a review of SF MOMA's Don't Be Shy, Don't Hold Back

By Marcus Lee

Anime Eyes, Anime Mushrooms
SF MOMA’s show of The Logan Collection’s Don’t Be Shy Don’t Hold Back brings up one whopping question: how should art collectors and their collections be judged. The question is inextricably tied to the art market and how collectors and museums function in it. It’s obvious that museums want to preserve art in a historical context and it just so happens that collectors, and especially the Logans, have a great deal of art by famous artists and that art costs a lot of money. For instance, the Logans have thirty pieces by Andy Warhol alone—that’s a whole chunk of art history right there. But ownership or the ability to collect art isn’t the only issue. If the museum is a supposedly neutral environment, what’s interesting is how the Logans or any collectors acquire art is anything but neutral. The Logans have an offbeat nature. They don’t seem to have the most well known work from their stable of famous artists, but they certainly have found the most provocative. Their choices aren’t pretty; they’re erotic, grimy and humorous and they bring that sensibility to the off-white walls of SF MOMA.

As you walk through the lobby of SF MOMA and up the stairs, the Logan Show literally spills out of the confines of its second floor gallery and demands that you look at yourself looking. Takashi Murikami’s painting (?), banner (?), whatever you want to call it, “Super Nova,” rests right at the top of the second floor landing and stares out at you as you walk towards the rest of the exhibit. To properly experience the whole of the show you shouldn’t take the elevator, but let Murikami’s majestic freakout take you there. “Super Nova” is the type of work that makes my inner eight year old happy. At 118” x 413” it sports hundreds of flashy psychedelic mushrooms with anime eyes. As you look at it, the work seems to stare back at you, a kind of aesthetic stare off that you can never win because the work won’t blink. It’s a wonderful introduction to the Logan’s adventurous and aggressive tastes and the curators at SF MOMA have placed it in the perfect position to startle and welcome you in. Unlike the rest of the show, it has room to breathe.

I don't like Andy Warhol. Do you?
The first room is full of older and dead painters, many of them pioneers of once radical art movements. There’s Gerhard Richter’s “Reiseburo” (Travel Agency) (1996) the photo realism of Chuck Close’s “Robert” (1997), the redundant (my opinion) pop art of Andy Warhol’s “Silver Electric Chair Self Portrait” (1986) and “Double Jackie” (1964), Jean-Michael Basquiat’s “Venus/The Great Circle” (1983) and the so bad it’s good work of Phillip Guston, represented by “The Room” (1970). There’s a sense of exhaustion here, a feeling of a lost world of past sensations. It all feels forgotten and there’s nothing in the presentation of the work that brings it back to historical life. It’s just there and so you kind of shrug and say to your self, “Well, I guess that was ‘in’ back then.” Still, the question of the collection and the museum comes back and a whole host of questions come to mind.

Now a orphan
Every collection begs for a reason, a philosophy behind the choices. And yet, you also wonder: were these pieces pursued for pure enjoyment, simply because the collector or in this case the Logans fell in love with the work. Each painting is a partial fragment of what each artist is known for, we aren’t seeing the Chuck Close show or just a Chuck Close show, and so we’re constantly aware that these are orphans. It’s almost as if they’ve been severed from their original context. Because of this, it gives us a chance to see these almost iconic works in a new light and in the alien, but interesting context of the Logans’ aggressive, aesthetic tastes.

For example, although John Currin’s “Laughing Nude” (1998) is not his most famous work, it does bring up a number of interesting issues about how we understand Currin’s painting and his peculiar obsessions with the female nude. And so we take another look at his portrait of a middle aged, laughing, and naked Caucasian woman, perfectly offset by a dark, black background. This old cliché of renaissance painting, the contrast between the foregrounded subject and the endlessly black backdrop, is not the first hint that Currin is hyper-aware of the history of portraiture. He is clearly using that knowledge to refocus the way we look at female nudity, not to mention the high porcelain gloss he gives it. There’s a sense of excitement in her rosy cheeks, fire red lips and the light creamy colored blemishes around her eyelids, but not one that we’re invited to share. The model’s breezy red hair, her raised eyebrows and her wide open eyes that stare up to the right and into the distance suggest that she doesn’t mind being looked at, but that she’s not that interested in returning our interest. It’s crucial that she’s looking our way, but not looking at us—the exact opposite of Marikami’s mushrooms. Is it enough to just look at the laughing nude? Shouldn’t we have some sort of relationship, especially since sex is obviously on her mind?

Are you looking at me?
Her exaggerated smile is inviting and she has a kind of anything-might-happen expression about her. Tilting forward her body curves inward, and the outline of her diamond shaped body takes up about two-thirds of the canvas. The diamond shape also emphasizes the small bump of her vagina. And in case you missed the emphasis on her genitals, her left index finger gently leads us back there with a kind of crass but demure insistence. With her right arm backed up behind her hip, her entire body juts out in a sort of sassy demanding gesture. It really does feel like we have a very horny model that is asking us to come forward and take a look, but again there’s a distance, as if the invitation isn’t individual but general. And because she’s a painting we feel okay about staring and our sight naturally (if natural is being controlled by the geometry of Currin’s skill) rests on her ball-shaped breasts that point out like manufactured implants, but have a natural sag and so it’s kind of confusing. Are you real or are you not, you painted vixen? To top it all off she seems to scream, “I’m fertile!” To say that this painting is overflowing with signs and symbols and that it’s kind of hard to get a hold of its smart-ass power would be to engage in an understatement that the Logans obviously don’t practice in their collecting and Currin has never practiced in his art.

But you have to give the Logans credit, they’ve found a painting that captures Currin’s entire oeuvre, which one might call the intersection between high art and smarminess. It’s discomforting, yet weirdly irresistible to stop and stare at “Laughing Nude,” because you can’t quite figure out what you’re looking at. She’s fairly thin, but her body is exaggerated—is she “The Birth of Venus” or a 1950’s Playboy centerfold or somehow both? In the end, this art historical, soft-core porn fantasy feels wrong. It’s too reverential to be a joke and yet everything about its execution suggests that it is. Still, I’m glad I saw it and, even though I didn’t enjoy it, I kind of did, which is, you know, the point, I guess. We see the same issues of off putting eroticism in Francesco Clemente’s “Mother, Lover, Daughter” (1982). It is a decently large-sized painting at 78 ¼” by 93 ¾” and is one of those works that makes you afraid to continue looking, but that you can’t resist doing so in an effort to discover more. Although the question is more like, more of what? Clemente, known for painting glamour portraits of women with exaggerated facial features, shows us how really strange and visionary he can be.

How hard is it to see the obvious?
The painting consists of three separate focal points: the background, a huge downward thrust of colors that washes over most of the canvas, except for the black left edge; two floating weird bulb like flowers on the upper right and upper left portion of the colored swatch; and finally the three women of the title. They consist of a huge ghost like woman who hovers above the other two, a large brown woman held in place by the larger ghost woman (and by her thighs at that) and a little red girl (held in place by the brown woman) who looks like a deformed figure from an aboriginal totem pole. Clemente paints the large ghostly woman with a rich Naples yellow. This woman has an intimate but stern expression, looking up past the viewer to the sky, as if she sees the light of heaven. Her yellowish flesh suggests that she is possibly a divine being. The brown one’s eyes are closed, her lips shut tight and her head tilts down and to left, as if it might hurl off the canvas. She seems both contemptuous and ashamed. The little red girl is bald and has thin stick like arms with a tribal looking face drawn with a black scrubby paint. It’s a disturbing painting because you aren’t sure what the relationship between these women is, even with the help of the title. Or, maybe better put, you don’t want to believe what you’re seeing. Again and again, it seems what the Logans are attracted to and what they are pushing is an art that is concerned with the process of looking and calling attention to our inability to actually know what we’re looking at, even when it is explicitly sexual and as direct as these works.

Adjacent to Clemente’s painting is Koons’ marble “Self Portrait,” which stares directly into “Mother, Daughter, Lover.” I was dismayed by the placement of these pieces and felt as if I was supposed to see some connection between Clemente and Koons, as if Koons could stare into the depths of Clemente’s vision and unlock its disturbing mysteries. I really don’t think that’s possible. Clemente’s piece feels much more personal than Koons’ self-portrait and has a trippy spirituality that just seems beyond Koons’ understanding. I wish it had been put alongside Fred Tomaselli’s “Field Guides” (2003), a collage of anatomical bits that form into a man spraying pesticide on a field filled with mushrooms and a hurricane of butterflies. These two paintings should be together and make a strong case for the Logans’ vision of art—a vision that is equal parts awful and compelling. Staging collections is obviously very difficult.
I like this painting
The last room is filled with the internationally famous—Damien Hurst, Jenny Seville, Marlene Dumas alongside Chinese painters such as Liu Wei, Fang Lijun and Zhang Xiaogang. Xiaogang’s “Big Family” is the most striking. In the painting three Chinese students, a girl in the middle and two boys at the sides, stare straight at the viewer. They might stare back at you like the other paintings in the Logan collection, but they do so in a strange, emotionless way. There isn’t the joy of Currin’s “Laughing Nude” or the demonic quality of Clemente’s women here—these kids don’t seem to traffic in any thing we would call feeling. They could be from the same family, but there’s none of the joy or tension of an actual family either. Even though they stare at us, they seem to be missing each other. One of the most fascinating aspects of the painting is the swatch of grey in the background that seems to permeate everything around it. With a compelling eye for detail Xiaogang gives every corner of the painting some kind of formal tension and offsets the lack of emotion of the three students, the painting’s ostensible subjects, with a dynamic attention to what seems like nothingness. Whatever the case, the grey background is where the action of the painting really is. It is as if we can stare past the three staring at us and somehow get to this beautiful, tense grey.

They're looking and asking, but what?
But if we look again, what do we make of these kids? The young man to the left is wearing an outdated pair of triangle glasses, posing for the viewer with the tightest non-smile one could ever imagine. His eyes are sadly dreamy, and his eyebrows lay flat straight (that’s actually hard to do), with his right eyebrow gently raised. That gently raised eyebrow, at least in this context, might pass for a bit of charisma, but instead those sad droopy eyes wipe out that one hint of actual personality. He might be the saddest, most uptight nerd in the world. While the man to the right has the same tightly controlled lack of smile, he actually seems, as if this were possible, more uptight than his friend. Behind them and in the center of the painting is a pink-faced woman, the grey background has not permeated her, and yet she’s even more expressionless than the men! Clearly these are children of Mao’s Cultural Revolution and within the setting of SF MOMA, it feels as if “Big Family” has come to visit me in America and wants my freedom, but sadly will never, never ask for it.

Maybe this is what Don’t Be Shy Don’t Hold Back wants from the viewer—to stare back and say hello. It’s the least we can do when confronted with the Logan’s provocative, stare-us-down collection.


©CCA Arts Review and Marcus Lee

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