November 21, 2020
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This Week's Contents
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Natalie Niblack:
Nailing the Trump Era

Daytime at a Museum
During the Covid-19 Lockdown
Yasuyo Maruyama:
Mind’s Eye
Natalie Niblack: Nailing the Trump Era
by Matthew Kangas
Every period of political turbulence births its own critics and chroniclers, among the most important being satirists and caricaturists. For my vote, Natalie Niblack will be among the supreme comic interpreters of the Age of Trump which, despite the recent election result, is not yet finished. Even after Inauguration Day, Niblack is sure to remain relevant, if not lampooning that administration and its cronies, then turning back in her paintings to imagery of extreme meteorological distress connected to climate change.

For the past four years, Niblack shifted gradually from her large acrylic paintings depicting flaming oceans (“Now,” 2020) and blazing police cars (“Police Car #1,” 2020) to painted and glazed stoneware busts of elected and appointed public officials associated with the Trump regime. Building on the tradition of William Hogarth, Thomas Nast and more recently, Roger Law of “Spitting Image” BBC fame, Niblack draws on her training at Edinburgh College of Art (MFA, 1993) in Scotland and a crucial ceramic residency with another explosive realist, Tip Toland. Hand-building in the vein of Robert Arneson and Patti Warashina, Niblack may be a clay newcomer, but in one four-year period, she has arguably become the leading comic ceramic artist in the nation. She apprenticed for nine years with Terry Silva, a potter in Sedro-Woolley, Washington, and continued in her studio for another five years after Silva’s death.
Natalie Niblack, “Rudy Tooti,” 2020, stoneware, underglaze, turntable with a notion sensor that plays “Enter the Gladiators”, 13 x 11 x 11”. Courtesy i.e. gallery, Edison, WA. Photo: Niblack Studio
Natalie Niblack, “Pink,” 2017, ceramic, 21 x 14 x 16”.
Courtesy i.e. gallery, Edison, WA. Photo: Niblack Studio
Natalie Niblack, “Sycophant 2: Bill Barr,” 2020, stoneware, underglaze, 14 x 15 x 10 1/2”. Courtesy i.e. gallery, Edison, WA. Photo: Niblack Studio
While a recent show at Chehalem Cultural Center in Newberg, Oregon focused on her climate change paintings, for our purposes, a brief discussion of her busts may shed light on answering the question, “Why haven’t there been more attacks by artists on Trump and his corrupted enablers?” Could it be fear of the topicality of such art; that it might guarantee limited shelf life? Niblack casts such concerns to the wind and bores down with full force on cast-members who are more disgusting and comic in her work than any Halloween costume, brilliantly conveying all the double-chins, feeble-mindedness and pathetic sycophancy that will haunt them for the rest of their lives.

Before dissecting and cheerfully crucifying the collaborators, it’s worth noting how Niblack, in an early work, was less direct but still powerful in her abbreviation of a horrible topic: mass killings of schoolchildren. “Back to School” (2016) shows a happy child clown with a nearby gun. A follow-up work is “Warmonger: Portrait of Wayne La Pierre” (2020), the National Rifle Association head under investigation for shuffling funds and indirectly responsible for the colossal arming of America — and the killing of innocent children. 

As to the impeachment years, Department of Justice Attorneys General Jeff Sessions and William Barr are equally skewered in “Sycophant #1” and “Sycophant #2” (2018, 2020), whom she described in an interview as “two of the more reprehensible people on earth.” The latter is a seated bull dog with black-spotted eye and shriveled member. Niblack’s likenesses are remarkable and lifelike, with each subject squirming so as to allow the viewer a vicarious revenge and catharsis. This is the real test of successful political art as opposed to illustrational propaganda by artists such as Shepard Fairey. Niblack is not a graphic artist; she is not making posters; she is creating individual aesthetic objects capable of sustained contemplation, beyond our wretched, extended moment.

One sculpture actually rotates from mood to mood, depending which the President requires: “Rudy Tooti” (2020) is a four-faced, lidded cookie jar revolving on a turntable to the tune of “Enter the Gladiators.” Niblack captures perfectly Giuliani’s mock-outrage and terrified shouts. Another, “Mr. Miller” (2020) features Santa Monica High School’s greatest embarrassment, Stephen Miller, mastermind of the parent-child separation policy for Latin American asylum seekers, among other atrocities. Here he is depicted as a boa constrictor with a human head displaying two front vampire teeth. Surely this deserves a place in a “gallery of rogues” at some California history museum. It bookends Niblack’s “Pelosi Two-Step” (2020), a decapitated, living Trump head stomped on by pink stiletto-heel shoes and choked with a bedraggled red tie. In turn, “Pelosi Two-Step” is a pendant to an earlier effigy of the leader’s head, “Covfefe” (2017), his mouth stuffed with torn-up tweets.

Most terrifying and creepy of all, “Pink” (2017) nails “Moscow Mitch,” or Senator Mitch McConnell, face sagging and flesh melting before our eyes. His eyeglasses are the perfect touch. Niblack immortalizes the so-called “Z-list cabinet” with all the flair and élan of French masters such as Honoré Daumier and J.J. Grandville. With the passage of time and given enough bad news (sure to come), Niblack could attain their stature of greatness.

She noted in a recent interview, “Painting [the climate changes] is a coping mechanism for me ... but my true bias and anchor is in my sculptures.” One hopes for and foresees the continuing voice of this stern but witty prophet.
Matthew Kangas is a corresponding editor for Art in America and Sculpture magazine. He has written for numerous publications including the Seattle Times, Artweek, Preview and Art Ltd. Four collections of his reviews, interviews and essays have been published in New York by Midmarch Arts Press and are available at Amazon. Books by Matthew Kangas at Amazon. He is also the author of the recent award-winning monograph Italo Scanga 1932-2001.
Daytime at a Museum During the Covid-19 Lockdown
by Liz Goldner
The film, “Night at the Museum” (2006), about a night guard observing the Museum of Natural History’s art and artifacts come to life, might elicit curiosity about occurrences at SoCal museums during the first Spring pandemic lockdown and the current one.
Entrance view,"Los Angeles Area Scene Paintings" exhibition
When all is quiet in museum halls and galleries, are the art pieces having visual conversations? Are they moving out of their cases and frames to confront each other and the occasional custodian who enters the building?

A recent interview with Mary Platt, Director of the Hilbert Museum of California Art on Orange County’s Chapman University campus, revealed a scene of constant human activity, both within the museum and virtually, in spite of this year of isolation.  

“When Chapman shut down in March, all keycards were turned off and no one could access the campus buildings except for essential workers,” she said. “Because the museum has a multi-million dollar collection and someone needs to monitor it, I made the case to the university that it would be better if that person were me — who knows the art. They soon agreed and I was able to fully re-access the museum a week after the campus closure.” 
One of Platt’s immediate tasks was to reschedule exhibitions. This included extending the runs of “Los Angeles Area Scene Paintings” with narrative style paintings from 1913 to the present, and “Who Framed Roger Rabbit” with 30 original cels from the 1988 film. Both exhibitions had opened two days before the March 17 museum closure and were scheduled to run for six months. The shows — which were made viewable starting October 13 through November 16 — will remain up through February 20, 2021. Hopefully the museum will open for in-person visits before then. 

Rescheduling included cancelling a month-long run of work by the California Art Club, which was force to go entirely online. Platt and the museum staff also put off until March 2021 an exhibition on California Landscape Painting, curated by Jean Stern, the former Irvine Museum Executive Director, and another show on the overlooked yet masterful California artist, Henrietta Berk.
While Platt also worked on ad schedules and writing grant applications, her art related tasks included daily social media updates, and Zoom-based exhibition planning meetings with Hilbert Museum and Chapman University staff. For the former, posts on Facebook and Instagram, titled, "At Home with the Hilbert Museum" were uploaded daily, each post featuring one painting from the museum collection. This effort, arranged by Linda Stern, quadrupled the museum's social media following. As a result the museum plans to continue engaging the public more aggressively with these platforms in the future.

Zoom sessions soon filled up a significant part of Platt’s workdays. “Mark Hilbert (the museum’s founder) is a great booster and cheerleader,” she said. “We often meet on Zoom or for socially distanced lunches. We talk about plans for the museum expansion, to occur in 2022, and about future exhibitions.”

Platt and the museum staff hosted a public Zoom discussion on its “Who Framed Roger Rabbit” exhibition. Richard Bryant, Executive Director of Chapman's Musco Center for the Arts, and his team worked with her to produce the discussion, which has been viewed in archived format by nearly 4,000 people. 

Platt also attends monthly Zoom meetings that bring together fellow Orange County area museum leaders. These informative sessions, which include tips on how to reopen, are hosted by Arts Orange County, OC's arts council, and by Richard Stein, the organization’s president and CEO.  

Early in September, as the Hilbert Museum anticipated re-opening, Platt and her staff wrote a detailed 30-page re-opening plan.  
Installation views at Hilbert Museum, with and without visitors
Platt sums up her eight-month-long experience since the March 17 lockdown: “Even though we can’t have an in-person community, we quickly formed an online/virtual community of support for the arts and for each other. We are very grateful for having such a great arts community here at Chapman and in the OC.” It’s a story that is being played out in local art communities throughout the country.
Liz Goldner is an award-winning art writer based in Laguna Beach. She has contributed to the LA Times, LA Weekly, KCET Artbound, Artillery, AICA-USA Magazine, Orange County Register, Art Ltd. and several other print and online publications. She has written reviews for ArtScene and Visual Art Source since 2009. 
Yasuyo Maruyama: Mind’s Eye
Ro2 Art, Dallas, Texas
Continuing through December 5, 2020
by John Zotos
Yasuyo Maruyama, “Sakiko 2,” 2020, oil on panel, 16 x 16”
Yasuyo Maruyama, “Alex 2,” 2020, oil on panel, 12 x 12”
Yasuyo Maruyama’s compelling exhibition of 11 paintings display high contrasts in color, with a graphic flatness and hardedge visual transitions. These severely cropped faces in extreme close-up combine complex composition, naturalist painting techniques, and age-old subject matter to evoke powerful emotions. The stunning signature piece, “Sakiko 2,” is a perfect embodiment of what the artist has achieved. A female face cropped from above, alternately bordered by green and blue with dramatic transitions from one color to the other, stares into the distance. 

All of the portraits are pared down so only essential features remain, imbedded in solid, polished, colors that make up backgrounds or hair and facial features. Executed on small panels, Maruyama’s interest in Japanese calligraphy is visible via her repeated use of an array of brushes and tools to depict hair, eyelashes and eyebrows with single precise lines.

The portraits are of friends and acquaintances of Maruyama. The flatness of the panel support augments the stunning hyperreality of the images. They owe a debt to Japanese ukiyo-e wood block prints, which translates as “pictures of the floating world.” The subjects, indeed, seem to float within the frame, alternatively making direct eye contact with us or denying it altogether. We can’t escape being absorbed in the gaze of “Emma G 2,” while “Kahoko 3,” lost in thought, looks past us, avoiding eye contact altogether. Most compositions are portrait busts of head and neck. Three of the works here, “Takumi,” “Takumi 2” and “Alex 2,” include a single hand on which the subjects’ head rests lightly and comfortably.

But it’s through the eyes that Maruyama unifies this body of work, lifting them into an ethereal realm. The eyes are formed through laying down multiple layers of opaque and transparent oil paint. The resulting anatomy bears no resemblance to actual human eyes, unlike and in contrast with the directness and simplicity of the rest of the facial features. This is the most striking element in the paintings; the people become otherworldly, evoking but distinctive from references to cyborgs, Japanese anime films and manga comics. This body of work suggests that the overwhelming pop art style in the world of Takashi Murakami, or the postmodernism of Mamoru Oshii’s animated masterpieces such as “Ghost in the Shell,” have been supplanted by the austere serenity and graceful treatment we find in Maruyama. 

John Zotos is an art critic and essayist based in Dallas.
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