Constructing Paradise

Austrian Cultural Forum New York
February 1st - April 24th, 2017

There has been a long history of Western artists discovering and re-discovering the exotic. At the Austrian Cultural Forum New York, a remarkable cultural space in Midtown, the show “Constructing Paradise” examines the impulse to romanticize foreign cultures, landscapes, and points of view. Artists as well known as Paul Gauguin, Oskar Kokoschka, Jean-Michel Basquiat, Mickalene Thomas and Mark Dion are included.

Paul Gaugin. Noa Noa (Embaumé Embaumé) / Fragrant Scent (1893-94). Color woodcut in red, yellow, black, and orange on heavy, tan Japan paper. 14 3/4 x 9 7/8 inches (sheet). From the Roy color edition of 25 to 30 printed in 1894. Lowenfels Collection, courtesy of David Tunick, Inc., New York.

Indeed, by the time Gauguin reached Tahiti in 1891, much of it had already been transformed by the French. Cultural tourism had already been firmly established. Today we can get most anywhere in the world within twenty-four hours, with the result that we have been familiarized, at least superficially, with cultures that we can only pretend to have maintained their purity of difference.

This pretense, now several generations old, still survives as a creative mechanism, although now it cannot be taken up without irony, either in the image, or in the ambience surrounding the image. Sincerity does not fare well as an attitude in the historical appropriation of traditions that were intact long before the West discovered them. Either directly, or by implication, the artists' different points of view take up the issue of personal difference, inculcated by the dominant, colonizing culture, or expressed by images proclaiming resistance to that controlling culture. Or, they describe utopias that are finally suspect.

But no matter when the interest in constructing difference originated, inevitably the topic of romanticizing someone else, or somewhere else, comes into play especially in a world where immigration is currently the norm. Often the romantic aspect carries with it undertones of prejudice against, but sometimes also for, the person or place that is being examined. Throughout “Constructing Difference” there are beautiful exotic landscapes that demonstrate paradise and, due to that, cannot be truly taken seriously. As a result, we have to read between the lines to understand that the images proclaim a utopia that we ourselves have damaged.

Paul Gauguin is the earliest artist represented in the show. His color woodcut, called Noa Noa (Embaumé Embaumé) / Fragrant Scent (1893-94), depicts a woman in a yellow shirt and red skirt in the foreground, carrying fruit. A dog accompanies her, as another woman in a black shirt and red dress with long black hair is seen facing her from the middle ground. A river and water bank frames the composition that goes on to show a tall tree in the center with cloud-like foliage that almost mirrors the image of both women who stand opposite of one another. Above them, the title "Noa Noa" announces itself. The image is of course derived from real experience, but does it communicate the actuality of life in Tahiti?

Inevitably, we come to realize that Gauguin’s fascination with paradise resulted in remarkable art but did not correspond to the island’s daily experience. Thus, the imagination reinforces its own beliefs rather than the conditions that had actually existed. In Oskar Kokoschka’s color lithograph, titled Tiger Cat (1975), the artist presents a simple study of a young tiger, who shows a fierce eye and sharp teeth with claws revealed. This image may be described not only as a study of an untamed animal, but also as a parable of human wildness within. Kokoschka used the tiger as a symbol of a world without control.

On the face of it, “Constructing Paradise” looks at a tradition that is well established in art: the pursuit of a promised land that would stand in contrast to the world we now exist in. There is nothing wrong with searching for a utopia, but, as the show makes clear, what if both the pursuit and the place were constructed from assumptions that originate with entitlement?

Jean-Michel Basquiat. Man Needs Milk. (1981). Mixed media on paper. 12 x 8 inches. Collection of Justin Warsh.

Jean-Michel Basquiat is idolized today in America as a major black artist. Having died of a heroin overdose in 1988, at the age of 27, Basquiat is usually considered to have been tragically eclipsed, although he has a body of work that is extensive and shown all over the world.  Man Needs Milk (1981) for instance, is a mixed-media work on paper and presents a naked, dark-colored man with a crown who holds a spear: a representative of royalty in Africa. A phrase “MAN NEEDS MILK OWNS 10,000 COWS,” appears above this figure while beside him, on the right, we see a glass milk bottle, and a quick sketch of an animal. It is hard to accurately interpret Basquiat’s composition in light of the words, but it seems to be implying an abundance of wealth held by an African king, who is represented in a primitive manner. Between the riches of the king and his portrait there appears a great gap. This may well be a deliberate contrast revealing an African’s social condition and the way he is seen by white culture.

Mickalene Thomas, however, offers a reworking of Édouard Manet’s iconic painting Le déjeuner sur l’herbe (1862-3) in a C-Print from 2010. This photographic composition shows three black women wearing contemporary disco dresses while their expressions are framed by colorful blue, white, red, pink and orange make-up. Thomas’ photograph strikes a sharp contrast to Manet’s 19th-century oil painting since no men are present. Moreover, the perspective used in Thomas’ photograph sets each woman on an even surface whereas Monet’s painting presents a tilt that extends from the viewer to the three subjects in the center. Thomas’ suggestion of equality and sisterhood is confirmed through the collective gaze that is directed back at the viewer, reaffirming the equal rights of African-American women in light of a mostly male, white art history.

Le Déjeuner sur l’herbe: Les trois femmes noires. 2010.
C-Print. 48 x 60 inches. Edition of 5 + 2 AP. Courtesy of the artist and Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York.

Mark Dion’s Humboldt Cabinet (2013) fits perfectly into this theme and pays homage to Prussian scientist and explorer, Alexander von Humboldt, whose ideas influenced 19th-century painting.  However this four-paneled cabinet, with small pictures of animals, plants, and miscellaneous objects, functions as the a collection of curiosities that belong to a contemporary naturalist. For this work, Mark Dion journeyed into the jungle of Honda, Colombia and reached back nostalgically to Humboldt’s time by creating small paintings of everything he saw such as rocks, fish and birds. The artist then mailed these works of art back to curators at The Americas Society in New York. In “Constructing Paradise,” the postage side of each postcard is displayed in order to show that the documentation is real.

The artists here - along with Hugo Canoilas, Matthias Kessler, Kara Walker and Nives Widauer - are determined to reveal both the origins and the consequences of idealization and prejudice. This can be seen in the broad utopic landscape imagery, as well as the insistence on racial and sexual intolerance by the artists who do not belong to the white, male, heterosexual cohort. The work on view throughout “Constructing Paradise,” also looks at this concept of unattainable idealism and finds little to establish its reality—or even to recommend it, based as it is on privileged assumptions. There is a problem, though: by thoroughly politicizing the construction of paradise, the implications of the show do away with the search for a better place to be. The imagination surely needs a site, likely beyond its immediate reach, where it can develop a utopia free of the harsh conditions, in nature and in culture, that dog us all. “Constructing Paradise” is so good at unmasking the unspoken supposition that heaven is found somewhere else, it begs the question whether the imagination would be better off if it completely accepted life as it is. To do that would be to consciously limit ourselves—an activity of dubious value.

Jonathan Goodman, New York