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05.11.09

the beauty uncommon

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Blue Billie 2003, Lyle Ashton Harris-Portrait of the artist as Billie Holiday channeling the state of bliss between life and death. Pigment on paperh: 28 x w: 24 in / h: 71.1 x w: 61 cm Image courtesy of Adamson Gallery/ Adamson Editions

I have always enjoyed demonstrations of the perverse, tragic, sad and explicitly graphic visuals in all forms of art. European culture by way of ancient mythological allegory exemplify these concepts in classical works and are at the core of this modern heritage.

Abstracting terror and the ensuing emotion to the highest level can have  rapturous  value. The tragedy and despair in the love story between Romeo and Juliet just  about  says  it  all.

Queer warped objects and creatures are buried and littered in the work of Salvador Dali. His visions destabilize what we assume about “reality.” The physics of gravity do not limit  the possibilities of new landscapes and cities in his dream world. Narratives referring to the trials of martyrs within religious text can compete with the gore in any of Wes Craven’s horror flicks.

Dali’s gruesomely surreal imagery is also reminiscent of Mel Gibson’s visual requiem in Passion of the Christ. The film was so shocking to me because the brutal destruction of the Jesus character remains a vivid memory from my childhood. Growing up with a mother who quoted many a Shango-Baptist rhetoric, I believed that I had an intimate relationship with Him.

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Gaetano Pesce,1984. Urethane resin, 34 x 21 1/2 x 24" (86.4 x 54.6 x 61 cm) Phot: Courtesy of the MOMA. NYC

Another example of chaotic and fragmented emotional themes is the opening dance performance featured in Pedro Almodovar’sTalk to Her“. Choreographed by Pina Bausch, the piece heavily references time and death. There is the beginning, the middle, and the ultimate end.

The essential recipe for the aesthetics of  fear and horror is simple: Undermine the familiar, add one part of the unknown, whip until anxious, allow to simmer, the resulting terror should be served hot. Sound familiar?

Despite knowing that attempts to break established codes may lead to DANGER, test it. Simply put, knowing the obstacles of the hero’s journey, pray to never be dissuaded from pursuing any personal and creative goals.

In fact, it is a critical act of creativity for any artist be it painter, musician, graphic designer, architect, chef, or parent. Quoting, imperfectly, the writer James Baldwin from one of his lectures in the 1960’s, “the one thing that I know about fear is when you feel it, walk towards it!”

The works of the artists I chose for this entry do all of the above with elegance and beauty. Unmatched and uncomfortable, Lyle Ashton Harris’s work deals with the shame and denial of sexual expression, tempted by the limitations of popular culture and it’s gender role games.  His sexually ambiguous hybrid depictions of tragedy, pain, and hurt, both physical and spiritual, are an inspiring testament to truth and honesty. He is like a shaman on a cultural tightrope.

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Luminol exposes a foot print. Photo: Courtesy of howstuffworks.com

The gay body, the black body, and the emotional body continue to be made and unmade. In his works, the artist explores secret and private psychic places, experienced and navigated in his own life, and negotiated in the public eye.

The courage to expose and the faith to be accepted is a ritual that  began in his work over 20 years ago and continues to speak visually today, in his photography, collages, and in his dangerous and stimulating performance pieces. From a tectonic perspective, the materials and weight of construction are based on his “own body’s” structure. When he redirects onto a subject, Harris’s gaze of the “body politic” subtly reveals nuances of sexuality. It is pure magic!

Not unlike the forensic detective who sprays Luminol onto the seemingly ordinary surfaces. He peers with a black-light, exposing another plane of consciousness, like a crime scene spattered with blood and semen.

You may ask yourself: What relevance is this to an architect/artist/designer? What is there to glean from dealing with and observing these issues that would be useful in the design of a house ? What does it have to do with design of space?

Answer : I believe a rich foundation can be built upon, molded, and used in any practice, subversively or obviously.  Under all objects, buried in their form, are traces of the creative process, indicators of who the object is meant to be used by, and how will it be used.

The innovation and risk-taking seen in Gaetano’s Pesce’s amorphous pieces are immediately evident. Objects are physically stable yet appear to be dripping wet. His furniture and architecture honor another form of creative alchemy reminiscent of Antonio Gaudi’s work at the Sagrada Familia in Barcelona.  Other masters of the Art Nouveau such as Louis Majorelle and Louis Comfort Tiffany at the turn of the 20th century explore similar themes of the battle between the body’s control over nature.

Except it is not flowers or the Romanticism of nature in a state of dissolve in Pesces’s sculptures. Instead, it is more indicative of a nuclear meltdown. Romanticism in the age of global warming. The result of something or things, once whole, now frozen in the act of destruction.

Film director Peter Greenaway is clearly familiar with obsession, addiction, excess, the desire to consume, devour, and then regurgitate. Each distinct action is part of the creation the uncommon beauty. The whole and perfect body can be stalked, mentally abused, and written upon like a canvas, as shown in this clip of the film, Pillow Book. The film is loosely based on the book by Sei Shōnagon completed in the year 1002.

In these surreal spaces nothing and no one is  sacred.  Sensation, infinite pleasure, worship and the beauty of death are the only rules for Greenaway’s poetic vision. After death, the body itself continues to serve it’s only purpose beyond fear. In the case of the “Publisher” Gerome’s skin remain the ultimate object of lust.

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I admire those artists whose commitment it is to challenge the aesthetic establishment. They are sometimes met by awe, disgust or whether in secret or public, praise. Uncommon use of materials and technologies within any creative venue should be encouraged.

In high contrast to the Greenway skin text, Huang Yong Ping’s installation, “Temple to the Relic of a Snake” is an expression of pure construction. The structure is currently on view at the Gladstone Gallery, NYC. It is a monument built for a sacred and powerful animal. The snake, habitually feared in western culture, is religiously memorialized in cast aluminum, bamboo, and steel. It seems to be shaped by a humble philosophy with a far more ancient connection with nature than our own traditions.

As I traversed the spiral ramp to the canopy of the snake’s jaws, I listened to the “crunch” of the bamboo below my feet. Despite daily life in the sped up digital-age, the installation reminded me I am vulnerable to decay and patina.  These ideas are relevant and precious in each of our personal journeys through life.


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