Stories within stories
Izhar Patkin exhibit reveals a brilliant, often humorous intellect
Gregory Cherin photo
Because there are pleated vertical spaces within the veil scenes, artist Izhar Patkin said, “the viewer has to be very active to hunt down the phantom images. They are there and not there at the same time.” MASS MoCA is exhibiting a 30-year retrospective of Patkin’s work titled “The Wandering Veil.”
Gregory Cherin photo
Greeting you at the exhibit’s entrance is a life-sized, anodized aluminum statue of Don Quixote. The casting was a technological triumph. The Spaniard’s face is modeled after a well-known architecture critic for the New York Times, the late Herbert Muschamp.
Gregory Cherin photo
Patkin has a mastery of several artistic medium. The wax figure detail alludes to Sicily’s Villa Palagonia, a palace built in 1715 which features grotesque statuary which the German writer Goethe described as “a madhouse … of misbegotten horrors.”
Gregory Cherin photo
The one-acre display area of Building No. 5 has been subdivided into several hallways and rooms for an intimate effect. The barn board wall to the left displays paintings that aren’t what they seem, including trompe l’oeil.
“When I paint I’m just as innocent as ever. I am not letting go of that.”
— Izhar Patkin, in a 2012 interview
Visit the cavernous Building No. 5 gallery at North Adams’ Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art and you may be transfixed, titillated or bemused by Izhar Patkin’s mastery of artistic media. Through Sept. 1, the one-acre gallery is exhibiting a 30-year retrospective of the Israeli-born artist’s works. The images range from a unique form of painting to porcelain and glass figures, sculpture and enormous painted veils that surround entire rooms. The show’s images and interviews with the artist are also moveable, captured in a 239-page hard-bound companion catalogue, “The Wandering Veil” (Tel Aviv Museum of Art, The Open Museum, MASS MoCA; $34.95).
An intense and often humorous man now approaching age 60, Patkin’s approach to modernist art energized the New York galleries when he debuted in 1981. His eclectic works are now in the collections of New York’s Guggenheim, MoMA and Whitney museums, among other venues. During a recent visit, Joseph Thompson, the founding and current director of MASS MoCA, gave us an exclusive, richly detailed tour through Patkin’s works.
A Spaniard in the works
When you first enter the enormous gallery, you’re met by the backside of a life-sized Don Quixote and the rear of his horse.
“It’s completely characteristic of Izhar’s sense of wit that he gives you the ass of the horse as a greeting,” the director said.
The statue, of anodized aluminum, conveys a rainbow of colors, from the Spaniard’s blue eyes and golden sword to a bouquet of red roses. The horseman’s face is modeled upon a friend of Patkin’s, the late Herbert Muschamp, architecture critic for the New York Times. The work represents a technological breakthrough. Apparently no one had previously been able to create multiple colors in a single casting of aluminum. In a playful nod to Baroque masters, Quixote holds a mirror to capture your momentary reflection, making you a part of the art.
“In the space of the work you’ll see that time and time again in this exhibition,” Thompson said.
You’re entering into an imaginative field produced by a deeply intellectual artist who brings multiple meanings and attributions into play. After Cervantes had written “Don Quixote,” a fraudulent second book was written by another author. Cervantes published another story with Quixote often quoting from the earlier bogus book.
“So we have a fiction written about a factual rip-off,” the director said. “So it’s a story within a story within a story.”
Duchamp and Kafka
Patkin was raised in Israel by a Russian father who’d fled to Palestine to escape the pogroms. His mother was a Palestinian refugee. The first painting he recalled seeing as a child was a posthumous portrait of his uncle, his namesake, a soldier killed at age 18.
He was viewing a painting of a ghost. His parents were so devastated by the loss of Izhar the soldier that they didn’t utter the name of their child until he reached age 3.
“A ghost is essentially an unresolved, or suspended emotion ... I understand that the role of the artist as narrator is to suspend ghosts,” Patkin said in a 2012 interview.
A storyteller, he works in a variety of mediums, drawing much of his inspiration from the red-hot Dada Marcel Duchamp (1887-1968). The movement of Dadaism, a peace-loving reaction to the horrors of World War I, sought to bring irrationality, nonsense and surrealism to art. The Frenchman may be best known for his 1912 fractured painting “Nude Descending a Staircase No. 2,” which one critic likened to an explosion in a shingle factory. Duchamp also found irony in common objects, from bicycle wheels to urinals, displaying them as art.
“Cinema and Duchamp have changed everything in painting,” Patkin said in a 2012 interview. “They both threw the canvas into a state of anxiety.”
A few paces from the horseman is a barn-board wall of paintings that aren’t as they first appear. Two small girls holding a dog also resemble a skull. A house key seen from a distance is actually trompe l’oeil, a three-dimensional painting. For Franz Kafka fans, the key should evoke recognition, alluding to his parable “Before the Law.” A young man seeks to enter the legal profession, however, he cannot enter a guarded door. He spends his life failing to pass by the guard. As an old man he realizes that his lack of imagination prevented success.
“Everything about him is complicated,” Thompson said of the artist.
Patkin is inviting you to use imagination to see beyond just the images that he’s created.
“The Wandering Veil”
The exhibit’s centerpiece is a series of rooms, each dedicated to a poem by the late Agha Shahid Ali. The poet was voluminous in his works and taught writing at several colleges and universities, including University of Massachusetts-Amherst. He and Patkin were friends and collaborated on the exhibit. In each room a scene surrounds you. The walls are draped in a transparent, screened fabric holding images 14 feet high, ranging from springtime cherry blossoms to the beaches of Tel Aviv.
The fabric, tulle, is best known for use in bridal veils. Using what is possibly the planet’s largest, and certainly most persnickety, inkjet printer, Patkin manipulates photographs, colorizes them and creates folds in the tulle so that the images are interrupted by vertical spaces.
“There’s a game of hide-and-seek on the tulle pleats,” Patkin said in a recent interview. “The viewer has to be very active to hunt down the phantom images. They are there and not there at the same time.”
You may be reminded of Lewis Carroll’s Alice in “Through the Looking Glass.” At one point she can only see things peripherally. When she directs her gaze, objects vanish. There are many ghosts here, from a photograph of Patkin’s late father posed in front of New York’s World Trade Center to a historic 1961 image of President John Kennedy in the West Wing. The White House social, displaying more tuxedos and gowns than a James Bond movie, celebrated a solo performance by the Spanish cellist Pablo Casals. Patkin, however, has removed the musician from the room, instead placing him on another panel, near an allee of trees and birds. The image references an antifascist musical piece which Casals, a fervid opponent of his country’s dictator, General Franco, played at virtually every recital: “The Song of The Birds.”
Away from the hundreds of yards of mesmerizing tulle, another room evokes a historical curiosity. On what may have been a consumer whim, King Frederick II of Prussia bought up Berlin’s porcelain factories in the mid-1700s.
“He didn’t buy the essence of the factories, the skilled craftsmen. He just bought the tooling and the buildings,” Thompson said. “The quality of the porcelain went to hell in a hand basket.”
Now flooded with shoddy product, the king then decreed that any Jews seeking building or business permits were required to purchase what was referred to as “monkey porcelain.” In time the well-to-do Jewry, including the forbears of the composer Felix Mendelssohn, had troves of the stuff, often featuring monkey designs. Patkin depicts this little-known historical rip-off with tea services featuring yarmulkes.
“I wander among cultures,” Patkin said recently. “The chasm between abstraction, representation and manifestation is embodied in my story.”
‘The Octagon Room’
Among the museum’s visual surprises and curiosities is artist Mark Dion’s “Octagon Room,” an homage to 19th-century lecturer and junk scientist Orson Fowler.
“He became convinced that living in an octagonal house was more healthy and definitely more economical because of less wasted space,” Thompson said.
Some 2,000 of these homes remain in our country. Enter Dion’s eight-sided room and you’re in a Victorian parlor complete with a round pouf for seating. The walls and the furniture are an obsessive compulsive’s dream of encyclopedic collections, from taxidermy and archeology to the artists own watercolors.
“This is essentially a visual diary of about 10 years of Mark Dion’s life,” Thompson said.
During the administration of Bush 43, Dion, a New Bedford native, became somewhat of a political exile, taking on numerous commissions overseas. In his spare time he collected everything from the arcane to glass and pottery shards from European rivers. The room contains a cornucopia of objects from butterfly nets and toys to an amalgam of photographs depicting Dion’s heroes.
“It’s a waiting room, which speaks to the possibility of hope,” Dion wrote in a 2012 correspondence.
With all its aged accouterments, which may delight not only small children, but even the most jaded of adults, it’s also a Victorian time machine.
“The Wandering Veil” continues at MASS MoCA through Sept. 1. “The Octagon Room” continues through Feb. 1, 2015. The museum is open 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. Closed Tuesdays. Adults, $15; students, $10; ages 6 to 16, $5. Directions: take Route 2 to North Adams. At the second set of lights, past Big Y, take a right onto Holden Street and an immediate left on St. Anthony’s Drive. The parking lot is directly ahead.
Don Stewart is a freelance writer who lives in Plainfield. He has written for The Recorder since 1994.