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Notes from Underground

Yinka Shonibare, MBE, La Meduse [detail] (2008). Wood, foam, plexiglas, Dutch wax-printed fabric, and acrylic paint.  83 1/2
Yinka Shonibare, MBE, La Meduse [detail] (2008). Wood, foam, plexiglas, Dutch wax-printed fabric, and acrylic paint. 83 1/2" X 66" X 54". Courtesy of the artist and James Cohan Gallery, NY.

The Brooklyn Rail has broadened its map and its definition. Once designating solely the L and G trains it now runs west to burgeoning Chelsea, and includes the JMZ to Bushwick. Beyond the trains, it means also to rail against the foe, affords a balustrade on which to lean when staring into hell below—and stands as the one sure hold we seize in heavy weather.

Yinka Inc. Yinka Shonibare, MBE at James Cohan Gallery: April 17-May 17.

Too much of a good thing. Yes, he rephrases, redirects, inflects and corrects the white Enlightenment West’s master narratives by injecting them with lavishly patterned traditional African clothes*, ostensibly meant to serve as post-colonial signifiers (and I adore his model ship "La Méduse"), but what these art marks have instead become are Shonibare’s corporate signature. Conspicuously tagged and flagged, Quik take handles such as these prove as subversive as that MacDonald’s M on Speed Racer’s helmet. Witness the plague of the age. Serial work in the arts now tends only to establish an identifiable logo for sales. Once an artist catches on, and can be speculated on, market manipulation has its say, and his works are made to order. This is how an artist “gets a name for himself.”

Though he did have stuffed props built (bats don’t come that big) for his "Sleep of Reason", resisting somewhat Photoshop, Shonibare’s inevitable, regrettable recent foray into C print pastiche, hung easily by collectors, reflects the trophy-bride pride of the haut bourgeois and business class. Like his movie Un Ballo In Maschera (2004) they are buyable, beautiful, but dumb. And while I still spy native African dress on the street at times in Paris, I haven’t seen it here since the 1970’s. Contemporary wire photos clamoring daily out of Africa invariably display mass mart Nike knockoffs made in China, and too many blood stained T-shirts for me to gloss them with aestheticist nostalgia.

*Shonibare was born in England in 1962. Raised in Nigeria, he returned to study in England at 17. He remained in England, and was awarded the title of Member of the British Empire (MBE) in 2005, which he incorporates into his name. These batiks, originally Dutch, were imported by the British into West Africa, and subsequently mistaken for indigenous fabrics. Shonibare buys them today in Brixton.

Houses in Motion Merav Ezer, Studio Visit, Williamsburg, Brooklyn

First we bring the outside in; then turn it inside out. In an urban courtyard, honestly, the dead space between two apartment buildings, I discover an oasis; perhaps it’s a mirage. So, in Brooklyn stands a palm tree, vast desert, in one 5-story box.

The palms turn out to form a Sukkha, shelter on the run. During their flight into Egypt: the fugitive Jews’ domed nomadic house. But it's not moveable mutable incongruity here that mesmerizes me; it’s Ezer’s believability.

Inside the artist’s studio I find myself outside a cheap suburban house, a mobile home, the kind we might set up on blocks, rendered semi-permanent in some low-rent trailer park. This dream house is no dwelling: it can’t afford us housing! It’s merely a façade fastened flat against her walls.

We know that Freud’s uncanny exiles us at home. Yet, even as I perch outside "Façade’s" tacky fence and no exit Home Depot vinyl door I cannot overcome an eerie sense of sitting comfortably in this “house.” All of its walls are made of louvers. This “No-Place like Home” won’t move but its blinds do. Easily operable, they can be opened, as well as raised up or let down. Though, drawing them we draw a blank. The wall behind the blinds is blind too.

Jewish scholarship made 14th-century Spain Europe’s center of high learning. When their libraries were seized and the Jews driven away, they saw they might always lose what they couldn’t carry. Hence, teachings by oral transmission: knowledge housed in bodies*. Humorous, humane, I think of homes away from home; Ezer’s houses raw and cooked. Do-Ho Suh’s transportable architecture—his mnemonic rooms—one of which packs into a suitcase; the multitasking workstations of Andrea Blum; those compact domestic habitats (both homeless and “homadic”) designed by Andrea Zittel.


Feed Your Head Robbie McDonald at Blank Space Gallery: May 2 (closing date unavailable)

A lo-tech bricoleur of doomsday devices as designed by Doctor Octopus, dimly adumbrating out-of-date psy-fi movies about the future, or the LSD/LP cover and contents of The Jefferson Airplane’s Surrealistc Pillow, McDonald employs an obsolete 1950’s analog record lathe to scratch recordings by singer songwriter mass murder mastermind, pills & kill cult Führer Charlie Manson, into handmade vinyl illuminated books fully playable on any turntable, complete with spindle hole. Looking like mind-bending black-light posters for Blue Cheer at S.F.’s acid Avalon Ballroom, circa Summer of Love, his psychedelic art and illustrated “song” books are woozy Jell-O colored tripped-out spinning hypno-discs composed of holographic plastics scavenged from Canal St. Heavy on the snakeskin, and Bridget Riley Op. A plastic fantastic lover (sic), he himself resembles December’s Children-era Stones. Iconic, his art is not ironic. Where others may replay what Walter Benjamin termed “just past” fads for cool or chic, what stones me is McDonald’s authenticity.


Geoffrey Cruickshank-Hagenbuckle

Geoffrey Cruickshank-Hagenbuckle is an American poet and art critic. He lives in Paris and New York City.


The Brooklyn Rail

JUN 2008

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