee, Dannon graduated from the Itzuvim School of Design where she became interested in quilting as an art form. Her quilts "Family Geometry" |7| and "Machine"|0| are remarkable for their attention to detail and are best appreciated when studied closely. "Spring" |8| is also extraordinary in its fine details, though the background could be better integrated into the overall design.

In contrast to the above, some of the quilts in the exhibit do not succeed as high quality art. Some of the quilts are a rehash of traditional quilt patterns with mismatched surface elements, or illustrate a hodegpodge of color and confused design.|9| Still another approaches the level of kitsch, though it may elicit smiles from other quilters with too many fabrics in their collections. |10|

That being said, however, it is a pleasure to have a quilt exhibit in Utah that exposes more of the general population to the possibilities of high quality textile art. Quilt exhibits featuring Utah quilters are often disappointing and do not come close to the quality and innovation found in international quilt shows sponsored by other states (Japanese quilters in particular are rising to the top of the awards circuit). So, kudos to Temple Har Shalom for sponsoring the Israeli Quilt Exhibit.

Machine by Ofra Danonn
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