vineri, 25 martie 2016

Under arrest and ecstasy

(This is a rough version in English of the text published in Romanian on Gazeta de Constanța. Naturally, this text makes more sense in Romanian, but I tried to include some further explanations for readers outside Romania/Constantza. The initial text was intended to be read by a rather broad audience, people who may not be aware of the "macho" perspective on modernists, to give just one example.)


Johnny Edge is (now) DEAD


This year’s best art exhibition in Constantza took place at the Arms, Explosives and Lethal Substances Services of the County Police Inspectorate HQ. This is not a joke. I have written this summer about the exhibitions organized by the Art Museum Constanta in collaboration with the National Arts University Bucharest and MARe (Museum of Recent Art), treating them as some of the most important in the region lately, but I already knew – and was hotly anticipating – that this year we may also witness the first solo exhibition from King von Bee.

I met her in 2012, when she exhibited several paintings at an independent multi-art party/event called Warm Art. Featured in a few collective shows in Bucharest (without being represented by a gallery in particular) and present on Artindex.ro and Saatchi Art, King von Bee assured us that there will be a tour de force. And that is exactly what Black Wednesday delivers. It is something else than what we are used to: a shock art with substance.

Johnny KingDOOM's All Time Dream

We celebrated in 2015 the ending of Mazăre’s reign [Radu Mazăre was the mafioso mayor of Constanza, having ruled for 15 years before being knocked-out by the anti-corruption bureau DNA; he turned Mamaia, the summer resort part of the city, into a glamorous Miami simulacrum, but severely neglected the development of the rest of Constantza, making it his own "banana republic"], reason for which King von Bee initially promised to exhibit a series of portraits of our "beloved" mayor. Nothing from this series and, in any case, nothing similar in Black Wednesday - which, in spite of not being entirely faithful to artist's preferences (which lean towards skillful figurative painting), remains a great debut, marking innovation in several ways.

Installing the works not in a white cube, but in a police HQ space is not merely a gimmick. Black Wednesday. The Life and Times of a Hustla is a narrative series of works symbolically telling the story of a "fictional character with criminogenic potential", Johnny KingDOOM alias Johnny Edge (ostentatious signs of his extreme appetite for power and destruction - his "dream" object is a vertical, erect gun! - and of his tendency of being edgy, which can also make us think of that abstract tendency named hard edge painting). These works are framed in a narrative manner, but tend to be "conceptual" - the idea tends to matter more than the image, while the titles and the position in which each canvas was installed are also part of the works [all of this being highly unusual in the context of the local art scene].

Johnny KingDOOM's Burial (video stills)

Nota bene: the execution remains significant, aesthetics are not thrown away (although the artist does deal sometimes with "camp" features, like in the video Johnny KingDOOM’s Burial), as King von Bee does not want to be perceived as a conceptual artist, but rather as a vigorous artist (hence King instead of Queen) - and that is exactly how Black Wednesday manages to be a King von Bee-style exhibition. Although it contains the video-performance mentioned above and a few sculptural paintings (Rampant Lover literally features a golden knife struck in the canvas), painting is what she continues to prefer (and not surprising at all: painters remain the most authoritative on the art market).

Unlike Gili Mocanu [one of the few significant artists to hail from Constantza in the past decades], the pictorial discourse here is not ambigous, fuzzy: King von Bee's speciality are the signs of Power (of kings or of the mafia? Rather both!), from her own pseudonym to the symbols used in these works (and in other paintings that were not exhibited here, such as the one featuring a head-veiled nude with a pubic swastika and a machine gun!) and the iconoclastic decision to reduce the "portraits" of this character in these symbolic forms, whose styles carry a certain masculinism.

The (blood and) tears of sickness (MALADIVE EPISODE)

As we know by now, the abstract art of the 20th century was a "battle" in itself/for itself, carried by some "heroes", a lot of them males - from Malevich to Pollock (who is credited for having rejected the easel tradition in favor of the more powerful action painting and all-over composition), Rothko or the "softer" Cy Twombly, fond of the signs of Ancient/European tradition (the collage Johnny’s Epiphany contains a few Twombly-like scribblings of mystical delusion: "God loves me BUT sometimes God likes" and the writing suddenly halts, we assume that in anger). Their "emancipatory" force (of "emancipating" art, as the likes of Greenberg thought that the "progressive" narrative of art was heading towards purism) is now deemed "oppressive" (we just can't assume anymore a single tradition, a single criterium to judge art), so it is no wonder that King von Bee unlawfully subverts all these forms of abstract painting for her own figurative ends!

Birth of (Judas) an O.G. 

For example, a black-on-black monochrome painting (with "prison" bars instead of Rothko's horizontal blocks) comes to symbolize (and this explains once again the unconventional location of the exhibition) KingDOOM's incarceration. Seemingly "hermetic", the paintings (which are not even all abstract, also included is a near-portrait, a silhouette of KingDOOM's "wife") are quite clear once you read the titles, although some references may remain to some too subtle (for example, the paintings Johnny KingDOOM's Religious Dilemma after reading Torah). While tautological, titles such as Purple rain on my parade are suggestive enough. The first impression - of difficulty - turns out to be unjustified - in any case, the public seemed anything but bored.

Purple Rain On My Parade (Age 7)

I have no doubt that King von Bee is up to something on the long term. Let's see how she and her works will be like once she does obtain a real power in the artworld (power which does not she have yet). Like her spiritual "father" (Dalí), she also masters the art of self-promotion (as far as I know, there was no other art exhibition in Constantza promoted through trailers!), while remaining faithful to good painting (as in... subordinated to aesthetics). Unusually, her mannerist (and pop) approach is in the same time "art as lifestyle", while most of the local artists remain stuck in the traditional/Communist-period "fine art school" mindset.

Spraying plaster isn't safe (Age 12)

If I were to think now of Bucharest, I would be tempted to mix her up with the painters of the 2000s (although her style is more akin to, say, Tamara de Lempicka - her spiritual ”mother” -, than to the Cluj School or the Rostopasca group) and maybe I would treat her too swiftly, being myself more interested in experimental artists, who are less preoccupied about making works of art and more about developing performances or relational settings. I admit, it is the sterile local context in which King von Bee has emerged (out of nowhere, apparently) which determined me to follow her with the critical attention she deserves. While her art (unlike the academic approaches mentioned above) does not need a sophisticated, artspeak-approved critical/curatorial discourse (which is what I otherwise tend to prefer), I had to signal her debut. King von Bee will definitely receive hype, but she also deserves respect.

All works © 2015 KING VON BEE, reproduced here by permission.

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