03 February, 2011

3 Feb - Noah Fisher: Tentacle Erotica

LAUNCHPROJECTS - Our opening tonight will feature an exquisite watercolor on paper by Noah Fisher (image right) based on an 1814 Japanese woodcut The Dream of the Fisherman's Wife by Japanese artist Hokusai (pictured left). It is the most famous woodcut Hokusai ever produced and is in the style of "shunga," a form of erotic art.

Japanese scholar Danielle Talerico describes that The Dream of the Fisherman's Wife illustrates the legend of Princess Tamatori, a shell diver who marries a man searching for a pearl stolen from his family by Ryūjin, the dragon god of the sea. Tamatori vows to help her husband and dives down to Ryūjin's undersea palace. There she is pursued by the god and his army of sea creatures, including octopi. She cuts open her own breast and places the jewel inside; this allows her to swim faster and escape, but she dies from her wound soon after reaching the surface.

Popular throughout Japan, the story and its imagery are the subject of works by artists including Utagawa Kuniyoshi, Yanagawa Shigenobu (above left), Japanese-American artist Masami Teraoka (above right) - even Picasso did a version in 1903. This tale is also considered the precursor to "tentacle erotica," a common thread in late 20th century and contemporary Japanese animation and manga. Fisher is in a long and fascinating tradition of re-imaging this potent and darkly beguiling legend.

02 February, 2011

2 February - Art and Dopamine

LAUNCHPROJECTS - In Proust was a Neuroscientist, Jonah Lehrer argues that art is a critical path to knowledge. Through the lives and discoveries of Walt Whitman, George Eliot, Auguste Escoffier, Marcel Proust, Paul Cezanne, Igor Stavinsky, Gertrude Stein, and Virginia Wolf, Lehrer highlights that "it is ironic but true: the one reality science cannot reduce is the only reality we will even know. This is why we need art. By expressing our actual experience, the artist reminds us that our science is incomplete, that no map of matter will ever explain the immateriality of our consciousness."

The Modern era was one of artistic struggle and hard-won innovation. It was a time when "the public wasn't used to free-verse poems or abstract paintings or plotless novels. Art was supposed to be pretty or entertaining, preferably both.... but the Modernists refused to give us what we wanted. In a move of stunning arrogance and ambition, they tried to invent fictions that told the truth." Throughout this fascinating book Lehrer cites examples of avant-garde artists forging the way to "truth" far before science and research caught up to their groundbreaking discoveries.

Lehrer describes in his chapter on Igor Stravinsky the initial public reaction to The Rite of Spring. Its "remorseless originality" incited a full-blown audience riot. Throughout the chapter Lehrer examines the neuroscience of this anger and hostility towards new sound, yet how ultimately it came to be manifestly adored (in 1940 it was included in Walt Disney's Fantastia). After a long discussion of dopamine, neurons, nerves, and our coticofugal system, we learn that that dopamine (the chemical source of our most intense emotions) is released only when our brainstem finds something amiss - a pattern broken, an unexpected sound. Although our survival instincts tell us to stick only to what we know, without dopamine we would feel no intense emotions, have no powerful reactions. Our lives would be lackluster, "all we would be left with would be a shell of easy consonance, the polite drivel of perfectly predictable music."

Dopamine's demand for experiential upheaval sheds new light on the critical importance of innovation in the arts. New art creates fury and hostility in audiences. Artistic breakthroughs can threaten belief systems people hold dear to their understanding of the art world and how it functions. I now understand, however, both the physiological desire for the status quo and our atavistic need for variation. "Works like The Rite jolt us out of this complacency. They literally keep us open-minded. If not for the difficult avant-garde, we would worship nothing but we already know...What separated Stravinsky from his rioting audience that night was his belief in the limitless possibilities of the mind. (The Right) is the sound of art changing the brain." Or as New York Times art critic Holland Carter wrote “confusion is demanding, but it’s a form of freedom, and it can be habit forming.”

The next time someone angrily tells me what "isn't art" I now have the mind-stretching drug dopamine on my side. I love neuroscience.

30 January, 2011

30 Jan - In Memory of Dennis Oppenheim

LAUNCHPROJECTS- Dennis Oppenheim, Conceptual artists, pioneer of earthworks and body art who made "made emphatically tangible installations and public sculptures that veered between the demonically chaotic and the cheerfully Pop," died on Friday in Manhattan of liver cancer. He was 72.*

We met him just once at Alanna Heiss' home at a dinner for James Franco after an opening at Heiss' latest venture since P.S.1, Art on Air. Oppenheim was clowning around in Heiss' bedroom in front of one of his works of art. He was charming and silly - almost giddy - and befriended us immediately upon learning of our mutual friend in Santa Fe, Thomas Ashcraft. Sitting in the room with such an iconic and fascinating artist who challenged so many notions and definitions of art throughout the decades I had to keep reminding myself that this accessible prankster was THE Dennis Oppenheim. His work can be tough to pin down and describe, so I will use the words of Roberta Smith for the New York Times:

"Many works involved moving parts, casts of animals (whole or partial), upturned or tilted building silhouettes and sound, water and fireworks, which on occasion prompted unscheduled visits by the fire department....He first became known for works in which, like an environmentally inclined Marcel Duchamp, using engineers' stakes and photographs, he simply designated parts of the urban landscape as artworks. Then, in step with artists like Robert Smithson, Walter De Maria and Lawrence Weiner, he began making temporary outdoor sculptures, soon to be known as land art or earthworks.

...Mr. Oppenheim's art-making could seem simultaneously driven and lackadaisical, fearless and opportunistic. Few of his contemporaries worked in a broader range of mediums or methods, or seemed to borrow so much from so many other artists. His career might almost be defined as a series of sidelong glances at the doings of artists like Vito Acconci, Mr. Smithson, Bruce Nauman, Alice Aycock (to whom he was married in the early 1980s) and Claes Oldenburg."

Oppenheim stands out for his impact and wholly original - often inconceivably rigorous - works of art in an era of artists who continually challenged the definitions and status quo of the traditional art world. He was one of the greats.

IMAGES: Oppenheim, "Device to Root Out Evil in Canada" 1991, Oppenheim at Heiss house (in front of his piece), 2010.
*Quote also from Roberta Smith, New York Times