Off the Wall, Into the Night

The environmental context is often an afterthought when we view art, although the surroundings set the stage for the work. Everything from the size of the room and the lighting, to the formality or casualness of the venue affects our perceptions. The default installation setting of white gallery walls, especially when dealing with two-dimensional art works such as painting and drawing, is supposed to provide a clean slate allowing for total focus on the art. However, even the white cube has countless variables, demonstrating the absence of a truly neutral viewing experience.

Although galleries and museums are the official domains of art, artists do not limit their exhibitions to these establishments. Emerging artists often hang work in local cafès or restaurants before they develop a relationship with an art gallery. Established artists’ work can also be found in non-gallery locations; Miro’s mural now in the Cincinnati Art Museum’s collection was once part of such a location, the Terrace Plaza Hotel. The rise of conceptual art in the 60s and 70s moved art beyond the white cube, as the vanguard nature of the work required or lent itself to non-traditional spaces. Painting and drawing, however, remained tethered to walls.

Artists at every level seek out new places to exhibit their work for a number of reasons. Some are the local artists with minimal gallery exhibition history, while others are art stars with multiple galleries across the globe representing their work. One local artist, Dan Newman (a.k.a. Myrix), recently exhibited the same body of work in a gallery and a local martini bar. The response to his work was different in each place. In December, internationally established artist Ryan McGinness presented his paintings in the very non-artworld location of a Miami Beach strip club. The result was not just a shift in the experience of McGinness’ work, but additional layers of meaning.

Dan Newman grew up in Covington and attended Los Angeles City College for performing and visual arts. Disillusioned with the prevailing interests of the professors in Pop and Minimal art at that time, he returned to Cincinnati in the late 70s. While Newman does not consider himself a professional artist, his life drawings go beyond academic studies. He does not use experienced models, preferring to pull from the people he meets in his daily life. Using photography as a tool for quick ‘sketches’, he depicts the solitary male nude as both heroic and familiar.

Newman’s most recent exhibition at Below Zero Lounge, a gay friendly, mixed crowd bar in Over The Rhine, features twelve pieces. His drawing materials are unapologetically traditional: graphite on paper or white pencil on black paper. While the male nude in Newman’s work is always well executed, his keen draftsmanship is most evident in the black paper pieces. Working from dark to light, his sensitivity to the human form both as a subject and compositional element is transformed into simple yet complete pieces.

When Newman exhibited this body of work at the Sandra Small Gallery sales were nonexistent. When offered the opportunity to present them at Below Zero Lounge, the environment and his audience changed. In the more relaxed, dimly lit venue, viewers spent more time with the works. The salon style installation, where works are stacked rather than all in a row, contributes to a more casual feel as well. While the gay-friendliness of Below Zero might seem to factor in a positive response to sensual images of the male body, Newman revealed that he has had a significant number of female buyers.

The nude figure, specifically the male nude, can be a challenging subject for some audiences. In art history, the ‘heroic’ nude is imbued with narrative, as seen in countless ancient Greek and Roman statues, and paintings such as Michelangelo’s Creation of Adam (1508-1512), and Bouguereau’s Dante and Virgil in Hades (1850). Set firmly in the context of history, myth or religion, their nudity inspires scholarship, not desire. Newman, however, utilizes the structure of the body, the defined musculature and dynamic poses, to design the page and create effective compositions. His work quite simply celebrates the human form, while verging on provocative through a subtle sensuality. When viewed in a non-art location, the immediacy of the nude is enhanced. We instantly understand that these are not removed figures, set apart in sterile white cubes. In the casual atmosphere of the Lounge our perceptions shift as we relax in the shared space of community.

Newman has a long history of community involvement. He has been a leader in HIV/AIDS awareness and prevention since 1982 and is a professional public health educator and lecturer. His concern for the well being of the communities he serves at a grass roots level translates into his empathetic images, and complements the local venue where they were well received. Newman is not removed from his audience. His models are pulled from the people he meets in his daily life. His work, like his venue, reflects this familiarity. By presenting the male nude in a vernacular space, viewers can internalize the art experience in a casual, disinterested manner. The result of such an environment is a more present audience capable of appreciating the work on its own terms.

For Dan Newman, his December art exhibition in a bar changed his audience and the viewing experience. Meanwhile, over 1,000 miles south, a shift was also taking place during Art Basel Miami Beach as Ryan McGinness presented his new series, Women. Art Basel Miami Beach, the American counterpart to the international art fair Art Basel, is an annual event. Hundreds of galleries from around the globe participate in the five-day event. Along with the auxiliary fairs throughout the city are countless VIP parties where the conversations are as much about celebrity sightings as they are about art.

McGinness, who lives and works in New York, is represented by Cincinnati and Los Angeles based Country Club. He also understands a good party. McGinness’ 50 Parties began on July 10, 2009 with a themed party each Friday. The invitation-only events were noteworthy enough for the The New York Times to mention them, but underground enough that they were erroneously credited to photographer Ryan McGinley.

Out of 50 Parties and a desire to stand apart from the many events of Art Basel Miami Beach, McGinness’ Women were revealed at Club Madonna, a Miami strip club. The lighting in the club was enhanced with projected images of McGinness’ sketches and plenty of blacklights. The florescent colors that McGinness has been using in recent projects, including the exhibition Aesthetic Comfort at the Cincinnati Art Museum in 2008, were also painted onto the dancers. Crowds gathered outside, some waiting upwards of half an hour to get in.

While dancers took to three stages, gathering limited cash from the uninitiated, McGinness’ Women glowed from the walls. The ubiquitous female nude, represented throughout art history, was now both live and painted. McGinness silk screens the figures much as he has in previous works when utilizing symbols and icons in dense layers. However, unlike the inanimate symbols, these figures are developed from nude studies drawn from life. For McGinness, drawing has always been a key part of his process and he cites the drawing salons hosted by fellow artist Will Cotton, as key in the development of the series.

The Women figures are flattened, simplified structures and curves of the female form. Although McGinness’ abstraction seems to remove the sensuousness of the subjects, his playful forms and vivid color evoke life and movement, providing description rather than mimesis. His projected sketches call to mind the progressive series of lithographs by Picasso from 1945, demonstrating the abstraction of a bull. In both works, lines cut across figures, quickly drawn and increasingly simplified. Club goers could see the dancers as the nude model, the sketches and the final paintings in the same space.

The pulsating music, gyrating live dancers and blacklights are far from the antiseptic walls of high culture, yet the kinship between nightlife and art is nothing new. Artists including Manet, Degas and Munch frequently depicted spaces of ill repute. These modernists also employed prostitutes as models since they could be hired to disrobe, just as the strippers are paid to dance. A persistent symbol of the modern condition, many prominent modernist artists compared their roles to these women-for-hire as they became concerned with the shift from a patron system to our current artist-dealer model. However, if as Warhol said, “Making money is art and working is art…” then sex work is also art. We value sex and art in much the same ways believing that sex should not be sold and art is priceless. By exhibiting at Club Madonna, McGinness collided art market and meat market, elevating the women to art objects, or art to sex object.

The viewing experience for both Newman and McGinness’ recent installations was markedly different from a gallery space, even if that gallery featured blacklight or salon style hanging. As a testament that the art world is made up of many different types, the audience members at Club Maddona had a range of reactions to the experience. Some viewers were unsure of where to look, clearly uncomfortable. Others milled around, looking at art and avoiding the dancers. Still others settled in, bought a dance and chatted about the project, acclimating to the experience of two worlds in one space. At Below Zero Lounge, visitors could chose to take their time looking at the work or ignore it completely. The social, relaxed space allowed for a less intimidating experience than a traditional and hence more formal venue. Newman clearly benefited from the change, demonstrating the power of location.

A 2001 study showed that on average, a visitor at the Metropolitan Museum of Art spends a whopping seventeen to twenty seven seconds with an artwork. While museums continue to make important strides in audience engagement, the perception of the museum as an ivory tower or place for silent reverence persists. The viewers of McGinness’ Women and Newman’s nudes spent far longer with the work. The time we spend with work is key to our appreciation of it. Artwork is static, while paradoxically revealing itself to us over time. Joni Mitchell said, “Nobody asked van Gogh to paint another Starry Night…” referring to how music is constantly remade each time it is performed. Yet both casual viewers and seasoned art lovers continually discover new aspects to paintings in their own collections or on repeat visits to museums. The art does not change, but our ability to perceive, aided by our environment, does.

Throughout the history of artists’ organized exhibitions, a semblance of the white walled authority of the official institutions was sought. Even the 1951 Ninth Street Show, organized by the American avant garde artists including “Irascibles” such as Williem de Kooning and Robert Motherwell, held on to this fetish. Though the artists were bold enough to organize their own exhibition in an abandoned storefront, care was taken to paint the walls white.

While conceptual artists in the 1960s challenged the boundaries of the gallery, their work was also inherently non- traditional. McGinness and Newman are creating paintings and drawings, mediums that rarely posses the shock of the new. The nude figure as subject also has an undeniable continuity with the past. By exhibiting in the unexpected venues, the artists gain autonomy without sacrificing commercial success. In the time of short attention spans and quick commerce, non-traditional venues expand the cultural marketplace and open the doors to new perspectives.

– Jéssica Flores


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