In This Moment Of Collective Anxiety, New Images of Man Ponders The Human Condition, And Further Disquiets The Sense

at Blum & Poe, Los Angeles
Reviewed by Genie Davis

Curated by Alison M. Gingeras, the expansive exhibition New Images of Man is a both a revisiting of and expansion on a 1959 exhibition of the same name at MoMA in New York City. A tribute and comment on the human condition, the original exhibition, curated by Peter Selz, focused on new figurative work following WWII. As such, it included a wide range of artists, from de Kooning to Giacometti, working in both sculptural forms and painted images. The Blum & Poe iteration offers its own view of figurative human depiction in a vast variety of genres, from pigment prints to acrylic and oil-on-canvas, fabric, paper-mache and other mixed media, as well as sculptural figures in bronze, plaster, and even created from a mixture of fabric and human hair.

The mediums exhibited are not the only example of diversity in that there are 43 global artists in the exhibition. They are based in the U.S., Western Europe, Egypt, Haiti, the Sudan and many other nations. Along with a far broader global reach, this exhibition, unlike the original, does not exclude female artists. Here, Gingeras creates a more inclusive and comprehensive interpretation of original curator’s intent to reveal era-specific “effigies of the disquiet man,” as exhibition notes described it.

Participants include Nikki de Saint Phalle, Rahcel Harrison, Paweł Althamer, Enrico Baj, Cecily Brown, Luis Flores, Michel Nedjar, Greer Lankton, Miriam Cahn, Sarah Lucas, Dana Schutz, Deana Lawson, El Hadji Sy, Ahmed Morsi, and Henry Taylor, to name just a few of them.

Wall murals by LA-based artist Dave Muller pay tribute to original show participants: there is an “interpretation” of Willem de Koonig, Francis Bacon tote-bag wallpaper, and the large scale “Interpretation of Memorial to the Idea of Man if He was an Idea by H.C. Westerman (1958)” occupying much space in the 3rd floor gallery.

Within the exhibition itself is another tribute to an historical MoMA exhibition, this a photographic one curated as Family of Man in 1955 by MoMA photography department director Edward Steichen.

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Deana Lawson, Coulson Family, 2008

At Blum & Poe, the revised photographic works feature Polish photographer Zofia Rydet, who while working in Steichen’s era, was not included in the original exhibition. The original did inspire her to create a series of 60s-era images of children in the ruins of buildings destroyed in WWII. But the images displayed here are from her documentary series The Sociological Record, spanning the time between 1978 and 1997 in Poland. They are paired with those of New York-born Deana Lawson, who depicts African-American family life in primarily staged images that evoke traditional, painterly work. This exhibition within an exhibition was curated in collaboration with Antonina Gugała. Its centerpiece is an installation made by Lawson for the exhibition.

Among the powerful images are Lawson’s 2008 “Coulson Family,” which gives us a Christmas tableaux of a mother with two children; the curtains on windows behind the glittering tree might be viewed as having a pattern not unlike African fabric. Among Rydet’s most haunting images from The Sociological Record, “Podhale Region” depicts a teen seated on the end of her bed, her body bisected with white pillows. Her positioning makes of her an almost geometric, vase-like figure. Behind her, two images of horses grace either side of the wall, something young girls everywhere have dreamed of. It’s a beautifully wistful moment, a capture of the girl’s age, innocence, and the irrevocable march of time.

Both the photographic images and the sculptural and painted works address the plight and passion of the human species. It is both riff upon and tribute to the original: a gestation from that point forward, striving not only for more inclusivity but a broader view of what it means to be human, of the purpose of life and our individual and collective responsibilities for maintaining ourselves and others.

Beyond the message, or at the very least in tune with it, is of course each individual piece of art itself. Many are bold and lovely; some are throwbacks to earlier images of Man/Womankind.

Of the latter, Luis Flores “Venus (Gold)” recalls the Venus of Willendorf, here created in crochet gold twine. Sarah Lucas’ bronze, concrete and cast iron contorted figure recalls Giacometti; more so does Alina Szapocznikow’s “Filoz (Philosopher.)”

The sculpture “Illuminowana (Illuminated Woman)” is also from Szapocznikow. It is a delicate work in plaster and colored resin with wiring and metal. The viewer is given a faceless woman with her head seemingly awash in blue clouds. She is armless, able only to stand, not gesture; faceless, she cannot explain.

Entirely of the moment are Tomoo Gokita’s spare man and woman against a pink background, a white line passing behind their bodies. Composed of acrylic, gouache, watercolor, and pastel, the couple, captured in stillness as if in a photograph, are pale-skinned and clad in western dress — this “DUET #2” exemplifies a western culture. A different couple in similar positioning against a spotted pink background stand together in “DUET #1.” In contrast, Henry Taylor’s wonderful, “Untitled (Ethiopian pharmacist),” a work in acrylic on canvas, gives us a different, more vibrant color palette of primarily blue, red, yellow in a background that stands out against the darkness of its main subject’s skin, the crisp whiteness of his shirt, the motion of his hands.

A large collection of gouache and paper works by Misleidys Castillo Pedroso, each untitled, feature either eyes against a bright pink or blue background or figures that resemble Egyptian or Greek gods — or perhaps weight-lifters. These are muscular, hands crossed, at their hips, or raised in victory. Highly stylized, one is even described as “untitled (cut out doll).” There is also a red foot.

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Niki de Saint Phalle, Marilyn, 1964

Nikki de Saint Phalle’s “Marilyn” is a mixed media hodge-podge of objects, paint, wool, fabric, and mesh. She is equal parts voluptuous, innocent, and frightening.

Greer Lankton’s “Princess Fellini aka Albino Hermaphrodite in carriage” is created with an equally diverse mixture of mediums including human hair. This is a princess without a palanquin, legs akimbo revealing her penis. It challenges the viewer to understand the figure’s sexuality, the oddness of her “carriage,” the pained quality of expression. Is it how the princess is made to feel? How she views herself? Is she babied? Is she longing to reveal who she really is? Is she dreaming of another, easier time?

The green semi-monster in “General Schwarz” by Enrico Baj, is an oil work with elements of collage and decorations. Highly visceral and tactile, the work is both a subversion of boyhood ‘green army men’ and a self-made creature/man. His medals depict him as someone given to battle; his wide eyes and angry mouth also expresses this.

In contrast, there is the mysteriousness of a smiling mother but two less-content-seeming children on either side of her as the subject of Miriam Cahn’s “Geschwister.” Nude, almost alien-like, with no visible hair, the figures seem to portend an evolution of the physical.

All in all, this exhibit is perhaps a bit overstuffed, but it is both profound and challenging; the involving photographic exhibition is among its many highlights.

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For a full slideshow of the exhibition, go to Riot Material:

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RIOT MATERIAL is LA’s premier literary-cultural magazine with an eye on art, word, and forward-aiming thought. Check out our gallery on IG: @ riotmaterial.

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