Istanbul: The Next Art Mecca

The New York Times a few weekends ago featured an article “The 31 Places to Go in 2010”. In it, they pronounce Istanbul as an art mecca:

The reputation of Istanbul’s contemporary art scene has been steadily growing in recent years, with the Web site recently calling it “one of the most innovative in the world.” That reputation is bound to be burnished even more this year, now that Istanbul has been named the 2010 European Capital of Culture (a designation it shares with Essen, Germany, and Pecs, Hungary). There will be a series of events, gallery shows and stage performances throughout the city to mark the occasion. (A complete list of events can be found at

But one of the best ways to get a crash course in what Istanbul’s leading artists are up to right now is to spend some time wandering around the Misir Apartments (311/4 Istiklal Cadessi), right on the busy pedestrian thoroughfare that cuts through the trendy Beygolu neighborhood. Inside this elegant, early-20th-century building are some of the city’s most cutting-edge art venues, like Galerist ( and Gallerie Nev (

Hmm, add this to my slight obsession with Orhan Pamuk’s writing and his efforts to promote art in Istanbul, and I think this trumps MY list of “where to go next”.


Art, Rio de Janeiro Style

Hélio Oiticica. Metaesquema No. 237. 1958

Metaesquema No. 237

Hélio Oiticica (Brazilian, 1937-1980) MoMA

When we learned that Rio d Janeiro had edged out Chicago and others for the title of host of the 2016 summer olympics, I flew straight to the computer (who am I kidding, I read the press release on the computer; I’m always ON the computer) and looked up the museums central to Brazil’s cultural climate.

What I found was a world that I’ve only marginally explored. I’m guilty of looking internally to US-focused art and artists, and to Western Europe as well. But South America and Latin America often get the short end of the stick. From Mexico, we have Diego Rivera and his muse and probably better half, Frieda, and others. But what other master artists are lurking behind their shadows, just to the south?

Brazil’s contemporary arts scene is alive, and it’s traveling all over the globe. I researched one Brazilian artist just to get a taste. Hélio Oiticica is showing atMuseum of Modern Art, LACMA, Houston’s Museum of Fine Arts, and overseas at Museu d’Art Contemporani de Barcelona, and in Zurich at the Daros Exhibitions. He was an essential part of the geometric abstraction period between 1930s and the 1970s in Buenos Aires, São Paulo, and Rio de Janeiro. His Metaesquemas series (shown above) is composed of squares and rectangles, showing influences of Piet Mondrian.

An exhibition at the Museu d’Art Contemporani de Barcelona provided a great overview of his life and outlook:

Born in Rio de Janeiro in 1937, Oiticica began to study art in his home city where he formed links with Lygia Clark and Lygia Pape’s Neo-concrete Group and participated in the Frente Group. From the outset, his work was geared towards condemning the living conditions and the political situation affecting Brazil… Oiticica posited that for artistic production to be ethical, it must be activated by its audience. In the late sixties and early seventies, Oiticica began creating architectural environments he called Penetrables and tent/cape/banner works he named Parangolés. Both the Penetrables and Parangolés were made to be inhabited, examined, worn, even hidden in; they are environmental structures, experienced by the participant.

After receiving a Guggenheim Fellowship, Oiticica moved to New York where he lived from 1970 to 1978. He began to make films influenced by the cinema of Jack Smith and Andy Warhol and the popular culture of the United States. He undertook a series of projects under the umbrella title Quasi-Cinemas. Some of these were Super 8 films, but most of them were “projection-performances.” In 1973, as part of the Quasi-Cinemas, he made the series Block Experiments in Cosmococa, Program in Progress. The Cosmococas are composed of slide projections, environments, soundtracks, and instructions.

Hélio Oiticica died in Rio de Janeiro in 1980 aged 43.

Embassy Tour of Art

Private residence on the DC Embassy Tour

Private residence on the DC Embassy Tour



On Sunday I walked around upper northwest DC along Massachusetts Avenue and around the Kalorama area which borders Dupont Circle to the west to trot through some pretty amazing ambassadorial residences and  embassies. Each year different countries are featured. This year we saw the French Ambassador’s Residence (1910, beaux-arts mansion), Residence of the Ambassador of the Netherlands (old master paintings, tapestries), Embassy of Portugal, Residence of the Ambassador of Venezuela (classicist and abstract paintings), and the home of the Ethiopian ambassador.

I ogled at a Bonard in the French Embassy (what I would do to throw a party on the sweeping back terrace overlooking a leafy forest in the heart of DC). The Venezuelan residence had an impressive collection as well of contemporary Venezuelan artists. The Ethiopian ambassador had probably the most unique conversation piece I’ve seen – a gigantic  hollowed-out jug (size of a small cow) that stored wine. The wine is served using a ladle. Very cool presentation, though there’s no way to temperature control the liquid. (But that’s just a small detail at happy hour anyway.)

But most fascinating, I’ll have to admit, were the two private, non-ambassadorial residences on the tour. One was the home of a former State Department curator; the other was the home of a graphic designer.

Perhaps the ultimate job would be state department curator – jetting all over the world to place art in the U.S. embassies. What a unique foreign collection you could amass. And that she did. Ranging from Turkish tapestries to a sarcophagus of an Egyptian king, her treasures were spread all over the first floor of the massive rowhouse.

The graphic designer’s rowhouse was equally impressive, with a Buddha wading pool that he installed on his small terrace complete with silk waterlilies the color of the rainbow, to a genuine Miro in his bedroom (yep, he allowed all of DC to traipse through his entire home), to two huge pink poodles flanking the living room fireplace.

Next year, I think I’m going to be equally excited to see the bling in the private homes of “average” Americans.

Kitschy or Cultural? (But definitely cute)

Matryoshka Dolls

Matryoshka Dolls

I simply can’t resist commenting on the ubiquitous and kitschy matryoshka dolls, especially since I’ve seen so many countries laying claim to them as part of their folk art tradition. The most recent being Budapest, where I was surprised to see them lining shelves at every knicknack shop. I’ll have to admit that I did a double-take, pinched myself, and thought “I’m not in Russia, right?” The Hermitage museum director would have cringed if he’d been in my head at that moment:

The Hermitage and the Russian government are politely clashing over whether “nested” matryoshka dolls are part of the national culture. Museum director Professor Mikhail Piotrovsky has banned their sale in the Hermitage’s gift shop in St Petersburg, saying that they are not part of Russian folk art. In an interview to mark the opening of the Hermitage’s Amsterdam branch last month, he explained: “The dolls are Japanese in origin, adapted to Russia…These dolls are frightful. They are symbols of the tourist industry. Let’s not sell any rubbish here, is what I say.”

The painted wooden dolls… are said to have been invented in 1890 by Russian folk painter Sergei Maliutin, who was inspired by a set of Japanese figures representing the Seven Gods of Fortune. However, one could argue that the concept of nested objects, such as eggs, was already part of Russian decorative art. Although traditionally matryoshka dolls portrayed girls, current bestsellers include a set of Russian leaders, starting with president Dmitry Medvedev and ending with a diminutive Lenin.

I started to wonder: is there one piece of folk art that so defines a country? Turkey, for example, has its “evil eye” to ward away bad omens. Mexico has its “Day of the Dead” art. The Middle East has its rugs. Africa  has its masks. I racked my brain trying to think of an American corollary to the matryoshka. What defines “Americana” that could sit on shelves at the gift shop, the gas station, the convenience store, the tourist kiosk? Is there one symbolic image of American folk art? Does the U.S. not have one national symbol like the matryoskha? 

The American Folk Art Museum in midtown Manhattan’s gallery is filled with quilts, quilts, and more quilts. There’s more than that, of course, and in some cases I was scratching my head as to why certain pieces were considered American folk art (this one, for example). And step inside Sante Fe’s Museum of International Folk Art and you see the whole concept of folk art expand even more so, perhaps beyond Wikipedia’s definition:

Folk art encompasses art produced from an indigenous culture or by peasants or other laboring tradespeople. In contrast to fine art, folk art is primarily utilitarian and decorative rather than purely aesthetic. As a phenomenon that can chronicle a move towards civilization yet rapidly diminish with modernity, industrialization, or outside influence, the nature of folk art is specific to its particular culture.

The article also mentioned that “pop art” has overlap with folk art. Andy Warhol, Jeff Koons, would you mind being placed in this category?

I’ll have to admit that across years of travel and ogling over probably thousands of matryoshka dolls, I’ve never bought one, even though they are pretty darn cute.

Fashionista in Budapesta

OK, photography, sculpture, works on paper, time to take a backseat. I’m all about the Budapest clothing designers today.

WAMP (WAsárnapi M?vész Piac) is the Hungarian designers association that follows the example of the London and New York markets. They hold a monthly forum for design and applied-art products, which creates a more intense relationship between artists and potential buyers through interaction. The theme of WAMP changes each year (see photo above — I can’t quite tell what that is — angels? angelic?).

“Soft Is The New Cool” was the slogan of the Hungarian design fair in May 2009 in New York Design Week. WAMP appeared in Hungarian Cultural Center New York . (By the way, the Hungarian Center website is really fantastical – they recently held an “Extremely Mustache Contest” where the winner won two round trip tickets to Budapest. “Stay tuned,” they say “for the adventures of Amit in Budapest… Coming soon!” You better believe I’ll tune in!) Maybe this is the winner, Amit:

Eastern European Art & Bee Glue?

I’m going to Budapest in a little over 2 weeks, so I wanted to scope out the art scene well before I got there. (I need to know what to buy, right?) So apparently  the artist’s “loft” area is in Pest, located in a Socialist-era industrial complex. The Art Factory has an exhibition space as well as a commercial gallery. It’s organized and run by an American, Dianne Brown, who is available for studio tours and provides opportunities to meet the artists. Jackpot! I’m in.

The artists work in all mediums and styles, but the common thread is an Eastern European emotional expressionism. Artists in residence are Zsolt Bodoni, Levente Herman, Dora Juhasz, Marta Kucsora, Mamikon Yengibarian, Ágnes Verebics, Krisztián Horváth, and Luca Korodi.

When I looked up the resident artists, I saw an organic/natural world focus, and in particular, a focus on storm/weather pattern photography. I am a little perplexed as to why most of them are producing works in the same vein (don’t galleries try to show a myriad of styles?), which brings up the point that colonizing groups of artists can sometimes lead to the production of very similar, even routinized work…

The artist that I was most keen on is Mamikon Yengibarian (Mamikon has participated in Venice’s Biennale). Here’s some of his work.

He uses lines and spheres to express human emotion as it is drawn out by a reaction to natural things, including feelings of vulnerability and loneliness, as well as humour and joy. He is known for his “striking” Tumbling Doll sculptures in the Four Seasons Hotel (I’ll definitely have to check these out).

In an interview, Mamikon says that the undercurrent of his works is “The organic world, the human being with his problems and pursuits.” In his work he uses propolis (bee glue), and refers to its use as “an undescribable feeling… and I admire the aroma.”

Side note on the bee glue! Although there’s no documentary evidence, propolis was believed to be used prior to 1400 in Italian paintings (the National Gallery in London noticed an unidentified substance in some of its paintings and hypothesized that it could be propolis). Propolis is a chemically complex, sticky, resinous hive product containing material collected by bees from buds and beeswax. It is used by bees as a sealant and to protect against microorganisms.

So not only is Mamikon visually patterning his works after the natural world but he is also using organic components to create them.

Stupid Art

Manchester's B of the bang sculpture was commissioned by the public

Manchester's B of the bang sculpture was commissioned by the public

So, Jonathan Jones (UK Guardian art critic): the public shouldn’t be trusted to choose their art? He argued on a panel at the Big Art Debate at the Royal Society of Arts in London, that:

public art is never going to be great art so long as it has to conform to the prejudices, enthusiasms and assumptions of the majority.

Meaning: who cares what the public thinks, they are too stupid to “get” the art anyway. Bah with them! Let’s salute disturbing/aggressive/ politically motivated/vulgar/profane art because it’s a free society.

Bear with me as I write this next paragraph. It pains me, but I guess I should give the other side a fair shake:

While I appreciate art that pushes the limits, not everyone wants to see sculpture that might be aggressive/politically motivated/etc. in the middle of rush hour on their way to work. In public spaces, art is often an afterthought, a piece on the periphery, “that big blobby thing” that people walk by day in, day out and have never really stopped to look at (and how much of my paycheck taxes did the govt. spend on THAT?). People who want to be challenged by art want to savor it when they feel like it, not on a day they are rushing in late for work. They like to look at it at lunch when they wander through the MOMA or on the weekend at a gallery opening. They like to look a it when they’ve set aside time to do it. Perhaps publicly chosen art, by design or genre, should work in its surroundings, and enhance the space pursuant to all the environmental/social/political factors around it. Or perhaps it should just be PRETTY. Not something that people have to think about or try to figure out — like what statement, exactly, is that piece of art trying to make? People want to look up at a , smile/grin/say “cool,” and move on.

OK, I’m done with the “other side.” Stop all this nonsense. I wouldn’t appreciate this art at all. I suppose pretty art has its purpose, but if the public can’t handle a little mind stretch now and then, then we’re in a sad state of society. And that’s too bad.