Visual Art

Six Decades of American Art

“The American Dream”, currently at the British Museum, is a colossal and almost overwhelming exhibit. It took me a full two hours to go through it and I still couldn’t see everything. It’s about the art, and also about the process of how art gets made. It’s also about the decisions that go into what constitutes art, and the practical execution of those concepts. It’s about the power of the image—whether a print or a painting or a sculpture or a torn-up bit of cardboard. It’s about the power of words—whether a word can ever be art, and how. It’s bewildering and fantastic and, on one level, an absolute triumph.

It starts badly, though. The first work exhibited is Bruce Nauman’s Pay Attention – which is a print of the words PAY ATTENTION MOTHERFUCKERS. As a call to action it is effective but this isn’t the sixties anymore. We are used to images, their repetition, and we are positively drowning in them (potty-mouthed or not) in a way that the artists of the sixties could not have imagined. The second and third pieces are major ones by Andy Warhol. In the same way that it is impossible to imagine film history without the influence of Citizen Kane, or The Matrix, it is impossible to imagine modern art without Warhol. Yet it is shocking to realize how their power has been diluted with the passing of time. Leaving aside his “fifteen-minutes of fame” curse, Warhol understood two things about being an artist better than anyone before or since. The first is: production can be just as important as the object. The second is: the way the object is marketed can be just as important as the object itself.

The exhibit knows both those things very well. Scattered throughout the exhibit’s twenty rooms are video interviews with various featured artists explaining their working techniques and the thought processes behind their pieces. Some of these clips are visibly modern, whilst others were clearly filmed at the time the work was created. There are also films showing the printing process for certain pieces, which is definitely intriguing, and as close to physically making a print that some of us will ever get.

When it comes to the marketing, the exhibit is a bit coyer. A great deal of fuss is made of the pieces by more famous artists—to name three, Roy Lichtenstein, Jasper Johns, and David Rauschenberg—and on the reception of their works at the time, their support networks, and the influence they had on how print work/collage was taken forward. The exhibit is so large that the emphasis on their work swallows the attention from work done by lesser-known artists, who are too numerous to list. There are sections devoted to the art of ideas, to the art of protest, and to art done with specific techniques such as line drawings. There is an enormous amount to see here.

But there is a theoretical mistake at the heart of the exhibition. Artists like Warhol and Johns, who were still students as World War II ended, were the right age to go straight into the art schools that exploded with the benefits and the energy of the GI Bill. The democratization of art via Pop meant that everyday objects could be considered masterpieces, prints were given equal importance to paintings, and even words could be items of absolute beauty.

However, the world’s relationship to the image is not what it was in 1950, or even in 2000. The social media explosion that has happened just in the last decade has democratized art in ways we couldn’t even dream of five years ago. Instagram and Snapchat filters have made the altering of images commonplace and instantaneous. Apps and computer programs mean that anyone can make GIFs, turn photos into memes, and manipulate images instantly in ways the Factory could only have dreamed of.

Many cartoonists don’t use physical pen-and-ink or watercolor anymore, but instead programs which replicate those looks perfectly. And none of this appears in the exhibit at all. Artists like Kara Walker, Julie Mehretu, and Willie Cole are held up as contemporary American artists, which of course they are and not least in the diversity they bring to the table—there isn’t a female artist featured in the first five rooms—but they are still working squarely in the context of non-digital methods and techniques.

In 1966 it was revolutionary for Ed Ruscha to strap cameras on either side of his car and photograph every shop front on Sunset Strip. But for a decade we’ve had Google Street View for almost every street in the developed world. There are cameras on every phone and we can watch live streams of anything, anywhere in the world. We can clip the best images and amend them to our heart’s delight. Images are pervasive and their manipulation even more so. It’s no wonder that the artists profiled at the end talk about their technique in nearly fetishistic terms. It’s obviously essential that, with their art school degrees and access to expensive equipment, they elevate themselves over bored kids in their bedrooms across the world.

Why does this exhibit ignore current pop artists completely? If this exhibit was about how acceptance of print as a technique has shaped the modern art landscape, it would work well. Same if it was about how to breach the gap between a conceptualization and object. Instead it seems as if it wanted viewers to have the same debate about high vs. low art all over again. What was once new, strange and startling is now passé and clichéd. Couldn’t we look at why these artists, who talk about their work in the language of an artisanal chef, have stuck to the old methods instead of pushing out into the new? And don’t the new artists, the current Pop players, deserve to have their work in this exhibit too? Their gaping absence points to a total failure to engage with how the world of art is in flux right now. The shift of art-world power from the galleries into the smartphones is invisible, but by the end of the exhibit it becomes about the only thing you can see.

But the final room makes that failure irrelevant. One of the most dynamic prints in the first half of the exhibit is Ruscha’s Standard Station—a deceptively simple print of a gas station. It’s all sharp diagonals (like you see in Soviet propaganda) and the primary colors of the American flag. The exhibit loops around on itself and in the last room is one of Ruscha’s newer works, Ghost Station, which is the shape of the print embossed on plain white paper. No colors at all. And it’s hung in such a way that if you look to the left, you can see Standard Station where it hangs across the space.

That’s the masterstroke of the curators: to show us not only that the American Dream is nothing but a ghost, but also that the art being created in this void has yet to receive its due.

Dear Data: the Surprising Artistry of Personal Data

The MoMA recently acquired the exhibition Dear Data, a joint collaboration between Stefanie Posavec and Giorgia Lupi. Stefanie describes herself as “an artist whose medium is data.” For 52 weeks, the two artists collected data on the intimate interactions of daily life. They initiated and sought to learn about each other via the medium of self-collected and self-reported data. Each artist would provide a visualization and a key, before shipping off little parcels of data across the Atlantic. The pair explored topics ranging from the number of times they looked at the clock, to the number of physical interactions, the number of apologies in a week, and the number of thank-yous — an entire friendship communicated through data.

Part of the beauty of the Dear Data project is its intentionality. Data acquisition on “human behaviour” is most often a byproduct — information collected passively to track where we spend our money, what ads we click, what we read online, what phone calls we make, emails we send, messages we read. And yet, there is an entire sphere where data has not yet encroached. There are (as of yet) no apps to track our indecision, the number of animals on a neighborhood stroll, our moments of impatience, or the number of times we laugh. Dear Data strives to capture the beauty of these daily rhythms through the unlikely medium of data.

Stefanie and Giorgia refer to the project as “Little data” in contrast to the omnipresent “big data.” The pervasiveness of datafication is inescapable. What we eat is tracked at the grocery store, school attendance and grades are stored online, even our spontaneous late night purchases of several years ago are likely whirring away on a corporate database.

And yet, the mistake of the big data revolution is the tendency to equate new data with new information, and a still further leap to imply that collecting data translates to meaning. We don’t learn new things about ourselves from the apps. We know what we buy, but human motivation remains obscured. Attendance records may be tallied, but databases miss the underlying reason such as illness or family dynamics. Furthermore, often the meaningful relationships in our lives are predicted by the absence of data. Facebook can tell when people are suddenly in a relationship, because the profile picture views drop to zero, the flirty comments are no more. The data encodes this as an abrupt phase transition: from the pixelated world into the territory of flesh and blood.

By paying attention to the little bits of information we don’t often collect information on, Stefanie and Giorgia challenge the status quo of data. Rather than collecting data purely as a byproduct of oft-commercialized endeavors, they exercise agency to collect the data for the story they want to tell from the get go. Cathy O’Neil, resident authority on data science, says that visualization is telling the story of “how the data came to be.” In contrast, Stefanie and Giorgia decide what story they want to tell—what aspect of their lives they want to pay particular attention to in a week—and then they tell it with data. In that sense, the project is deeply counter-cultural. So often, data collection is entirely passive, and the resulting data package is packaged and repackaged and sold around the internet to the highest bidder. It is sold in order to sell you things. Dear Data stands as an example of taking active control of the stories our data tells about us. It hopes to engage the full human and narrative potential of big data rather than taking an apocalyptic luddite stance.

dear data b dear data a

The project sits in an uncomfortable space between communities of statisticians, graphic designers, and data scientists. Is the project art? Data? Does it matter? Work at the boundaries of disciplines like this often feels a bit homeless. Unlike data journalists and graphic designers, Stephanie doesn’t code much. Her data is collected by hand, typed into phones. Data visualization respects certain protocols for the most efficient types of visualization. Stefanie and Giorgia break those distinctions, bending axes, using color, size, shape in ways that challenge the viewers.

dear data horizontal

Much data visualization has a purely pragmatic angle. People look to charts when they want information about the effect on a bottom line, or when they want to represent numbers that have some sense of authority. Visualization aims to cultivate efficiency, whereas the artistry of Dear Data engenders awareness. Stefanie remarked that the year-long process of visualizing personal data heightened her attention to the topic of the week. On the week of cataloguing complaints, she sought to complain less, on the week of laughter, she would deliberately seek out occasions to laugh.

The project hypothesizes that counting may be a form of awareness. As a statistician, I live by a quote from Einstein, “Not everything that counts can be counted, and not everything that can be counted counts.” Dear Data reminds us that but when we stop to count the things that matter, when we truly pay attention, we can create beauty and meaning, whatever our medium.

 

Object Lessons: Landscape after the “Material Turn”

This essay originally appeared in SEEN Journal (XV.1) – Landscape, a publication by Christians in the Visual Arts.

In the film Paterson, Jim Jarmusch’s beautiful new homage to the humble habits required of art, we see the protagonist, a poet and bus driver, at work throughout his days. His work is concerned with looking at things—a glass of beer, a watch, a box of matches—and being influenced by them. The film will be a revelation to some, and a beautiful portrait of a foundational truth to others—the truth that especially in art, objects exist in the world not to be acted upon, but to act on us. Artists of all kinds often count things—whether born of human hands, machine processes, or of the planet’s volcanic, biological heart—as oriented to at least the possibility, if not the preordained destiny, of incarnate life. They live their days bearing in mind a continuum between the painter’s pocket full of objects rescued from trash and trail, her head full of verse about sensate matter, her holy books underlined at mentions of talking animals and singing stones, her studio expectant for the rush of divine wind and silence. Artists also count themselves somewhat out-of-step with modernity in this regard, expecting enchantment where they imagine others to have accepted disenchantment.

If as an artist or art patron, you recognize yourself in this picture, it may then come as a surprise to find that the conference halls, edited volumes, and curatorial mandates of art academe today are awash with concern for the agency—the sentience, the will, the intentions, even the memory—of inanimate things. Under such banners as “thing theory,” “speculative realism,” “object-oriented ontology,” or “the non-human turn,” the arts and humanities are rife with new speculation about the lives of things in the world. If you want to make a case for not only the worth, but the distinctive identity and emotional, political power of individual paintings, kittens, copper veins, microbes, pencils, or postage stamps, you’ll have a robust array of critical platforms at your disposal. This “material turn” eschews universalities, instrumentalism, and reductionism—no object, thing, or creature should be identified solely for a quality it embodies, an end it serves, or a concept it illustrates. Things have their own lives. A spoon “knows” the sugar it scoops. The copper knows its way back to the earth, through mining, extraction, formation into circuits, melting in the hands of children doing cheap (and toxic) e-waste labor, disposal.

One of the richest examples of this approach in my recent memory was the central component of dOCUMENTA (13), the 2012 installment of Kassel, Germany’s massive art festival. In the exhibit referred to by the curators as The Brain, a large but not innumerable amount of objects lay on display across the walls, floor, and display cases of a close, semi-circular room. We see traditional, if relatively recent, fired pottery in distinctive symmetrical shapes and rich glazes. There are also two bricks bearing old adhesive marks where, we are told, antennae were once attached to render the clay forms as (contraband) portable radios under a communist Czech government.

Carolyn Christov-Bakargiev’s The Brain, Photo: Fabian Fröhlich.

Carolyn Christov-Bakargiev’s The Brain, Photo: Fabian Fröhlich.

On the floor we see a pair of large rocks, nearly identical in color, shape, and size. The wall placard describes one as from a quarry, the other from a river—an extremely unlikely set of twins? On another wall, a grid of digital reprints of Lee Miller photos, probably from one or two rolls shot on the same day in 1945, when the photographer-journalist accompanied U.S. forces in to liberate Munich. Miller poses taking a bath in the bathtub of Hitler’s Munich apartment; the small carved female nude statuette behind her in the photograph is behind us in a display case, as is the more famous statue which Miller herself mimics in the image. Nearby, we see an image of human remains in an oven from Dachau, likely shot on the same day as Miller’s performance in Hitler’s apartment. Down the way, we see displayed the issue of LIFE magazine where Miller’s bathtub scene was eventually published.

Elsewhere in this same room, we see a case of vases and bottles from the collection of the late Italian painter Giorgio Morandi. Their forms recall the ceramic vessels nearby, and then literally recur in some Morandi paintings elsewhere in the room. We also see a grouping of metronomes from Man Ray’s collection, each bearing a photograph of an eye fastened to the top of the pendulum. This is Lee Miller’s eye, we learn. Their relationship apparently did not end well, and thus her appearance in this sculpture, entitled How to destroy something you love. As the original work, according to the surrealist’s instructions, involved smashing the metronome-assemblage with a hammer, what we actually see in the case is a collection of different un-smashed versions of the piece, each created for different exhibitions, and each with a different version of Miller’s eye.

Indestructible Object Man Ray, 1923

Indestructible Object, Man Ray, 1923

In this exhibit, each object arrives with some import, while new meanings emerge through dialogues between the objects. Like wayfinding signs, each object points to others within the room, and even to spaces outside, yet also sits firmly within some sequence of other objects. The viewer sees connections between objects she might not have imagined before, and every object sits at the intersection of multiple trajectories of meaning, but the possible valences and stories of each object are also not infinite. Their particular shapes, forms, and histories form the conditions of their possible dialogue with other objects.

If a quest for seeing the world from something other than human-centered perspectives lies at the heart of this material turn, landscape as subject becomes a particularly poignant place for such explorations—if in some unexpected ways. Where others would have us see modernity as having successfully achieved a disembodied, atom-less ideal, the task of the landscape artist or designer—in light of the material turn—is to reveal the matter such narratives hide. Many of the most fluid or even abusive habitations of land today hide the human hand in the interest of exploitation that appears as natural as geology. Much as in the whole notion of the anthropocene, a newly popular term for describing our present geologic era as one where humanity is the most significant geologic force, art that sets out to critique anthropocentricism often spends a lot of time putting humans back in the spotlight, revealing their work to be as material as any other.

Twenty-first-century landscape photography is one of the easiest places to see this approach. Edward Burtynsky may be the most well-known of this ilk, but one might also look to Jessica Auer, Jennifer Ray, or Chad Ress to see white settlement anew. Christian Houge’s photographs of the Global Seedvault installation in arctic Norway similarly reveal the alien nature of humans in a landscape, while also inviting speculation about the relative timescales of seeds and concrete architecture.

Another whole conversation in art and design today takes on the old role of the explorer to discover the physical bases of our most immaterial experiences. Nicole Starosielski and Erik Loyer’s online interactive project Surfacing allows one to trace the undersea cables responsible for the globe’s data traffic, with special attention to where they leave water for land. Similarly, Ingrid Burrington’s Networks of New York: An Internet Infrastructure Field Guide offers an alternative tour of Manhattan with attention to the material bases of security and finance hidden in plain sight. In Phantom Terrains, Daniel Jones and Frank Swain offer new hearing aids that let you listen to the wireless data waveforms that envelop any walk through a city. Timo Arnall and John Gerrard track down and photograph the architecture of the internet and its data centers in their respective projects; Trevor Paglen, most famous lately for his film contributions to the Snowden documentary CitizenFour, does the same for security and intelligence operations. The Center for Land Use Interpretation, a decades-old collective working across North America, documents under-recognized infrastructure and catalogs it for review and reflection.

Still others focus on how objects “see” the land. Among these, James Bridle is probably most well-known for his popular website capturing what he called “The New Aesthetic.” There, Bridle collected scores of examples of images captured by Google Street View cameras, satellites, drones, and cell phones, with special attention to glitches and mistakes that revealed the limitations of these algorithmic lenses. Not long after, Geoff Manaugh, founder of BLDGBLOG, a wellspring of infrastructural aesthetics, curated the exhibition Landscape Futures for the Nevada Museum of Art. This exhibition and accompanying catalog is a compendium of new ways of seeing and sensing land, such as those of Shin Egashira and David Greene, who in 1998 enacted a series of handmade land-measurement tools on the island of Portland that left wind speed, land-slope, and other qualities as indelible marks on the island’s own rocks.

Mason White and Lola Sheppard, Lateral Office & Intranet Lab, The Active Layer & Next North, Landscape Futures exhibition, 2011, Reno, NV. Courtesy of the Nevada Museum of Art

Mason White and Lola Sheppard, Lateral Office & Intranet Lab, The Active Layer & Next North, Landscape Futures exhibition, 2011, Reno, NV. Courtesy of the Nevada Museum of Art

Lastly, I would be remiss if I did not mention the growing genre of works that seek to help us see landscapes from the perspectives of the living non-human. For well over a decade, Sam Easterson has been mounting cameras on creatures to generate a library of perspectival video.  The late Beatriz da Costa’s artwork included a network of augmented pigeons providing real-time data on city air quality. And Chris Woebken’s collaboration with Kenichi Okada, Animal Superpowers, provides real-time helmets and goggles to let one see like an ant, a giraffe, or a dog.

This scattering of works in no way represents an aesthetic movement in the old avant-garde sense, but they do reflect a variety of attempts to grasp our experience of land through a new appreciation of objects, things, and creatures that bring their own memories, wills, and paths apart from human intervention—for better and for worse. As such many of these projects do end up wrestling with the moral implications of objects whose influence and desire is as conflicted as our own. Indeed, one of the challenges of the material turn, and in particular the philosophical subset of the conversation around “object oriented ontology,” is how to grant more agency to the non-human while also accounting for strategically hidden struggles over conflicting values we typically associate with the human. Might a new attention to objects stand to mask or obscure the processes by which many creatures, human or not, lose their freedom through deliberate enslavement?

Here, the work of theologian Oliver O’Donovan lends some help.

Much of the material turn involves a critique of classification-based approaches to things, which attempt to reduce objects to their kind, in a way that makes them substitutable, and also exploitable without conscience. As a “kind of bird,” or even a “kind of meat,” the poultry industry chicken is unremarkable, and easily dispatched with, whereas the family chicken, raised in the yard, offers the opportunity of a distinct relationship based on its particularities of life with its human and animal families.

In Resurrection and Moral Order, O’Donovan describes a world in which some things exist as subordinate to other things, but in which no human or non-human takes its definition from such subordinations. Instead, all things take their definition from their relationship to a creator. If the dream of many a scholar of the material turn is a dashing of the old Enlightenment hierarchies of being to create a wholly flat world, O’Donovan still sees hierarchy, but one in service of realizing each object’s full being—and in the midst of conflict. He writes:

In morality it is more the rule than the exception that particulars belong to more than one unconnected kind, and are ordered in several different sets of likenesses at once. This is what gives good moral thinking it’s often acknowledged “open-textured” quality; we never know in advance what combinations of generic features may be displayed by any situation on which we will deliberate or reflect. It provides the stuff of cliff-hanging moral dilemmas: the attitude which looks like compassion from one point of view looks like disloyalty from another; the action which most expresses justice also suggests a contempt for human life.

No landscape is simply a “kind” of landscape, borrowing significance from abstract ideals, but brings its spiritual significance through conversation with those who inhabit it. This may be old hat to those who still look for and live with enchantment, but in light of modernity’s tendency to polemicize technology and morality, slowness and speed, and our clear failures to steward the planet within these frames, certainly some new approaches to knowledge, organization, and being are in order.

American Painting in the 1930s: The Age of Anxiety

On view at: The Musée de l’Orangerie, Paris until January 30th 2017, then Royal Academy of the Arts, London February 25th – June 4th 2017

Well, hasn’t any writing about American politics since the election been like driving a new car off the lot. The moment it hits the pavement it’s out of date. Any attempts to think about American art right now are caught up in the same roiling boil—either it’s directly political and therefore a ticking bomb, or so aggressively apolitical it’s irrelevant at best or insulting at worst. Did the curators know that this exhibit of American art from the 1930s would be so aggravatingly timely? Or were they more focused on taking Grant Wood’s American Gothic out of the USA for the first time in its life?

Oil on Beaver Board, 30.71 in x 25.71 in., 1930 Current location: Art Institute of Chicago

American Gothic, Oil on Beaver Board, 30.71 in x 25.71 in., 1930 Current location: Art Institute of Chicago

It’s the former, not the latter. In thinking about this piece I’ve had to confront a basic assumption I’ve always made about the government: while it might not be actively supporting me, for the most part it hasn’t been actively sabotaging me. I came to adulthood in the 90s, when the Clinton administration was dancing a fine line between trickle-down Reaganomics and a gradual expansion of equal rights to include people outside the heterosexual/cisgender/married-homeowner-2.2 child spectrum. I have enough privilege that I’ve been able to assume that an umbrella of protection has also covered me. In the last month or so I feel like I’m on a beach in a hurricane.

So, since right now we have to adjust our assumptions about how the world is ordered and who is on our side, art is –hopefully– a safe place for that. And as America roils and boils around us we need to think hard about a lot of the assumptions we’ve taken for granted about our world.

The subtitle of the exhibit is “the age of anxiety” but I wonder if a better meaning might be “the age of alienation.” The paintings in the exhibit show people who have been separated from things which many others took for granted: well-paid, reliable work; a rooted place in which to live; a life based on a routine of the seasons (or the body) instead of that of the machine or the clock; the ability to feel safe within your own body. The paintings are specifically gathered from the 1930s to show the spectrum of “protest art” that was made in those years; the final room also shows Hollywood movies that deal with poverty, such as Grapes of Wrath. There is also the blackface dance sequence of Fred Astaire’s that Zadie Smith used as a centerpiece of her new novel, Swing Time. So the exhibit is certainly tapping into a deep vein of the zeitgeist.

The best of these paintings manage to balance social realism with timeless feelings – so looking at New York Movie (1939) by Edward Hopper enables you to admire the usherette’s shoes whilst also understand just how bored and lonely she really was. American Gothic, unarguably a masterpiece, opens the exhibit. The attention it pays its subjects hasn’t weakened and its impact hasn’t diminished. On the reverse of the wall is Alice Neel’s portrait of Communist activist Pat Whalen, which isn’t as technically good a painting, but you can feel the fury with which she put the paint on the canvas. And hanging these works together is a clear statement of equation and provocation.

Double Portrait of the Artist in Time, Helen Lundeberg, oil on fiberboard, 1935, Chicago, Illinois, 1908 47 3/4 x 40 in. Smithsonian American Art Museum

Double Portrait of the Artist in Time
Helen Lundeberg, oil on fiberboard, 1935, Chicago, Illinois, 1908
47 3/4 x 40 in.
Smithsonian American Art Museum

The rest of the exhibit is broken up into five sections, essentially the country, the city, the past, the present and the future (which is two paintings, the only Jackson Pollock and another, minor, Hopper). None of the four main sections are handled stereotypically. Country landscapes are a potent metaphor for the exploitation of the natural resources; city streetscapes are a crowded, hedonistic search for pleasure with mixed success. The past is a mixed bag of American history, some with a heavy influence of Soviet workers-right propaganda and others with more sarcastic Americana nostalgia.

The section about the “present,” entitled Nightmares and Reality, is the strongest. It is here the artists put their darkest thoughts to canvas. Joe Jones’ American Justice foregrounds a recently violated black woman in front of KKK members standing around by a house on fire and nooses swinging from the trees. Since 1933 this painting has lost none of its power to shock, nor, sadly, any of its relevance. My favorites in the section were the self-portraits, such as Helen Lundeberg’s surrealistic and desperately sad Double Portrait of the Artist in Time, and Walt Kuhn’s Portrait of the Artist as a Clown, which is not much more cheery. It is interesting to see, at least in this exhibition, how even in the 1930s white artists tended to focus on the self, while for artists of colour, a focus on race was seen as the same thing.

walt kuhn clown

Portrait of the Artist as Clown, Walt Kuhn, 1932
Oil on canvas, 32in. x 22in.
Smithsonian National Portrait Gallery

But it’s important to remember that we cannot draw direct political parallels from this exhibit to our turbulent times. The painters featured in this exhibit were, to some extent, supported by the state. Either they were hired by the Works Progress Administration under the schemes to provide work to artists – such as the murals painted in Coit Tower in San Francisco, or Hallie Flanagan’s network of theaters across the country – or they were painters like Hopper who found success in the Roaring Twenties and whose reputations helped them to survive the Great Depression.

Right now it feels like we are more poised on that cusp – the end of the Roaring Twenties and about to embark on an uncertain future, where good things are almost certainly not going to happen. The major difference is that the artists in the 1930s were, for the most part, working under the New Deal, a political administration that was trying hard to reverse the economic downturn of the 1929 Wall Street crash and the downturn under the Hoover years. Whatever your political opinion, you can agree we are not in the same place now.

It’s not quite reassuring to learn that the feelings of artists in a time of turmoil are unchanged. We have this belief in progress, in the improvement of the way people are treated and how we face both individual and communal challenges. Whether or not this belief is misguided, we have exhibits like this to mark how it was dealt with in the past, and to offer a suggestion for what we could do going forward.

Putting Art (back) In Its Place

Gordon College’s Dr. John Skillen is a rare sort of academic: the kind with road dust on his shoes instead of chalk dust on his elbow patches. As he explains in the introduction to his new book, Putting Art (back) In Its Place, his interest in Italian Renaissance art began not in a lecture hall but on a family camping trip in Europe. “For me,” he recalls, “fresh from reading Irving Stone’s The Agony and the Ecstasy, our slow journey through Italy was a pilgrimage from one Michelangelo masterpiece to another.” Skillen was twelve at the time, and the notion that a boy of that age would have bought and devoured a lengthy biographical novel about Michelangelo is sobering. It signals to us an adherent and adventurous intellect: one equipped with a natural sensitivity to beauty and a rare desire to understand art within its biographical and physical contexts.

These faculties carried him to a busy career as a professor of English at Gordon College and Director of the Gordon in Orvieto Program, a residential study-abroad semester that combines immersion in an Italian monastery with intensive art and humanities classwork. Skillen’s dream, according to an article on the college’s website, was to provide “a venue for the integration of arts, faith and history.” He cultivated that dream by establishing relationships with the clergy and artists of Orvieto, and finding a way to fold his students into their world as contributors rather than observers. He discovered what too few academics have: that a coach-section seat in an airplane is as good a place to read as the chair of a third-story office, and that scholarship divorced from experience is as impotent as it is boring.

Putting Art (back) In Its Place, falls squarely within that practical range of concern. Skillen’s offices have been the streets, monasteries, and duomos of Italy. His lectures take place in the de Medici’s frescoed family chapels, in front of actual artworks rather than projector transparencies. This approach to art scholarship has left Skillen with a rich sense of “…the relationships once operative between the physical setting of installed artworks and the particular actions performed in those settings…” His book argues that we cannot fully appreciate, or even adequately comprehend, the art of the Italian Renaissance without understanding these architectural, narrative, and liturgical contexts.

The modern mind, he explains, has been trained to view artworks as self-contained. We move them thoughtlessly from museum to museum or from studio to home because our evaluation is based solely on what falls within the frame. Artists and viewers in the Renaissance thought differently. As Skillen explains, at that time

…the aesthetic element (of an artwork) was evaluated for how well it did its job in helping the participants’ response match the purpose of the action that the artwork served. In short, beauty was seen as functional, not as something freed from functionality and enjoyed for its own sake.

Chapter by chapter, Skillen explains how Italian Renaissance art was commonly used as a point of reference during worship services. It embellished the pulpits of preachers and gilded baptismal fonts. Frescoes on the walls of private chapels reminded wealthy families that God’s economy values only the rich in spirit. Nestled next to the windows of monks, art taught them the ideal postures for prayers of exaltation, petition, or thanks. Naturally, the financiers who commissioned such art and the artists who made it took these purposes into consideration. Those of us, Skillen points out, who hope to appreciate the results of their labor cannot therefore view it in isolation.

To resolve our decontextualized approach to art, Skillen systematically examines dozens of paintings, sculptures, carvings, and frescoes, focusing not on their formal elements so much as their relationship to the buildings, people, and uses that helped define them, and which they in turn helped to define. The result is a lively and refreshing book that invites us to consider art’s potential to shape communities, alter surroundings, and interact with its contextualizing space.

His phrase for that sense of art’s connection to its context is in situ (a Latin term for “in its original place”), a term that sums up his technical approach: each chapter and section of the book literally seeks to put a work of art back in its place for the reader. One example of this process is his treatment of Masaccio’s Expulsion of Adam and Eve, a famous image of the original couple’s grief as they are cast out of Eden. In textbooks, Skillen explains, “The photographs of Masaccio’s Expulsion…are very often cropped so as to erase its location in situ.”

In fact, the painting is located on the top half of a pillar that frames the entrance to the private chapel of the influential Brancacci family. Across from it, frescoed on the opposite pillar, is Masolino’s Temptation of Adam and Eve Before the Fall. As a Brancacci entered the chapel, a place where the Catholic liturgy of the time would begin by asking him to confess his sins, he would be flanked by the “before and after” of man’s original sin in vivid colors on either side. In Skillen’s words, “The paintings not only frame the entrance physically but would have been understood to “frame” thematically the whole programme of the chapel.”

The Expulsion of Adam and Eve by Masaccio Cappella Brancacci, S. Maria del Carmine, Firenze

The Expulsion of Adam and Eve by Masaccio Cappella Brancacci, S. Maria del Carmine, Firenze

Written with lively clarity and accompanied by a website that provides images of the paintings as well as detailed study questions, Skillen’s book offers insight that extends beyond its area of specialization. An informative and often dazzling explanation of Renaissance Italian art, the book encourages a countercultural view of what art might be to us: a communal and spiritual touchstone rather than a decorative or economic object. Skillen encourages us “…to appreciate the capacity of art to articulate the purposes of the places in which (we) gather, to support the work of the people in and for the society in which (we) live, and to vivify the stories that inform and inspire (our) sense of identity.”

This positive argument is both intriguing and inspiring. But if the book has a flaw, it is that it is couched in a too-generalized critique of the modernity which eventually followed the Renaissance’s culture of liturgically-integrated art. In his chapter “Recovering a Sense of Liturgy,” Skillen quotes George Steiner’s observation from In Bluebeard’s Castle that “The lapse from ceremony and ritual in much of public and private behavior has left a vacuum.” Skillen adds that

The vacuum is often filled in youth culture by the anti-liturgies of ‘hanging out,’ of vegging rather than willfully and decisively doing something together. The vacuum fosters the language of ‘whatever’ to mark an attitude of purposeless passing of time, as in ‘Waddya wanna do tonight, it’s Friday?’ ‘Oh, whatever…just hang out.’

The tone here has shifted from Skillen’s typical scholarly sharpness to that of a curmudgeonly rant. The hypothetical teenage conversation he creates, with its purposeful misspellings, falsely reproduces the “slang kids are using these days,” and might make us suspect that the “vacuum” Skillen senses arises not from an absence of meaning in modern life, but from a benevolent insensitivity to the transformed mechanisms by which meaning is received and transmitted in modern culture.

Often, Skillen references specific artifacts from Modernist art to clarify this critique. But such references can be a little troubling. Only a few paragraphs after his discussion of modern teenage “anti-liturgy,” he quotes the end of W.B. Yeats’s poem “The Second Coming.” In Skillen’s transcription, the last line ends (the italics are his) “’…what rough beast…slouches toward Bethlehem.’” with a full end-stop after that final phrase. Just afterward, he argues that Yeats’s poem “captures a sense of the lethargy and purposelessness” characteristic of modern life, where we “…interrupt presence and attentiveness in… a conversation at the coffee shop or in a worship service at church with a quick check of Facebook.”

However, the poem actually ends “And what rough beast, its hour come round at last, / Slouches towards Bethlehem to be born?“ The last three words, eliminated in Skillen’s quotation, tie the poem to Yeats’s complex view of history, articulated in his trippy pseudo-philosophical treatise A Vision, as a cycle of violent and peaceful ages. Yeats’s poem is not a flat criticism of modern life but an apocalyptic vision of a new age inspired by unchristian violence (represented by the beast) instead of Christlike mildness. The beast isn’t “slouching towards Bethlehem” because it is uninterested in church, it’s slouching because it’s a beast.

But however hasty Putting Art (back) In Its Place can be in its critique of modernity, what a millennial like myself, prone to doing “whatever” more than I’d like to admit, can learn from it far outweighs any reasons for skepticism. Skillen’s vision of Renaissance Italy, where parades were held to commemorate the installation of new paintings of the Madonna, or the liturgical calendar ”…framed the passage of time not as chronos-time but as kairos-time—time experienced not as flat sequence but rather with narrative direction, with opportunities to be grasped and occasions to be celebrated,” is striking in its power and clarity.

Whether or not we are compelled by the idea of a life famed by liturgy, Skillen’s ability to evoke a culture in which art enlivened, organized, and commented on the life of a whole society will certainly make us skeptical of the hermetic atmosphere of the modern art museum, and of privatized art in general. By calling our attention to art’s context, Putting Art (back) In Its Place challenges us to create a culture more sensitive to its graces, where focus and presence are valued over productivity and ubiquity—in short, the culture we, with our farmers’ markets, “shop small” festivals, and resurgence in community artwork, are so clumsily longing to find again.

Museum Conversations

Perhaps you’re familiar with Jackson Pollock’s drip paintings, the ones that art critic Craig Brown (a contemporary of Pollock) called “decorative ‘wallpaper.‘” I understand the sentiment: after all, what makes a splattered canvas so noteworthy that one of Pollock’s paintings sold at auction ten years ago for $140 million, setting records at the time for the most expensive painting in the world? (Not to mention the recent scandals where even a fake Pollock painting can sell for 3.1 million dollars.)

The problem of interpretation has always been one of the primary discussions in contemporary and modern art, exemplified by Pollock’s abstract expressionist paintings. Those outside the art world wonder, what does it mean? And if meaning can’t be determined at a glance, is it really “art” at all?

Pollock himself responded to the issue of interpretation in a radio interview with William Wright in 1950 by saying,

“I think they [the public] should not look for, but look passively—and try to receive what the painting has to offer and not bring a subject matter or preconceived idea of what they are to be looking for… I think the unconsciousness drives do mean a lot in looking at paintings… I think it should be enjoyed just as music is enjoyed—after a while you may like it or you may not…at least give it a chance.

The Denver Art Museum’s recent effort at addressing this question of interpretation is noteworthy. Inspiration came from the Columbus Museum of Art’s exhibit Radical Camera, where one hundred fifty photographs captured events and people from underrepresented populations in New York City from the Great Depression through the Cold War. As the Columbus Alive article put it, “Images range from tenement dwellers and crime scenes to kids making games of sidewalk chalk drawings and pretend lynchings… [these photographs] possess the power to burn their way onto your irises.”

Due to such controversial subject matter, curators created a unique way for visitors to respond to the photographs, providing tags visitors could hang on a hook next to the photos. Tags were labeled with different words, such as injustice, anguish, fear, joy, and friendship. A visitor could also browse the tags that others had hung at each piece of art.

In an email, Danielle St. Peter, the Interpretive Specialist for Modern and Contemporary Art at the Denver Art Museum, described to me that she had wanted to implement a similar method for the current (and still ongoing) Audacious: Contemporary Artists Speak Out exhibition, as curators hope the exhibit will cultivate conversation amongst viewers.

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St. Peter elaborates: “We were hopeful that visitors would recognize…multiple perspectives… and experience the exhibition as a safe space to explore and discuss difficult, emotionally charged issues that relate to our contemporary world.”

Case in point: Shirin Neshat’s photograph with calligraphy, Allegiance with Wakefulness, 1994. The shot is angled so that a pair of women’s feet dominate, while the out of focus frame of a woman in a burka sits behind them. Right in the center, held steady through the woman’s insteps, the figure points the barrel of rifle straight at the viewer. Calligraphy in thick, black ink covers each sole with the words of an Iranian woman poet.

Allegiance with Wakefulness, Shirin Neshat, 1994. Gelatin silver print with calligraphy. Gift of Polly and Mark Addison, 2009.375 © Shirin Neshat

Allegiance with Wakefulness, Shirin Neshat, 1994. Gelatin silver print with calligraphy. Gift of Polly and Mark Addison, 2009.375 © Shirin Neshat

Naturally, the work jolts the casual museumgoers: it’s not every day a gun points in our direction. However, the artist’s intention and history is opaque. A viewer would not know just from viewing the photo, for example, that Neshat herself is an Iranian expatriate in America, or that she feels unfamiliar with the Iranian revolution of 1979 because she started a new life in the United States before it began. A viewer would never have heard her motivations for exploring her subject matter: that she “found [women] to be the most potent subjects [to explore], in terms of how the social and political changes cause by the revolution affected their lives, how they embodied this new ideology, and how they were managing to survive the changes.”[i]

Neshat is aware that a portrait of a veiled Iranian could also reinforce Western stereotypes of women of the Middle East, a fact that caused controversy among Iranian viewers. But then again, the photo does something drastic to subvert the stereotype: the subject of Allegiance with Wakefulness, 1994, aims a weapon at eye-level. As critic Jonathan Goodman writes of this piece:

“The gun barrel pointing out between a pair of beautiful feet in Allegiance with Wakefulness, 1994, is a powerful corrective to the notion of Iranian women as passive beholders of political change. A poem is written on the soles [of the feet], an excerpt reads, ‘I pray for you guardian of the liberating Revlolution.’ The image makes an ambiguous statement, one calculated to disturb our presuppositions about [Neshat’s] stance. [ii]

The artist’s own ambivalence lends an openness to the “meaning” behind  her art, inviting the viewer to engage the work with a similar openness. Depending on what part of the world a viewer calls home, or a viewer’s feelings about guns or the middle east or a woman’s role in society at large, a photograph like this could evoke the whole range of human emotions and interpretations.

Which makes it the perfect conversation starter. The question St. Peter asked herself was: how do we encourage viewers to give this work of art the time of day required to engage it thoughtfully?

As St. Peter put it,

“To me, [viewing contemporary art] is about spending time with an object. At the museum, we often see people stop for three seconds and move on, but art really demands more of your time. I think the trap [of] contemporary art…is that it doesn’t always have a recognizable subject matter that you can relate to or doesn’t look like it took a lot of artistic skill to make (some of the age-old criteria for appreciating art). Maybe it looks too simple, maybe it doesn’t look like art at all. Whatever the reason, if you find yourself not wanting to spend time with a work of art, that is exactly the work that you should be spending time with. As artist John Cage so aptly put [it], ‘If something is boring after two minutes, try it for four. If still boring, then try it for eight, sixteen, thirty-two and so on. Eventually one discovers that it’s not that boring at all.’

With the Columbus Museum of Art’s interpretive activity in mind, she and the DAM’s graphic designer (Matt Rue of McGinty Co.) came up with their own version: dropping colored acrylic cubes into test tubes beside the artwork.

They introduced the activity to visitors with a display that explained,

“The artworks in Audacious deal with emotionally charged issues. We invite you to share how the work makes you feel. Here’s how: 1) Each of the colored blocks represents an emotion. Select a few to take with you through the exhibition. 2) When you see an artwork with a test tube, drop in the color block that best represents how the work makes you feel. 3) Look at how others have responded. Does seeing this alter your perspective?

The cubes were either blue or pink, ranging in shade from light to dark, and each signified a different emotion: either empathetic (royal blue), optimistic (teal), empowered (light blue), hopeless (magenta), angry (pink), or confused (light pink).

And just like that, viewers were handed a framework for interpretation: start with your own emotion. Then examine another’s emotion, as displayed in the test tube. Ask yourself, why might someone else see this differently?

I myself participated, a handful of plastic beads clutched in my palm as I walked from piece to piece, drawn to spend more time at the artworks where clear test tubes had been fastened to the wall beside the work. (Initially, only 9 works of art had accompanying test tubes; but within three weeks of the exhibit’s opening, the museum staff added more). It felt like a game. I had permission to decide what each piece meant; the power of meaning-making had flipped from artist to viewer.

St. Peter agrees:

“By choosing both positive and negative reactions for the cubes, we are giving visitors permission to feel confused or angry about what they are seeing. I sometimes worry that visitors think they need to like everything that we install in the galleries, that they have to ‘get it.’ That certainly is not the case. Some of my [own] most powerful art experiences have been with objects or installations that I didn’t understand at first, or ones that made me angry.

Their hunch has paid off: the public has loved this game of interpretation. While DAM has not performed a formal study, visitors enthusiastically shared photos of the activity on social media and requested that more test tubes be placed by certain art works. And in the interim, before more test tubes were placed, museumgoers were so eager to share their responses they stacked cubes on the floor, below the installations without test tubes.

The gallery hosts also had stories to share, like the story relayed to St. Peter about the group of middle schoolers on a class field trip who viewed Marc Quinn’s Jamie Gillespie, 1999, a marble Greek-style sculpture of an amputee. The sculpture made the students “angry” (pink cube), but their gallery host asked them to look closely: how had others responded to this piece?

Jamie Gillespie Marc Quinn, 1999 Marble and plinth, 80h x 51d cm

Jamie Gillespie Marc Quinn, 1999
Marble and plinth, 80h x 51d cm

 

The test tube rattled with teal and light blue cubes (“optimistic” and “empowered”). The students felt perplexed—hadn’t a terrible thing happened to this man with one leg? Their gallery host facilitated a discussion with the students then and there, reminding them to read the placard nearby, which described how the man had participated in the Paralympic Games. This figure, even though he was missing a limb, represented an athlete at the height of his physical abilities.

Those walking the halls beside us usually remain anonymous, and their differing perspectives stay private; but here, a different read became obvious, impossible to ignore. Perhaps a test tube full of acrylic beads provides an anathema to the casual or even dismissive art viewing culture that Pollock responded to over 60 years ago, a culture that still persists today—maybe it can teach us to give the art a chance.

 

 


[i] Quotations taken from “After-Images of a Revolution,” by Dr. Negar Mottahedeh, written in 2003, from Iran Chamber Society: http://www.iranchamber.com/cinema/articles/after_images_revolution.php

[ii] Ibid

Through His Eyes

When art lovers think of the southwest, images likes Georgia OKeeffe’s landscapes come to mind: the New Mexican desert, the bones and the flowers and the vistas where she lived for over forty years. But O’Keeffe’s work is rarely displayed in the United Kingdom, so this autumn’s retrospective at the Tate Modern is an unusual celebration of her work on this side of the pond.

Though the show is hers, the exhibition also includes work by other artists, mainly men with whom she was friendly that worked in the same southwestern style, and photographs by her husband, Albert Stieglitz. The insistence on pairing her work with theirs, whatever the intent, in this case, minimizes her phenomenal achievements. Displaying Stieglitz’s photographs so broadly throughout the show seems determined to give him comparable credit for the work that she did, which is startling.

It is true that Stieglitz recognized her talent instantly and arranged the first gallery showing of her work (without her knowledge or consent, incidentally), but his determination to shape the narrative around her work, through his writing in art magazines, pushed her into exploring new subjects so that her work would not be defined by the analysis of others.

Learning that she used to paint cityscapes from the roof of a New York City apartment is a shock—a bit like Bob Dylan going electric. Her cityscapes were the freshest part of the exhibit, as I thought I had a pretty thorough knowledge of her work, but I had never even heard of them before. There is stillness and pulsing life in the work, light radiates from a street lamp like it was the pistil in some of her lilies, with the glow pulsing outwards. Rooftops ripple like her cliffs, with each one showing its own shape and personality.

There is a feeling to her work, a sensibility, which the display notes attribute to synesthesia. Maybe so, as the paintings communicate a deep care and act of close attention that is rare, unless we are seducing someone. You feel as if she has painted her subjects, whether a horse’s skull or a rock face, the way it would want to be portrayed. The attention she paid to the items on her canvas is almost indistinguishable from love, which is why her flower paintings feel so sexual. According to the exhibit notes, she rejected any sexualized interpretation of her work, and stopped painting flowers in order to prevent that interpretation from defining it. And yet attempting to define her work (and to an extent, herself) was what Stieglitz and her other male contemporaries did.

I am not sure any male artist would have nude photographs of themselves by another artist (even one that they were married to) included in a career retrospective of themselves. Putting these photographs in the same room as O’Keeffe’s paintings is a strange, and frankly, demeaning choice. What does seeing the shape of her nude torso add to our appreciation of her paintings?

Other than a prurient interest, it is hard to justify. O’Keeffe rarely painted human subjects except as abstracts in her early charcoal sketches, and to my knowledge never painted herself, so it’s not as if she used her own body as a canvas. Did the Tate feel that her work could not exist independently of her personal relationships? Her talent would have been recognized regardless of who she was married to, and yet you get the sense that Steiglitz’s feelings for her were something she needed to keep a healthy distance from. Why wasn’t the work of the other artists included in one room, separate from hers, if the curators felt a context had to be provided? Why did the curators feel a context had to be provided at all?

This intrusive and unnecessary comparison partially spoils the exhibition, but luckily there are enough treasures on display to make the other works easy to ignore. The first room, where O’Keeffe’s charcoals are displayed, is laid out in homage to 291, the gallery where they were first displayed in 1916, and it’s easy to realize what an immense power and skill she had right from the start. The flower paintings (including the one of two poppies and one of the jimson flower) are in a large space organized as four smaller ones, breaking up the crowds and giving you the time to really focus on these slightly smaller paintings.

O’Keeffe’s ability to capture the light and shadow of shifting moments is best shown in a sequence of paintings of a cliff behind her home – four different versions of the same scene. The green and pink one is the most dramatic for its Gauguin-esque use of unnatural colour, with the warmth and the feeling of the desert still permeating.

The nicest thing about the exhibit was the number of girls under the age of ten sketching the paintings for themselves. Close attention to O’Keeffe’s work is always rewarded at any age, and it’s wonderful to have the opportunity to learn how to look.

Featured Image: Pineapple Bud, 1939, oil on canvas

The Curator Interviews a Curator

Meaghan Ritchey’s long and wide-ranging conversation with Dr. Daniel A. Siedell, an art historian and curator living in Fort Lauderdale, Florida.

At The Curator, we “seek to encourage, promote, and uncover artifacts of culture” by publishing reviews, critiques, poems, and personal stories. Tell us about your work as a museum curator (e.g. your many years of observing artists’ studio practice, organizing exhibitions, and managing an art museum collection).

I create space. As an art historian, I create historical space that allows the artists, curators, and critics in the past to come alive as human beings and restore the integrity of their work as responses to a particular historical moment. As an art critic, I create imaginative space for a work of art to be experienced through my sentences. And as a curator, I create a literal (exhibition) space for art to breathe in front of a viewer.

When people think of fine art activity in the US, the coasts come to mind—especially Los Angeles and New York. How did working in Nebraska for many years affect your curatorial philosophy?

I turned my somewhat marginalized location into an advantage. I was given the freedom at the Sheldon Museum of Art at the University of Nebraska to experiment, and so, I could offer artists the space to take risks, to explore aspects of their work that their dealer in New York or LA couldn’t allow them to take in their gallery shows. I knew I had a beautifully designed museum with well-proportioned exhibition spaces, and with a respected permanent collection of 19th and 20th century American art to serve as an historical context, I could give artists a lot to work with.

My contemporary art project spaces functioned like a back-room laboratory, allowing me to experiment, to explore approaches to work that I might not have been able to try on the coasts, where the pressure to conform is great because the sheer density of competitors. I didn’t have much funding to do these projects, but that also became an advantage, allowing me to fly under the radar screen of my director and board, and if I could raise a little extra money here and there, I could purchase even more freedom.

So what does all that mean for an artist’s relationship to a gallery/museum, respectively?

When the art world crashed in 2008, it revealed that artists have to take control of all of the decisions involving their work, that they cannot simply assume that a gallery or dealer can take care of all of the decisions made outside the studio while the artist only has to care about making their work. It’s the artist’s business to learn the business of art, to learn how art as an institutional practice (and sociological dynamic) works, and to think through every aspect of the life their work will have if it leaves the studio and goes out into the world. The decisions an artist makes outside the studio are just as important as those she makes inside.

How does your interaction with an artist evolve from your initial encounter with their work, to studio visit, and then to the realization of a museum exhibition?

My particular way of working with artists is deeply personal. I have to like the artists I work with—respect who they are as human beings, and how they approach their work as artists. There is also usually something about their work that pushes up against my approach to art that tests my understanding of artistic practice, and poses a question that I want to answer through their work. I also want to work with an artist who’s interested in my approach to their work, who believes that my approach enriches their practice. How we collaborate might take different forms: a publication, an acquisition, artist’s lecture, participation in a group or thematic show, or a solo project. I hope that years down the road the artist will consider our project to be somehow significant in her development, not only as an artist, but as a person.

You’ve spent a lot of time in artists’ studios. What have you observed? How are studio practices formative?

Although an artist is free do and make anything in the studio, she has a responsibility to do something. And that requires tremendous discipline and the willingness to ask the most fundamental questions. Each day she goes into the studio asking: “Who am I?”—”Who am I in relationship to this blank canvas, to the world outside the studio, to Nature, History, or a God who judges me?”  In addition, the artist has to ask another closely related question, “What kind of artist am I?” And often that entails discovering of what kind of artist they don’t want to be. As the artist leaves the studio at the end of each workday, she has answered those questions, whether she knows it or not, at least for that day. And most artists, I think, know it. They also know that they have to answer those same questions again, tomorrow.

Given the nature of their work, then, most artists I’ve worked with have developed a set of intentional practices and habits, spanning the profound to the mundane, the complex to the simple, that give a liturgical form to their work. These are very similar to the liturgies and spiritual disciplines of various religious traditions that include a sensitivity to their lived space, meticulous attention to their materials, certain postures, and, I might add, contemplation and meditation: a willingness to spend long hours just sitting in a chair looking at their work. Like the spiritual disciplines, these studio practices create the space to be active and passive, proactive and receptive. The artists I’ve worked with know that being an artist is much more than producing certain artifacts, it’s about becoming a certain kind of human being.

Before I got to know fine artists well, before I wanted to know how/why they made what they made, I encountered artwork like it just always “was”, or something. I didn’t consider how it was made (e.g. where it came from, the difficult spatial restrictions, material costs—all of these variables).  I had no empathy for the conceptual difficulty of setting out to make something that no one has ever made before! Once artistic practices and processes are understood, it opens up a type of appreciation. A curator can help with that.

I think that’s right. Being human means dealing with limitations. I think that the overly romantic idea that somehow creativity only takes place when you’re free of restrictions keeps a lot of good art from entering the world—or, perhaps, it actually prevents a lot of bad work from entering the world…What makes the existence of art in the world so remarkable is that it comes at great cost, sometimes through enormous challenges, but almost always through the slow drip of inconveniences, frustrations, and self-doubt.

This is why I am fascinated by what happens in the studio as the artist devotes her life to making artifacts that have no apparent use in the world, artifacts that are often ignored and misunderstood, especially in the church. Artists lean into that fear that every human being has—that the work we do doesn’t matter.

I’m attracted to artists who, on a daily basis, are making the commitment to be a particular kind of artist, in spite of the challenges and the limitations of their life situation—artists who have the faith to keep doing what they’re doing.  They don’t have it all worked out—doubting their sanity and the wisdom of their choices. But in faith, they go to the studio and work. In the process they’re strengthening my faith in art, offering me assurance, and serving as a means of grace to me as I struggle with the wisdom of devoting my life to looking at smelly pigments smeared on a scrap of canvas amidst all of the very difficult challenges and responsibilities in my life.

You sound like an artist.

My work as an art historian, curator, and critic is my studio practice. I’m working with artists because I’m searching for my own answers, trying to put some balm on my own wounds, find something to cling to that can clarify my relationship to God and the world. Artists often function as my spiritual directors, and they’re not even aware of it. Artists don’t make work to express what they already know about themselves and the world; they make work to explore what they don’t know. My work as a curator is similar.

Why did you write God in the Gallery?

I wrote it as a theological reflection on my passion for modern & contemporary art. But instead of beginning where most Christian approaches to art do, in the seminar room or lecture hall, I began where I was living: neck deep in the art world—in artist’s studios, organizing exhibitions, and writing catalog essays. I live my life in the church as someone who devotes his life to modern art, and I live out my vocation as a curator in the art world as a Christian. I wanted to give voice to the richness and complexity of that experience, which I hoped would be an encouragement to other outliers like me.

What about your training permitted you to move freely in and out of what were seemingly dichotomous worlds? 

I fear that if I’d read H.R. Rookmaaker’s Modern Art and the Death of a Culture as an undergraduate I’d have been forced to either give up art or give up my faith, quite frankly. I’ve spent a lot of time on the campuses of Christian colleges and universities and I observe a tremendous need for art history and art criticism. Art students get theology and philosophy, but they need history—modern art history. Art is an historical concept before it is a philosophical one.

What’s the first step in addressing this? And separately, what can universities do to foster conversation between fine arts students and business students so that the folks can, at a young age, understand what it means to be patrons?

Modern art history has to be taught, and taught by someone who loves it—not uncritically, swallowing it feathers and all. But presented in a way that reveals that it’s the living tradition within which every artist works today and that God is at work in and through it.

In addition to art history, Christian listeners can be developed by putting students in front of works of art—not just those in art museums, but those works that their fellow students are making. Christians move too quickly from the particular to the abstract, from the specific work of art they encounter to theological and philosophical categories like “Beauty” that, in reality, do violence to the integrity of the work of art and the artist who made it.

Most Christians who claim to like art like the theological and philosophical categories—they like art in “theory.” They are much less able to express their love of art in and through particular artifacts. But art doesn’t exist as an abstract category. It exists as this painting and that sculpture; this drawing and that performance. And I think this has relevance not just for art, but also as a means to help the church do what the church does, glorify God and love their neighbor.

Moreover, that nursing or business student who is comfortable standing in front of a work of art, not only gains insight into and empathy for the challenges of making art but might also become more inclined to go to art museums and see the humanity in those works that hang on the wall, or sit on pedestals, or move on the screen before them, and be changed in the process.

Donora Hillard Abides In ‘Jeff Bridges’

Jeff Bridges made this thing called Sleeping Tapes [1]. It was a promo album for Squarespace, a soft and motley collection of nonsequential tidbit stories, rhythmic chanting, field recordings of Bridges just tromping around his backyard with a boom mic, etc. The thing he made is a good thing. I like it. Sleeping Tapes is what I’m listening to from the shower, volume cranked above the plack of soap, shower water, as I consider Donora Hillard’s new book of Jeff Bridges-themed poetry. It’s called Jeff Bridges [2]. That’s all it is called. The thing she made is also a good thing.

kpax-jeffNot many people seem to know about Sleeping Tapes when I mention it. From the compendium of Bridges’ work, Tron or The Big Lebowski are well known. Maybe some people also remember him from Iron Man, those short villainous scenes, or True Grit. But plenty of Jeff Bridges fans have, you know, at least heard about Sleeping Tapes — and plenty more might have slept sweet and delighted to it already, or half-slept rolled into their sheets like human burritos, soaking Jeff’s pepper-and-chunk voice up slowly, weirdly calm. It eventually becomes part of the nature of a fan to know Jeff Bridges bit by bit, as fans soon discover their knowledge of him never seems complete or — heck, or even containable. I rinse my hair and imagine Hillard mouthing every track of Sleeping Tapes, memorized just so, while she scribbles her poems onto coffee filters, the backs of shared marketing mail pieces, a steno pad. Hillard’s book, Jeff Bridges, contains more of The Dude than Jeff Bridges perhaps knows he contains, himself.

And that’s why these poems work, why they are good and why I like them: Jeff Bridges — and we’re talking not only the entertainer, we’re also talking the personality concept he’s portrayed across his career, the man’s mythos and ethos — operates as a free-floating marker for various events in Hillard’s life. He is ever available as steady grounding, or as comforting voice; he is, as often as his depiction renews for Hillard in a poem, an existential sense-maker to all senselessness. Talk about uncontainable. The Dude is a balm for The Poet.

Hillard’s first poem in the book invites readers into Jeff Bridges-as-balm with zero questions asked. It slaps that balm on you before you realize. And the balm absorbs easily into the parts of you that you didn’t know had been so dry, peeling. Read it slowly:

 

You have 14 minutes
and then Jeff Bridges.
He lets you win at air
hockey and soaks your
diamonds in No More
Tears. He even holds
your hand after you are
fired for being small.
Happy. You will be happy
and he will give you the
last airplane cookie.
You will look down at the
weird tundra lights,
your America, the thing
with wheels for eyes
growing ever closer.

 

This poem begins the cycle of Hillard’s nameless, semi-narrative and illustration-juxtaposed conversation. On the other side of the page is the first of the illustrations, a rendering of The Dude by artist Goodloe Byron [3]. It’s this combination of Byron’s sketches and Hillard’s film-reference-drenched poetry (in this case, some of 1993’s Fearless) that gets a thematic momentum rolling for us, and by the next poem we’re ready to be balm-baptized once-over. Imagine how Jeff Bridges might explain his career to you over a drink: every story recalled would bite and soothe at the attentions, draw you in, the order unimportant. Hillard, adorned in grungy Dude bathrobe, pulls a bar stool up to you the same, and just details what comes to mind until you’re nodding along. Topics, no matter the initial shock or awe, drift in and out with restful sway. It’s a momentum to be admired.

The Dude abides.Much how Sleeping Tapes hypnotizes me into restful sway, Hillard could read me equally hypnotic with her book [4] — high praise from a fellow, and deeply-entranced, fan of the man, to be sure. Jeff Bridges, like Sleeping Tapes, is correspondingly a soft and motley collection of nonsequential tidbit stories, but instead of the entertainer walking us through his own mind before bed, he walks Hillard through hers, hand-in-hand, before she can even lay her head down. He calls her Baby Sister and looks up from playing his guitar as though paying half-attention, half-asleep, to dispense a saying that will stick. He cares. It’s, in a way, what every fan wants.

 

Baby Sister, he says, why?

Remember me in FEARLESS.
My hair was so long

and I wasn’t afraid
of any strawberry.

I stuck my head out
the window like a beagle.

I yelled at God,
‘You want to kill me but you can’t.’

So let it go. Let’s drive our
Volvo into a brick wall to make

Rosie Perez feel better.
Let’s buy presents for the dead.

 

And that’s the beauty of this book. Hillard has picked the stickiest sayings, the half-sleepiest, and said them into her life again and again until she couldn’t distinguish life from Jeff. For us, and for Hillard, Jeff Bridges is Jeff Bridges being wonderfully himself throughout her book — strange, zen-like, and brim with the necessary friendliness of the moment.

I blow-dry my long beard, bathrobe-wrapped, post-shower, and try to think about The Dude the way Hillard has thought about The Dude. I imagine him suggesting I put less stuff in my hair, maybe go for that more natural look. I imagine him patting my shoulder and smiling his thin, pastoral smile.

I put nothing in my hair and start my day.

 

 

 


[1] You can hear Sleeping Tapes here.

[2] Jeff Bridges is available directly through Cobalt Press in both print and epub format. 

[3] Goodloe Byron’s wonderful work can be found on Twitter and Tumblr.

[4] Wouldn’t it be cool if Jeff Bridges read an audiobook version of Jeff Bridges?

John Bauer Is Producing Heat after Death

Around 1980, at about the time when the surviving members of Joy Division changed their name to New Order, Bernard Sumner, their lead guitarist, said “Our music had become so incredibly dark and cold, we couldn’t really get any darker or colder.” Of course, as that statement suggests, their freshly minted name was not the only change the group was fixing to make post–Ian Curtis. The band was set to embark on a turnabout of their sonic identity—modifying their iconic post-punk sound to something that would incorporate the synthetic instruments and some formal elements of electronic club music. These changes were the basis for correcting their perceived temperature problem, to experience heat after death.

The idea of heat is of paramount importance within the context of art and life. Metaphor or actual, for warm-blooded creatures like us there is an understood equation in place: heat = life, cold = death. As Ian Curtis’s body grew significantly colder after hanging himself by a rope in his kitchen, the band responded by raising the temperature in the room.

American painter John Bauer has spent much of his artistic career producing heat after death. A conversation about heat in the contemporary art world is often a conversation about the international collectors’ market. Mr. Bauer has shown extensively in commercial galleries around the U.S. and Europe and his collector base is an auspicious group comprised of some of the biggest fish—he is certainly in his own right a “hot commodity”. However, this of course is not the kind of heat of which this essay concerns itself. This other kind of heat surely includes the flash (spark) of inspired production, but is most basically embodied in the image of a kid who climbs into her father’s La-Z-Boy immediately after he has gotten up and feels the warmth left by his recently departed body. This warmth is the natural byproduct of the proximate and intimate interaction between a warm body, a hot mind and materials. In as much as this heat is an inevitable outcome of simple presence and consciousness, what is remarkable about the heat of Mr. Bauer’s work is how unlikely it is given the absence of those very baseline ingredients. The terrain of Bauer’s work is an icy graveyard, populated by cold La-Z-Boys of long-departed artistic fathers. But yet, there is heat nonetheless. 

Let us break this down. First of all, what death in particular? To determine the exact elements of death in John Bauer’s work requires one to inventory the many autopsy reports on the state of painting over the last century: death of aura at the hands of mechanical reproduction (Walter Benjamin), death of expressive and authentic mark-making at the hands of pop vacuity (Robert Hughes), death of authorial agency at the hands of the risen reader (Roland Barthes), etc. These supposed deaths provide the front-door entrance to his central themes. 

Not only does Bauer’s conceptual program move through and operate upon a chilly burial ground, even his studio methodology and practice is of a frosty persuasion. Much of his output over the last ten years has utilized a strict palette of black, white, and silver. When he has added color—a move that in the hands of most artists is an effort to lighten or warm things up—it’s been with two specific, seemingly encoded colors: a kind of sultry but vacant lipstick pink and an icy azure blue.

John Bauer, Trash and Vaudeville, 2009, Oil and enamel on linen, 71" x 79"

John Bauer, Trash and Vaudeville, 2009, Oil and enamel on linen, 71″ x 79″

Working in concert with, but proving even more important than his hyperborean palette, are his studio methods. Bauer developed a twofold process that works to distance his hand from his painting practice. Part one of the process is producing, photographing and archiving a bank of images featuring painterly moves that bear the resemblance of authentic expression. These images are captured, compressed, disembodied and preserved in binary code and function as his raw materials. Part two is a hybrid process that involves Photoshop, stenciling, direct painting and silkscreen transfer, which allows him to combine these elements in various ways on the canvas, accumulating layers of “marks” that, when seen semiotically, are the equivalent of peering through vast screens of language. Bauer uses transparency and a sometimes profound collapsing of pictorial space, which has the net effect of making these painterly languages barely coherent, fragmentary and distant to the viewer. In the world of communication, language that is received in an incoherent, fragmentary and distant format—like echo-y pings heard riding on cosmic currents or phantom so-called numbers stations broadcasts coming through a shortwave radio—is by all estimates cold as hell! 

Bauer’s most recent exhibition, which was shown in the Duke Gallery of Azusa Pacific University, was based on a small but focused selection of his blue paintings. The exhibition title BSOD—Blue Screen of Death—is a computer technician’s shorthand for the blue error screen displayed on a Windows computer system after a fatal system error occurs. Good titles, such as BSOD, can serve as a helpful interpretive framework for an exhibition, shaping the way one experiences and reads the work. The notion of failure is a thing that factors heavily into Bauer’s thinking as a particular threshold beyond which a system acts—if it acts at all—in erratic and unpredictable ways.

At the core of paint production, breakdown is fundamental. Pigment is pulverized into miniscule bits and floated in a liquid medium. A pigment’s material integrity must be broken down to give way to its full range of expressive and formal possibilities. Within a conventional user context, a Blue Screen of Death is the end of the road. But to a hacker, it is truly the beginning of something potentially vibrant and generative. From one point of view the BSOD is the cold, hard death of something; from another perspective it is the warm occasion of possibility. And so, seen in this way, we start to perceive the fulcrum—that point where Bauer’s efforts, almost despite themselves, begin to pivot toward heat.

In John Bauer’s work and working process, he is collecting the long dead residue of authentic expression, and through mechanical and synthetic processes is rearranging, relayering, repeating, filtering, sifting, shifting, controlling, alt-ing and selectively deleting these things into a re-actuated warmth. By virtue of constant movement and reworking, a kind of frictional heat has developed. By virtue of prolonged exposure and connectivity between his themes and his active mind, with his sincere belief as conduit, there is an electrical charge that is dangerously warm to the touch. As Dr. Frankenstein channeled lightning into his nonhuman to give it life, Bauer channels the electric charge of his own corporeal presence into his non-paintings to give them the heat of life. This embodied presence of the artist, which need not be much more involved than just showing up, is what a daily practice of painting looks like today. John Bauer is an artist making paintings after the end of painting—and those paintings are HOT!

 

Featured Image: John Bauer, Vicious II, 2008, 90″ x 70″, oil and enamel on linen

Austin Mann: Not in the Louvre but on It

When I think of the Louvre, my mind automatically recalls world-renowned artworks such as the ancient Winged Victory of Samothrace, Eugène Delacroix’s July 28: Liberty Leading the People or its famed glass pyramids by architect I.M. Pei. I do not immediately connect this bastion of art history with contemporary art and design. But that is exactly what happened when the museum and Apple collaborated—the Louvre renovating its Decorative Arts Pavilion and Apple beginning its 2015 “Shot on iPhone 6” ad campaign. With larger-than-life scaffolding to hide the construction, stories-high ads for the new iPhone 6 were erected onto the building’s façade, and for a time, displayed the work of Austin Mann.

Mann’s photography demonstrates a wide-range of genres from landscape imagery, to portraits, to stills of celebrated landmarks. While varied, these categories connect through one central component: Mann’s handling of light. In a phone interview, Mann stated, “I was interested in both the physical and spiritual connotations of lightness and darkness…Where light is there is no darkness.”

The idea of light conquering darkness resonates strongly with the artist. He speaks of being powerfully inspired and influenced by nature, “especially in its untouched state.” In his earlier landscape photographs, colorful panoramic vistas immerse the viewer with their grand scale and distinctive vantage point. It is worth noting that Mann is not afraid to jump out of helicopters, scale mountains, and/or dive underwater to get just the right viewpoint for his shots. His image of Blue Nile Falls in Ethiopia shimmers with a white mist. This spray veils most of the photograph—only the craggy rocks, on which the viewer seems to stand, are crisply in focus with light reflecting off of their jagged edges. A tiny human figure emerges from the vapor in the lower right portion of the photograph. This adventurer is so insignificant in relation to the expansiveness of the natural landscape that it feels as though this individual may be easily swallowed up by the breathtaking power of the waterfall. Such an awe-inspiring and overpowering scene readily recalls the Sublime as discussed throughout aesthetic history.

Austin Mann, Blue Nile: Ethiopia, 2008, © Austin Mann Photography

Austin Mann, Blue Nile – Ethiopia, 2008, © Austin Mann Photography

In the 1st century CE, Longinus defined the Sublime as “evoking more intense emotions…it is vast, irregular, obscure and superhuman.” Edmund Burke, in the 18th century, expounded on the idea, how mankind could experience delight as it may “arise from the contemplation of a terrifying situation—natural, artistic or intellectual—that could not actually harm the spectator, except in the imagination.” J.M.W. Turner’s paintings of the 1800s exemplify the concept, with his figures overwhelmed by the supremacy of their natural surroundings. In the 20th century, artists like Barnett Newman reinterpreted the Sublime as expressing the tragedy of the human condition through abstract means.

Similarly, Mann allows the immensity of nature to take center stage in his landscape work, bringing to mind humanity’s ephemeral interactions with its environment. The enormity of the Nepalese Annapurna mountain range is only interrupted by a diminutive airplane. A small boat sails into the limitless blue of the Greek Mediterranean Sea. The bleak but massive cliff in Iceland engulfs the insignificant person framed against a sky of grey. According to Mann, “All my work makes you feel small or that there is a great power… For me, the pristine landscape is in some ways, a portrait or snapshot of God’s character.”

Austin Mann, Annapurna Range – Nepal, 2008, © Austin Mann Photography

Austin Mann, Annapurna Range – Nepal, 2008, © Austin Mann Photography

The artist brings this approach to his portrait photography—where humanity exists as perhaps the most celebrated facet of nature. Mann states, “The soul is the only thing that is eternal. I try to connect the audience to the subject in a deep emotional way—soul to soul.” In one portrait, water rivulets cascade down the face of an Indian boy, the joy of childhood captured in a moment of time. Mann’s photograph of a young Honduran girl reveals her slight smile and eager expression, offering a slight glimpse into her character and personality. He focuses closely on her eyes displaying a face full of innocence and trust. “You must allow the subject feel comfortable with you as the photographer, which takes a lot of time. The best portrait photographers like Richard Avedon spent days getting to know his subject in order to capture that one shot. You have to also be vulnerable with the subject and it is most important to prioritize them as people.”

Austin Mann, AP – India, 2008, © Austin Mann Photography

Austin Mann, AP – India, 2008, © Austin Mann Photography

An elderly Filipino woman stands amidst a radial sunburst that fills the space with warmth. She weighs the catch of fish for a presumed customer in a comfortable atmosphere, gauzy patterned curtains covering a background window. Mann says, “It is important that the subjects are proud to know that their image could be up on a billboard. You as the photographer have stepped into someone’s home, often one they should be proud of. It shifts how you think you would handle yourself.” Of course, Mann cannot escape his own photographic construction, but he attempts to merely document these slices of daily life rather than project a pre-made narrative onto those he is photographing.

Austin Mann, Philipenes 2: Philipines, 2013, © Austin Mann Photography

Austin Mann, Philipenes 2 – Philipines, 2013, © Austin Mann Photography

His black-and-white series of Ethiopia’s rock hewn churches in Lālibalā is subtle in its tones, displaying his most dramatic treatment of light. Each of the 12 churches was carved from a single piece of stone throughout the 12th and 13th centuries. The subterranean structures were excavated from the ground and leave no visual trace on the horizon—a reductive process rather than additive. They remain Orthodox Christian pilgrimage sites to this day.

Mann displays countless textures found in these early monolithic edifices—the rough wood of a door, wrinkles in white linen garments, the graininess of the carved walls. He claims, “I am almost always chasing some sort of unique lighting situation, texture, drama, or juxtaposition.” The contrast between the human figures clad in stark white and the stony setting is striking. There is a dramatic reverence in the scene, enhanced by the sight of countless shoes removed by followers before entering the sacred space. The viewer is seemingly witness to another era, but also a participant in a continuum of devotion.

Perhaps what strikes one most about the photography of Austin Mann is the empathetic nature of his photos. Empathy, the ability to share another’s feelings, differs from sympathy in that it does not involve simply feelings for someone else. Instead, it builds a shared outlook—sadness is shouldered together and joy is celebrated together. Mann joins his subjects in a setting, learns about customs, and attempts to understand their humanity, their contributions as a person on this earth. The artist travels the world, helping to cross cultures through the medium of photography, stating “With digital cameras and iPhones, nearly everyone can speak this shared visual language and it connects us as human beings.” Mann’s work reveals commonalities between our experiences as human beings and challenges each of us to take an empathetic moment—to experience life through another person’s perspective. This approach to portraiture perhaps best fits Immanuel Kant’s definition of the Sublime, and its stress on the importance of a person’s “subjective capacity for feeling.” Kant did not consider the Sublime an overarching, singular property, but rather a moral and personal response connected to “the adoption and application of universal affection.” Both Mann’s landscapes and portraits can remind us of the Sublime, whether they demonstrate Burke’s idea of nature’s absolute beauty and power, or instead focus on the noble facet of humankind discussed by Kant. In his veneration of light, revelation of the earth’s magnitude, and celebration of individual’s humanity, we can see the grand and particular beauty of this world.

Featured Image: Mann on Louvre: France, 2015, Image: © Allan Spiers

Noteworthy: Perfect Likeness

Perfect Likeness: Photography and Composition, a current exhibition at UCLA’s Hammer museum, explores the tension between art photography and commercial photography. As the description of the exhibition states,

“For most of its history, art photography has linked itself with the contingent, the found situation, the apparently accidental arrangement. Since the decline of the movement known as Pictorialism in the 1920s there has been consistent suspicion among serious photographers of images that are too beautiful, too ‘photogenic,’ too well composed—too perfect.

Perfect Likeness is a return to these “too perfect” images, exploring the rich potential of art photography that utilizes arranged or idealized compositions.

Thanksgiving 1984, Roe Ethridge (2009)

Thanksgiving 1984, Roe Ethridge (2009)

One of the exhibition’s “too perfect” images is a photo by Roe Ethridge, entitled Thanksgiving 1984. In it, a young woman in a bright yellow sweater, with beautiful, blank, blue eyes, sits behind a Thanksgiving dinner, luscious and shiny to the point of looking shellacked. Behind the woman hangs a Japanese tapestry.

The image, with the perfect model and perfect food, would look like an advertisement were it not so unsettling. Like commercial photography, it depicts something we think we want, but unlike commercial photography, asks us if we should even want it at all.

Hyperallergic describes one of the photos from the same series as Thanksgiving 1984, saying, “The dinner spread looks so glossy, like it was prepared to serve as the idea of Thanksgiving dinner and not something to actually be eaten.” Thanksgiving 1984 is more about the idea of a perfect Thanksgiving than what Thanksgiving is really like. Etheridge says in the description mounted beside the gallery photograph that Thanksgiving 1984 depicts a teenage boy’s ideal holiday guest. Etheridge himself was a teenager in 1984. But the photo, with the calmly appropriated tapestry, the abundance of food, and the impersonal, retouched woman, is not just the ideal of a teenage boy, but of a consumerist society.

The depiction of this ideal is unnerving, as many depictions of our desires may be. Thanksgiving looks even more artificial than much commercial photography. The shellacked food seems inedible; the woman doesn’t look us in the eye. Her expression doesn’t communicate much of anything. This “perfect” Thanksgiving is artificial to the point of being inhospitable. Thanksgiving is meant to be a holiday of hospitality, but transformed into a consumerist ideal, it is no longer an inviting place for others or for ourselves at all.

Perfect Likeness is open until September 13. More photos can be seen here.

 

Featured image:
Christopher Williams
Untitled (Study in Yellow and Green/East Berlin), Studio Thomas Borho, Düsseldorf, July 7th, 2012
2012. Inkjet print on cotton rag paper. 14 3/8 × 18 in. (36.5 × 45.7 cm). Private Collection; courtesy of David Zwirner, New York/London.

From the Roster: Yanina Shevchenko

On periodic Tuesday afternoons, we are showcasing an individual artist recognized for his or her unique voice, ideas and process. Once a month, a featured artist will be selected by Rebecca Locke, a New York City-based artist and curator, who develops collaborative and artist-led projects. This week’s artist From the Roster is: Yanina Shevchenko.

Curator’s Introduction

For many photographers, making an image is a way of transcribing reality. Photographs appear as pieces of the world they take away with themminiature slices of reality. The action of making a photograph is described by Modelon Hooykaas as “taking a piece of somewhere with you.” Yanina Shevchenko’s series Vanishing is born from the artist’s desire to preserve the memory of a place that is close and important to her, a place that  will soon cease to exist.

Within the former USSR, two and a half hours from Minsk the capital of Belarus, deep in the forest is a small village called Ganchanskoe. Ganchanskoe is the birthplace of Shevchenko’s mother, and home to her maternal grandparents. But, as with many villages across this region, it is fast becoming a very different place as the old established village communities are emptying, draining village life of its vibrance.

The disintegration of traditional social and political structures following World War II caused a great movement of rural migration into cities. The fall of the Soviet Union precipitated the collapse of collective farms and state-owned enterprises across the region. With thousands of factories shutting down, millions of people became unemployed. In rural areas there were few opportunities to adapt to new circumstances caused by the lack of infrastructure and jobs.

Across the region, the number of villages considered ‘ghost villages’ continues to increase each year. In Ganchanskoe, the population has dwindled to less than 150, with mostly elderly villagers remaining, as the rest of the population migrates to the city. In 2013 there were 14 pupils in the local school, today the school has closed, and the decline of villages across Belarus is doomed to continue without intervention from government, investors, infrastructure and social services.

Shevchenko believes that photographs do more than refer to a place, they trigger emotions becoming “portable sites of remembrance”. Photographs treasure an experience, becoming a catalyst to re-tell and re-live moments or stories. Images from the series Vanishing can be considered an archival record of a place that is important for remembrance, particularly for the artist.

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Artist Bio

Yanina Shevchenko is a Russian-born photographer based in Barcelona, Spain. She has worked in New York, Moscow and Buenos Aires. She is a graduate of Goldsmiths University of London, MA in Photography and Urban Cultures. Yanina is a curator and member of the Association of Urban Photographers, an international group of photographers and artists with an interest in urban spaces and places.

Artist Statement

Yanina Shevchenko combines social research and visual practice. Over a number of years she has focused on issues related to social aspects of cultural identity, as well as rural and urban landscape. Most of her projects are personal. She uses photography as a visual language to talk about notions of interest, to tell stories of places and to learn or rediscover them through photography.

Yanina’s most recent curatorial work includes ‘Streetopolis’ an exhibition by the Association of Urban Photographers. The aim of this exhibition is to expand on notions of what constitutes contemporary street photography and to offer an alternative range of practices that link street cultures back to the wider context of urban life. It will be exhibited in New York, Barcelona and London:

Current Exhibitions

Streetopolis
W83 gallery, NY
September 10 – October 8, 2015
Opening Reception:
Thursday, September 10, 6-9pm, all welcome.
W83 Gallery, 150 W 83rd St.
(between Columbus and Amsterdam)
New York, NY 10024

The Folio Club, Barcelona
September 25 – October 8, 2015

71A Gallery, London
October 26 – 31, 2015

City to Sea Photography Workshop

Yanina Shevchenko will be participating in the forthcoming City to Sea Photography Workshop in Coney Island over the Labor Day weekend.

Coney Island, New York, NY
September 5 to 7, 2015

To register for the workshop please visit:

www.citytosea.org/ConeyIsland

http://urbanphotographers.org/

www.yaninashevchenko.com

The Italian Girl: An Old Tale

“And yet, in some indescribable way, she kept recurring like a motive in music through all his mad adventures . . .” — G.K. Chesterton, The Man Who Was Thursday

She hangs solemnly above the emerald chest in my bedroom. The bottle of Lacryma Christi del Vesuvio rests alone on the chest, a gentle grey snow dusting its heel. Her gaze is pensive, faraway eyes that spire into my own. She’s La Meditazione (The Meditation) by Francesco Hayez, the nineteenth-century Italian painter belonging generally to the Romantic Movement. Sadly, I can find very little written about this magnificent painting.

The painting has been known by three titles: The Meditation; The Meditation on the History of Italy; and The Meditation on the History of the Old and New Testaments. To what degree this was intentional or just a happy historical fortuity, I do not know. Nevertheless, the trinity of titles alludes to the multiple perspectives it embodies. The erotic, aesthetic, historical and religious are each laced within the other.

Behind the initial erotic draw of her face and figure lies hidden the visage of a Christ Pantokrator icon; particularly the venerable sixth-century icon at St. Catherine’s Monastery in Sinai. Her eyes are subtly, but unmistakably, dissimilar. Her left eye is fiercely melancholy. The other more gentle and calm. Her entire face descries the Old and New Testament difference and unity. Her left is dark and shadowy, hidden in a whirlwind like some mysterious form in a fiery Babylonian furnace. Her lips curve downward in the shape of divine kenosis, a crescent moon in the garden of Gethsemane. The right side of her face, along with her right breast, catch an infinite light. Her lips soften in shape and the fixture of her eye has motion in it.

The oldest known icon of Christ Pantocrator, encaustic on panel (Saint Catherine's Monastery). The two different facial expressions on either side may emphasize Christ's two natures as fully God and fully human.

The oldest known icon of Christ Pantocrator, encaustic on panel (Saint Catherine’s Monastery). The two different facial expressions on either side may emphasize Christ’s two natures as fully God and fully human.

Instead of holding the New Testament in her left hand like St. Catherine’s Pantokrator, she holds the cross. In her right arm she holds a book, The History of Italy: the child of Christianity. She is the mother of Italy, her nourishing breast of life, the lactation of Christendom. The allusion to previous Madonna paintings is obvious. (Perhaps a mix of Boticceli’s The Madonna of the Book and Bartolomeo Veneto’s Madonna Che Allatta Il Bambino.) But the Christ child is absent from her right arm, and Christ is absent from the cross in her left. The Christian revolution has taken place. The Christ child is now the history of Italy. The crucified and risen Christ is off the Roman cross and now hidden and manifest in the concrete face of each man, each woman. Her face is her own, yet also Christ’s.

She reminds me of Jorge Luis Borge’s Dantean short story Paradiso, XXXI, 108:

“Perhaps some feature of that crucified countenance lurks in every mirror; perhaps the face died, was obliterated so that God could be all of us. Who knows whether tonight we shall not see it in the labyrinths of our dreams and not even know it tomorrow.”

She “Acts in God’s eye what in God’s eye he is — / Christ – for Christ plays in ten thousand places, / Lovely in limbs, and lovely in eyes not his / To the Father through the features of men’s faces,” as Gerard Manley Hopkins put it in “As Kingfishers Catch Fire”. She is the tonic flame and face turning death into a stranger, the recurring musical motif holding history’s hells abated, advocate of the poor and oppressed, drawing heaven’s starry hosts into the minds of men amidst the night’s stale chaos.

Hayez’s painting is a metaphysical romance. We could say it’s like Chesterton’s “great romance he never wrote,” described in The Everlasting Man. A boy takes leave of home and searches for the “effigy and grave of some giant.” As he moves further and further away from his cottage, he is able to make out certain aspects of home—a kitchen-garden for instance—when he suddenly realizes these small features are like quarterings of a shield, the shield of a giant upon which he has always lived and moved and had his being. Before his journey it was too large and too close to be seen. Seeing it required distance.

There is, however, a backstory to Chesterton’s great romance; namely, Friedrich Nietzsche’s parable of the Madman found in The Gay Science. It’s no secret that much of Chesterton’s philosophy has Nietzsche in mind, so it is hardly surprising that Chesterton should begin his masterpiece with a play on the parable of the Madman. Nietzsche’s Madman sets out with “lantern in the bright morning hours” searching for God. He wanders like a fallen angel of old, flitting about frantically to and fro throughout the marketplace, incessantly crying, “I seek God! I seek God!” The unbelievers mock and tease him: “Why, did he get lost? Did he lose his way like a child? Is he hiding? Is he afraid of us? Has he gone on a voyage?” The Madman glares and pierces the unbelievers’ eyes with his own and responds: “Whither is God? I shall tell you. We have killed him—you and I. All of us are his murderers…Do we not hear anything yet of the noise of the gravediggers who are burying God?”

Had Hayez encountered Nietzsche’s roaming madman, he’d have led him to The Meditation. For God is to be found only where God proclaims to be found: in the human face of the stranger. Perhaps we have lost God because we no longer attend to our neighbor, the face of the other. It is what is nearest to us that is most difficult for us to see. What is near becomes invisible. We need the distance that meditation creates in order to see what is always before us.

Hayez’s Italian girl is this meditation; an ordinary garden, an effigy, part of the shield of the giant. But the more one looks upon her, the more one looks carefully upon the infinite strands of her black hair and the gaze of her shadowed eyes, we become suddenly pierced, like Moses at the burning bush, with the audacious revelation that these dark strands are the same that wove the world in the beginning of days, and her eyes the same dark pupils that beheld the world and saw that it was good. She is part of the giant we live upon. She is the meditation on Existence Itself.

Image Details: La Meditazione (1851). Francesco Hayez (Italian, 1791-1882). Oil on canvas.

Noteworthy: Janet Echelman

A sculpture made of a hundred miles of rope netting floats above Boston’s Rose Kennedy Greenway. Artist Janet Echelman, who has created dozens of these massive, suspended sculptures, was first inspired by the nets of Indian fishermen. Her Boston sculpture, “As If It Were Already Here,” is composed of colored twine and lit at night.

Echelman’s sculptures are an experience of wind and sky in an urban environment. Describing in a TED Talk the first time she stood beneath her Porto, Portugal sculpture, Echelman says, “As I watched the wind’s choreography unfold, I felt sheltered and, at the same time, connected to limitless sky.”

This heightened awareness of wind and sky provide san invitation to wonder. Echelman describes the reaction of some of Phoenix’s inhabitants to her sculpture for the city.

An attorney in the office who’d never been interested in art, never visited the local art museum, dragged everyone she could from the building and got them outside to lie down underneath the sculpture. There they were in their business suits, laying in the grass, noticing the changing patterns of wind beside people they didn’t know, sharing the rediscovery of wonder.

The rediscovery of wonder is elemental to Echelman’s work. Looking at the fluid forms amidst geometric high-rises, is reminiscent of a scene in Terrence Malik’s The Tree of Life, where an enormous cloud of birds moves around the tops of skyscrapers. Like Echelman’s sculptures, the flowing form is not merely set against the architecture, but transforms an everyday sight. Scenes like this led to the film (sometimes negatively) being described as a prayer, but if it is a prayer, it addresses God through the wonder found in this world.

Echelman’s installations locate the transcendent experience of wonder securely in the everyday, confronting us as we commute or look out our office windows.  

Flaming June at the Frick Collection

Painted by the British artist Frederic Leighton around 1895, Flaming June is one of the iconic paintings of Victorian art. It depicts a single female figure asleep on a marble bench. As a sheer gossamer dress cascades over her, she floats in a pool of color. In the painting’s upper right corner is an oleander, a fragrant, but poisonous, flower. Beyond the resting figure is a seemingly endless brilliant seascape, adapted from studies Leighton had made on the Mediterranean island of Rhodes.

Flaming June is currently featured in an exhibit at the Frick Collection. An island girl, Leighton’s painting is visiting Manhattan from Puerto Rico, where she is a jewel in the collection of the Museo de Arte de Ponce. Seeing Flaming June is like a day trip Mediterranean getaway, and the exhibition, which is accompanied by a short and very readable catalog, closes on September 6th.

An air of mystery hangs over Leighton’s painting. Why is it called Flaming June? What is meant by this title? No one knows for certain. Also, the identity of the model has never been securely established. These questions only add to the enigmatic nature of this seductive picture, which tantalizes us with the yet-to-be-fulfilled prospect of narrative. Eluding our capture, Flaming June demonstrates how it is better for a painting to suggest than to disclose. Perhaps the woman is taking refuge from a hot summer afternoon, under a canopy whose decorated trim we can see across the top of the picture. Alternately, one can imagine that this is a Mediterranean night in which the moonlight on the water seems almost as bright as day. Who is this lady? What is our relationship to her? These questions are provocatively asked and coyly left unanswered.

Although Flaming June remains a highly recognizable image, often quoted in popular culture, Frederic Leighton is not as well known now as he was in his own day. One of the most successful artists of his time, Lord Leighton became a member of London’s Royal Academy in 1864 and its president in 1878. Painted just months before Leighton died, Flaming June was one of his last works and one of his best, indicating how Leighton continually aimed to elevate his art. He did not fall into on formulaic replication of his past successes. Flaming June is a culmination of the artist’s lifetime of developing subtle means of suggesting external drama and internal life.

Toward the end of a celebrated career depicting historical and literary subjects, Leighton became an advocate of the “art for art’s sake” Aesthetic Movement. This cult of beauty emphasized the work of art’s visual qualities, such as color and design, over its story-telling function. Flaming June seduces the viewer with color; the soft cadmium mango-orange of the gauzy dress is especially evocative. Softer than red, which is a forward-moving color, orange is less aggressive but still visually active.

Although she is motionless, the lines and colors of the fabrics that envelop her keep the viewer’s eye moving through the painting. Leighton employs a palette of colors that are both vivid and varying. Flaming June has many understated details that play big roles. The sandals that she has removed are piled in the lower left, forming a visual bridge into the painting, which we read from the lower left toward the upper right. In the opposite corner, the beautifully painted oleander keeps us from visually exiting the painting. The simple geometry of the marble floor is balanced with the gracefully decorated trim of the awning. The suggestion of the overhead shelter, beyond the painting’s edge, is an ingenious means by which Leighton implies that we occupy the same, semi-enclosed, space as her. The composition is constructed of concentric rings: the space, the fabrics, her legs, her arms, her facial features; the focal point is her closed eye, the curtained window to her soul. This circular design is balanced by and contained within the canvas’s square shape.

Leighton also employed his paint application to entice the viewer through the picture. In academic classism, the entire painting should be meticulously treated with a uniform degree of precision. But that is not how the eye sees or Leighton painted. While her arms and face are more carefully delineated, her dress and the fabric covering the bench are painted with more fluid brushwork. Even within her face, the ear is painted more loosely than the eye or mouth. Leighton employed the tightness and looseness of his paint application to direct and focus the viewer’s attention. The process of our reading of the painting is a journey of drawing closer and closer towards her.

The magnetism of Flaming June’s allure is, in part, that its subject and aesthetics are commensurate. Just as the picture suggests a narrative without telling a story, the painting draws the viewer into a dynamic composition of form and color that makes the lady simultaneously present and removed.

Although the figure’s pose is adapted from Michelangelo, her proportions are exaggerated. Ideally, her legs should be two head lengths from the hip to the knee and two more head lengths from the knee to the foot. Leighton has elongated her legs to at least three head lengths, or more, from the hip to the knee. If this woman were to stand up, her legs would seem grotesquely long. Her proportions have more in common with Henri Matisse’s abstractions of the figure than with Polykleitos’s (the Greek sculptor) classical canon.

The angle at which she reclines is critical to the painting’s success. This positioning of her body both draws us into the painting and separates us from her. Her shoeless right foot gently and sensually brushes against the imaginary picture plane that separates her world from ours. Her left leg forms a railing, toward which we are drawn but which we cross with discretion. Beyond this horizon, we enter a realm where our imagination meets her dream. Because, when measured against the length of her leg, her head seems small, we unconsciously read her head as more distant from us than it should be. Leighton uses the lady’s body to distance the, presumed Victorian male, viewer from her mind.

This painting is a paradox of present immediacy and deferred intimacy. The lady’s sleeping pose makes her vulnerable to the viewer. Dreaming in another world, her mind is unreachable. A personification of unattainable desire, she is simultaneously near and far away. Although we may feel that we could reach out and touch her, she remains always beyond our grasp.

Image credit: Frederic Leighton, Flaming June, ca. 1895 Oil on canvas 46 7/8 x 46 7/8 inches Museo de Arte de Ponce, The Luis A. Ferré Foundation, Inc.

Reconsidering a “Deathwork”

In his essay for Commentary, “How Art became Irrelevant,” Michael J. Lewis describes a shift in public perception of art. Previously, art was an integral part of the experience of a member of society.To some, contemporary art is seen as increasingly bizarre and having very little to do with the experience of the everyday person. Lewis describes some of this bizarre art saying that it “offered no coordinates from which society could navigate to find a higher purpose. Rather, it fulfilled the definition of what the late Philip Rieff called a ‘deathwork,’ a work of art that poses ‘an all-out assault upon something vital to the established culture.”

One of the works described as a deathwork is Ron Athey’s 4 Scenes in a Harsh Life. Athey’s work was taken as an attack on the basic values of the society that had pushed him out. In one of the 4 Scenes, called “The Human Printing Press,” Athey cut a pattern of lines and triangles onto a collaborator’s back, blotting the blood with towels and sending them out over the audience on a pulley. As John Killacky recounts in his essay for American Theater Magazine, the audience responded favorably to the performance, but the media did not. It was at the height of the AIDs epidemic, and the scene was described as buckets of AIDs-infected blood being slopped around the audience. In reality, blood did not drip from the towels, and while Athey was HIV positive, his collaborator was not. But the performance was considered so outrageous that it led to the trials that ended funding for the National Endowment for the Arts, to which Athey belonged.

But Athey was doing much more than merely trying to attack the values of mainstream culture. On her essay on 4 Scenes, “There Are Many Ways to Say Hallelujah,” Catherine Gund writes, “in the 1980s and 1990s, gay men were overdetermined in their role as stand-ins for a network of alarming but abstract signifiers.” Athey’s performance seeks to reclaim his body both from society’s determinations and from its own disease. Gund writes, “Ron’s is an art form that is the opposite of AIDS: it is a precise and controlled performance in the face of a disease that betrays and destroys the body.”

Part of the problem Athey was trying to remedy–and remedies suggest the higher purpose Lewis spoke of–was the exclusion of his own voice and agency by his disease and by society. Allen Ginsberg suggests something similar in his 1956 poem America. In it, he criticizes America for her war-mongering, paranoia, and self-obsession. He ends the poem, “America I’m putting my queer shoulder to the wheel.” It is precisely his own agency as an outsider that, to him,  is seen as a kind of resolution to the nation’s problems. Transgressive works like those by Athey or Ginsberg only appear to be deathworks, because society has refused them their perspectives. 

Noteworthy: Getting Someone to Care

“We have lost our ability to mourn,” artist Doris Salcedo said in The New York Times. Salcedo, a native of Bogota, Colombia, has spent much of her life researching the terrible crimes and mass murders committed in her own country and in others. Her work is meant to publicly mourn lives lost to these crimes. The largest American retrospective of Salcedo’s work to date opened in the Guggenheim Museum on June 26.

Doris Salcedo, Plegaria Muda (detail), 2008–10. Wood, concrete, earth, and grass in 122 parts, dimensions variable. Courtesy Alexander and Bonin, New York

Doris Salcedo, Plegaria Muda (detail), 2008–10. Wood, concrete, earth, and grass in 122 parts, dimensions variable. Courtesy Alexander and Bonin, New York

Her best-known work is what she calls “dysfunctional furniture.” Wardrobes, beds, and other pieces of furniture are fused together, their handles ripped off, their cavities filled with rebar and concrete. They physically evoke the weight of loss. Jason Farago writes for the Guardian, “Her furniture mash-ups bear the weight of history, so heavy they have been dumbstruck. They forcefully advertise their mass and their burden, but also their loss of functionality. They say nothing. They weigh a ton.”

Doris Salcedo Untitled, 2008 Wood, metal, and concrete 78 x 247 x 121 cm Guggenheim Bilbao Museoa

Doris Salcedo
Untitled, 2008
Wood, metal, and concrete
78 x 247 x 121 cm
Guggenheim Bilbao Museoa

Salcedo is not just addressing a shared grief, as public mourners do. She is addressing a loss that we don’t feel enough, that oftentimes we have forgotten to care about. The pieces attempt help us mourn better, and sometimes to help us mourn these deaths at all. Her art has changed over the years from the ambiguity of concrete furniture to something closer to heavy-handedness.

A Flor de Piel is a room-sized shroud of stitched together rose petals, a memorial to a Colombian nurse who was tortured to death. Her newest, not-yet-begun project, is a memorial for children killed in different shootings. She envisions water droplets spelling out the children’s names. Farago writes that if the massacres in Colombia or in Connecticut school classrooms are not enough to focus our attention, then “something blunter is going to be necessary if you want to get someone to care.”

Getting someone to care, and getting someone to care in the right way, is a main point of Salcedo’s work. Perhaps certain communities have lost their ability to appropriately mourn lost lives because of how they view violence, the fascination sometimes accorded to gore or to atrocities. Removed of particulars in their abstraction, her “dysfunctional furniture” presents without simplistic shock value the terrible sorrow of something dismembered, of something whose purpose has been violated. By evoking this feeling, she helps us to feel and maybe feel as we should about these deaths. Her work is a dirge, and invites us to join in its sorrow.

Watch Salcedo talk about her work.

 

From the Roster: Melissa Browder Beck

On select afternoons, we are showcasing an individual artist recognized for their unique voice, ideas and process. Once a month, a featured artist will be selected by Rebecca Locke, a New York City-based artist and curator, who develops collaborative and artist-led projects.

Curator’s Introduction

If you’ve been invited into anyone’s home, whether you’ve been there before or not, you’ll have a sense of the familiar. It’s a place that resonates, yet is unknown and private. Melissa Browder Beck’s practice is based on the familiar objects and space of the home. Through her work Melissa transforms everyday objects: dishes, towels, appliances and even food—bread for instance—into unique objects, infused with a sense of the familiar. The installation Caked On—a life size replica of her own family’s Californian suburban kitchen, was recreated by the artist with every surface and object coated in thick paint. From the stove top to tiled countertops, cabinets and the dishes in the sink—objects were frozen in place under a thick layer of nostalgic monotone green, and viewers were invited to feel the objects and experience the sense of space.

On moving from the West Coast to New York City, Melissa first encountered the thickly painted surfaces commonly seen in subway stations and old apartments—something she had not previously seen in interior spaces. This and her own home, her brownstone apartment in Brooklyn began to influence her practice. Her new works and sculptures utilize the physical elements of her apartment. In this way her home has become not merely a place where artwork is displayed, rather it has become part of the work. Browder Beck, as a proponent of experimental art, continues to develop a new and innovative style of site-specific art that she has named Graft Art. The essence of Graft Art is that the artist uses what is already there, something that already exists, to make new work.

After completing her first Graft Art piece, the installation Breadiator—a radiator stuffed with slices of white bread—Beck invited other artists into her home to create graft artwork using the features of her apartment. In this way, the artist’s hand and vision, their vein of work, has been grafted into the apartment space.

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Melissa Beck as artist/innovator has transitioned into artist/curator. The first exhibition of Graft Art, apARTment #1, a new concept, shown as recently as April 2015, featured six artists. Laura Hinely captured quiet light of everyday objects in domestic spaces. Yasunari Izaki—whose practice explores the urban dwellers relationship to nature—created an installation The Grass is Always Greener—a wooden side table on which fresh grass grew.

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And so, apARTment #1 was both home and gallery space, bringing the viewer outside of the white box—the gallery—and into a home. The next exhibition in the series: apARTment #2 will open in Brooklyn on July 10, further details at the bottom of this article.

Bio:

Melissa Browder Beck is an artist and curator based in Brooklyn, NY. She grew up in Los Angeles and San Diego and received her BA in Studio Art from Point Loma Nazarene University in 2008. She studied for her MFA in sculpture at Pratt Institute, and has exhibited work in San Diego at Sushi Gallery, Keller Gallery, and Art San Diego and in New York City at SOHO20 Gallery, Lorimoto Gallery, and with Storefront Art Walk 2013. In 2015 Melissa became a Spark and Echo Artist in Residence, creating a series of sculptural, video, and performative works exploring the human struggle around what she calls “Disposable Commitments”. She is the Gallery Coordinator at Redeemer W83, founder of Graft Art and curator of the apARTment exhibition series in New York.

Melissa Browder Beck with "Breadiator" piece for apARTment #1

Melissa Browder Beck with “Breadiator” piece for apARTment #1

Artist Statement:

Something about the home is fragile and fleeting but deeply foundational and essential. Melissa Browder Beck is interested in the objects and spaces themselves, but also the routine, comfort, and stability they represent to us. We can feel this through a familiar towel hung above the sink, the grooves in a countertop, or the smell of certain foods. Feeling comfort through familiarity and routine over years of engaging in specific activities is a universal human experience. We find comfort in their dependability. We have an innate desire for belonging and place, essentially for home, and home that will last. In some sense when we leave home or it leaves us, we are merely in search of another home. Yet even the homes we create here on earth do not last in both physicality and sentimentality. This is a fascinating conflict, that we seek the comfort of consistency but deal with the inevitability of change. It’s through the altering of familiar objects and spaces that Melissa is able to begin making sense of this.

More info

www.graftart.com

www.melissabrowder.com

www.sparkandecho.org/melissa-beck_air1/

 

The next graft Art show apARTment #2 is in July 2015:

apARTment #2
July 10-11, 2015

Fri 6-9pm reception
Sat 3-9pm

*performance by Julie Rooney at 7pm both days

171 Waverly Ave #1

Brooklyn, NY

G or C train to Clinton/Washington

Yasmeen Abdallah

Melissa Browder Beck

Jean Paul Gomez

Emily Hartley-Skudder

Rebecca Haskins

Maria Liebana

Rebecca Locke

Luciana Pinchiero

Julie Rooney*

Beatrice Wolert

Noteworthy: Constellation at Bannerman Castle

This past Sunday, artist Melissa McGill’s new project, Constellation, appeared in the sky over the Bannerman castle ruin. The historied castle is located on an island in the Hudson River, and McGill has placed luminous globes on tall poles above the ruin, giving the effect of a new constellation in the night sky. After flickering on for the first time, the lights will remain on for two hours each night for the next two years.

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McGill is influenced by Land art, an art that is often ephemeral, as it is left for nature to take back or erode. Constellation suggests this ephemerality in the limits placed on its duration – two hours, two years.

But Constellation is also a project on the way things last, and the presence of the past with us. A book will be published in conjunction with the installation, and will include writings and poetry, some created especially for the project. One of the poems, “My God, It’s Full of Stars” by Pulitzer Prize winner Tracy K. Smith, speaks of the connection of the past to our present lives, and the communion with others that is part of it. The poem’s third section begins, “Perhaps the great error is believing we’re alone, / That the others have come and gone–a momentary blip– / When all along, space might be choc-full of traffic, / Bursting at the seams with energy we neither feel / Nor see.” Smith suggests we are surrounded by the life of other galaxies, and the past of our own world. She ends the section with the presence of her father, writing “I might be sitting now beside my father / As he raises a lit match to the bowl of his pipe / For the first time in the winter of 1959.”

Like Smith’s poem, the lights above Bannerman castle are a reminder that we are not alone and that the past is not just a “momentary blip.” The lights suggest the outline of the castle before it deteriorated, positioned where the top of the castle once stood. Also, the lights recall the belief of the Lanape Indians, (natives of the Hudson River area), in Opi Tamakan, or the Milky Way as the “White Road,” a road from this world to the spiritual one beyond. McGill’s Constellation presents us with both the past of the castle and the past of the area’s natives, and reminds us that the passing of time does not mean that we are isolated from what has come before.

For more images of “Constellation, ” check out the project’s Instagram feed.

Found Theology and Found-Footage Film

In collaboration with Christians in the Visual Arts, The Curator is publishing previews of scholarly papers from the 2015 CIVA conference “Between Two Worlds: Contemporary Art and the Church” to be held at Calvin College on June 11-14. This paper comes from the Theology and Visual Arts Track.

One thing artists and theologians have in common is that they both stand in relation to a tradition. Just as one cannot be an artist without standing in some relation to “an art history,” however broadly or narrowly such a term is conceived, so too the task of the Christian theologian is impossible without reckoning with what has been passed down (tradere) through the ages.[1] Theology and art alike must constantly mediate between the past and the present, between the pre-existing and the genuinely new.

Ben Quash’s recent book Found Theology takes as a central metaphor for Christian theology the “art of the found” associated with twentieth-century artists like Marcel Duchamp and Kurt Schwitters. Quash vividly describes the primary task of theology as “relati[ng] the given to the found.”[2] This expresses well the creative vocation shared by theologians and artists. Whether a theologian, artist, or both, tradition with all its complexity, profundity and even difficulty, is the “given” for all creative work. It is inevitable, as Quash writes, that “whenever one meets some found thing, one meets in it in the light of a tradition of thought and practice.”[3] But like artists, theologians must also be open to the new – as Quash describes it, to diverse and surprising “findings” as they appear in culture and history – even if they reconfigure certain ways of understanding the “given.” The French Dominican theologian Yves Congar, drawing a similar parallel between art and theology, argued for an understanding of tradition not as a force which stifles creativity, but as a force of renewal and something being constantly ‘re-newed’ itself in the process:

Tradition conceived as the handing down of set formulas and the enforced and servile imitation of models learned in the classroom would lead to sterility; even if there were an abundant output of works of art, they would be stillborn. […] The aim of this lesson is [rather] to receive the vitality of their inspiration and to continue their creative work in its original spirit, which thus, in a new generation, is born again with the freedom, the youthfulness and the promise that it originally possessed.

As Quash and Congar point out in varying ways, tradition ought to nourish rather than stifle Christian theology, and so its appropriation should take the form of creative use of its resources in order to engage the present anew. Tradition can only be “born again” when we are willing to embrace both the given and the found – to appropriate tradition with both reverence and a certain artistic irreverence, splicing together the old and the new in order to “find” our place in the unfolding story. Artists and theologians can both model this paradoxical stance, and perhaps learn from each other along the way.

Artistic Appropriation: The Clock

If film is a “time-based medium,” perhaps Christian Marclay’s video installation The Clock is cinema in its purest form. The Clock is, simply put, a twenty-four hour long montage of “found” film clips in which a clock or timepiece can be found somewhere in the frame, or where the passage of time is referred to or implied in some significant way. Displayed in a gallery as an installation, it aims to be an immersive experience. The footage comes from hundreds of different classic films, from Gary Cooper famously waiting for the outlaw train in High Noon to Peter Fonda checking his watch in Easy Rider to the iconic shot of silent film star Harold Lloyd hanging off of a giant city clock in Safety Last!, assembled together into a sprawling “metafilm.” Perhaps most ingeniously, however, the film also functions as a real clock – for the diegetic clocks on screen are arranged so as to coincide with “real time,” such that 3:30 on screen is 3:30 for the gallery viewer, midnight is midnight, and so on. The work, which debuted at London’s White Cube in 2010 and has since been widely exhibited, has been called one of the most important works of twenty-first century art as well as “the defining monument of the remix age.” In 2011 it won the Golden Lion at the Venice Biennale. The piece has been described as hypnotic and mesmerizing – viewers go in ready to spend only a few minutes but are entranced for hours by the overwhelming torrent of visual data and the whirlwind tour through Western cinema.

Christian Marclay, The Clock (2010).

Christian Marclay, The Clock (2010).

The Clock is a formidable achievement of “found footage film,” a genre of experimental cinema pioneered by artists like Joseph Cornell and Bruce Conner.[4] The term “found footage” belies its decidedly analog origin – “feet” of film physically “found” and repurposed by a generation of filmmakers – a short list would include Conner, Arthur Lipsett, Martin Arnold, and Craig Baldwin – who raided the “cinematic dustbins” to create subversive experimental films.[5] Taking, finding, and stealing film wherever they could find it – outtakes, commercials, home movies, instructional films, obscure B-movies – visionary films such as Conner’s seminal A Movie (1956) or Baldwin’s Tribulation 99: Alien Anomalies Under America (1992) wove together completely disparate visual sources into new, often bizarre narratives.

Similar to Douglas Gordon and Pierre Huyghe in the contemporary landscape of video art, Marclay’s work belongs to a new tradition of digital appropriation or “postproduction,”[6] which has moved away from the ephemeral, obscure source material favored by the earlier generation to recycling and remixing the canonical visual texts of Hollywood itself.[7] Postproduction art is embedded in what Nicolas Bourriaud calls a “culture of use,” or what is more popularly known as “sampling” – a digital, open-source mode of appropriation characteristic of “hip-hop, mashups, supercuts, and memes, each oscillating fluidly between modes of production and consumption.”[8] Alfred Hitchcock seemed to be a favorite source for found-footage artists in the 1990s: Douglas Gordon’s 24 Hour Psycho (1993) stretched the original film out to a 24-hour period, while Christoph Girardet and Matthias Müller’s The Phoenix Tapes (1999) edited together visual motifs and recurring patterns from across the filmography of the great auteur, making Hitchcock’s familiar stylistic tropes and obsessions even stranger. We can also think of Gus van Sant’s shot-by-shot remake of Psycho (1998), maligned at the time but now thought of as a unique cinematic experiment –  which itself has subsequently been spliced together with Hitchcock’s original film by none other than Steven Soderbergh (“Psychos,” web video, 2014). Marclay belongs to the “illustrious tradition” of appropriation art in its new, endlessly recombinant digital/viral format.

As in other video works such as Video Quartet (2002), as well as an array of sculptural works and audio experiments, Marclay’s use of appropriated materials stems from an ongoing interest in collage and performance. Yet The Clock goes a step beyond these projects as well as Gordon and Müller’s works in its sheer, Internet-like data overload. In the language of the Internet meme, The Clock is the more mature older cousin of the “supercut,” where one aspect of a film or television series is “obsessively” collected and edited together. It is Marclay’s virtuosic skill as a collagist and editor, however, which allows him to transcend the banal and indexical – merely stitching together 24 hours of essentially unrelated footage, which often on the Internet leads to a tiresome “database” aesthetic rather than a narrative one – to create out of this shapeless mass of fragments a coherent and compelling whole, with moments of humor, suspense, and even various levels of (meta)narrative continuity.[9]

christian-marclay-clock-moma-supercut-video-6311.jpg__800x600_q85_crop
Video editing is about placing images side by side so as to create meaning as they follow one another in temporal succession. As viewers, we construct narratives and patterns based on visual and aural continuity; the juxtaposition of two images causes us to reflect on their relationship. Borrowing from Fredric Jameson, we can call this a process of “re-narrativization.”  Rather than a linear narrative, however, Marclay accomplishes his transmutation of found footage into new meanings by structuring each shot in relation to temporality itself. His use of montage thus serves to remind us of cinema’s intrinsic relationship to time. In the darkened space of the movie theater, the passage of time seems to slow down and speed up based on the pace of the editing. In watching a “normal” Hollywood film, we are carried along with this without even thinking about it. The ellipsis of time, what is left out between cuts, disappears for us and as trained cinemagoers we instinctively ignore it.

In Marclay’s collage, on the other hand, we as viewers are constantly being reminded of the relationship of cinematic time to “real time,” and the invisible mechanism of editing is constantly making itself apparent. Moreover, the “foundness” of the footage – its origin in a film other than the one we are currently watching – asserts an undeniable presence. Collage involves the viewer in an active process of meaning-making. To watch The Clock is to simultaneously experience the passage of time both onscreen and in our own bodies; to recall the original source of the material (what movie is that from?); and to understand the clip in its new semiotic context. As Quash writes, “there are ways in which an object’s (or an event’s) quality of ‘foundness’ can continue to cling instructively to it even when it is incorporated, canonized, and revisited.”[10] Consider the complexity of seeing a clip from Orson Welles’ The Stranger (the scene where he is thrown off a clock tower) in Marclay’s collage. Our attention all at once directed to 1) the dramatic clip itself; 2) the film it was taken from; 3) our cultural associations with Welles, i.e. the “paratexts” which accompany our viewing of any film in which he appears; 4) the shots this shot is now playing alongside; and 5) the shot’s implicit relationship to time and clocks. Film viewing becomes an incredibly complex, intertextual, self-reflexive enterprise – yet accustomed to the complex cognitive process of movie-watching and the digital polysemy of the Internet, we do it without thinking. The visible edits become once again “seamless” as we are immersed in the film.

Jeremy Begbie has pointed out the way in which much of the meaningfulness of music comes from “the interplay between its temporal processes and a vast range of temporal processes which shape our lives in the world” – everyday phenomena like breathing, waiting, the cycle of day and night.[11] The Clock reminds us that film functions in a similar way, bridging between our bodily experience of time and the perfect, mediated time of the silver screen. Appropriation thus becomes not only the creative activity of the artist, but of the viewer. Not only does The Clock position itself so as to re-create a cinematic experience, it investigates cinematic experience itself in terms of time and temporality. The “real time” connection between what is happening on screen and the passage of time both disrupts and reconstitutes our experience of the world through the “time-based” medium of cinema.

Theological Appropriation

What The Clock does for theology is alert us to a way of being-in-the-world where the given and the found collide. This serves as a clue to the meaning of the term appropriation in both art and theology, which simply means “making one’s own.” The postproduction artist takes or recycles footage in order to synthesize it into his own unique creative vision. Yet the viewer also “appropriates” the experience in a constant, multidirectional act of interpretation – a self-reflexivity where one sees oneself both in relation to these films and their cultural meaning and to the present passage of time. In found-footage work, to digitize a phrase from Shakespeare, visual material is “untimely ripped.” It is taken out of one sequence and placed in another. Yet in the hands of an artist, a decontextualized, recycled shot can become extremely “timely” – the diachronic unfolding of shots in sequence situates us in relation to time and yields new histories and patterns of meaning.

Theology, I suggest, must similarly effect a kind of creative re-editing of tradition. Like a video editor, the theologian has at her disposal a vast array of materials, ready to be revisited and re-presented with an eye to both past and future time. Appropriation, in the theological sense, becomes a “making one’s own” of tradition not in the mode of a dead traditionalism but of artistic and pneumatic inspiration. A “found theology” investigates both theology and culture – in the mode or medium of time – for signs of new life, and integrates these findings into the living tradition of the church. In this vein, Quash’s “found theology” sets a new direction for conversations between theology and art, eschewing a “shallow” approach in favor of one that is genuinely interdisciplinary and open to new possibilities.

Theological Aesthetics as Bricolage

What can theology learn about tradition, creativity, and “foundness” from found-footage filmmaking and remix culture, and from Marclay’s The Clock in particular? One of Quash’s key theological precursors is the Swiss Catholic theologian Hans Urs von Balthasar, the figure most closely allied with the term “theological aesthetics.” Balthasar’s seven-volume aesthetics are most often cited in terms of their retrieval of Beauty both within and outside of the Christian tradition. Yet another way to look at Balthasar’s voluminous theology is precisely as a complex work of art itself. This then begs the question of what kind of art it is. We may discover that Balthasar is in a certain sense a theological bricoleur, creatively putting together disparate elements – ancient and modern, sacred and secular, mystical and practical, theological, philosophical, artistic – into a new, organic whole.

Balthasar’s theological aesthetics and dramatics are daringly original, yet they gain their strength precisely from their non-systematic, integrative method – a theological project well-suited to its “artistic” subject matter. One striking example is the way Balthasar appropriates a range of thinkers as representatives of “lay” and “clerical” styles in volumes II and III of The Glory of the Lord: from the tradition of Christian theology he draws on Irenaeus, Augustine, Pseudo-Dionysius, Anselm and Bonaventure, but on the other hand he “finds” ample theological insight in the poetic and mystical works of Dante, John of the Cross, Pascal, Hamann, Soloviev, Hopkins, and Peguy. Throughout his work, he draws equally on German philosophers, French novelists, playwrights like Shakespeare and Calderon, painters (Georges Rouault seems to be a favorite), composers, poets from Sappho to Rilke, and mystics ranging from Eckhart to his own close friend Adrienne von Speyr. The heterogeneity of his theological sources is thus much like the eclecticism of the found-footage artist – he casts his net widely, but in the end he is able to weave his “findings” into a coherent and compelling whole.

His project is best seen as a work of creative and transformative appropriation and synthesis. Balthasar’s synthetic theological aesthetics is less like a Duchampian readymade and more like Dante’s Divine Comedy, integrating classical, Christian, and philosophical motifs into a new creative shape coalescing around the revealed supreme “form” of Christ. Thus Balthasar yields, in Ben Quash’s aesthetic terminology, theology “that is found and not simply made” – much like a certain (non-Duchampian) type of found art, which responds to both the found and the given with creativity and resourcefulness.[13] Moreover, Balthasar’s constant theme is openness and receptivity, a theological orientation readily available to the world and to God in order to experience both anew. Appropriation, in a Balthasarian model, is a matter of experiencing the form of Christ as mediated by the tradition – in short, it is an aesthetic, not just intellectual, process. Balthasar’s approach to tradition is consistent with the kind of “found” theological method espoused by Quash and modeled artistically by Marclay. Like each of the voluminous number of clips (re)assembled by Marclay, each piece of Balthasar’s ressourcement of tradition bears the marks of its own “foundness.” It points us all at once in a multiplicity of allusive and evocative directions – a theological aesthetics, not just a systematics. Yet it also presents itself with a startling newness, as in Congar’s model of tradition. Theology as dead traditionalism or propositionalism is precluded – rather, tradition, creativity, and appropriation exist in a dynamic interpretive relationship.

In found theology and art, tradition and creativity go hand in hand, and appropriative art of the kind evident in Marclay’s The Clock as well as Balthasar’s theo-aesthetics can help us explore this dynamic. In found-footage filmmaking, film clips are, as Shakespeare penned in Macbeth, “untimely ripped” from their narrative contexts and given new life, edited together in surprising, unusual, and often subversive ways.[14] But as the narrative context of this quote from the Scottish play reminds us, and as is evident from Congar’s metaphor, this is the way new artworks – and new theologies – are born.

 

Citations

[1] Jerrold Levinson, for example, argues that the “intentional orientation” of the artist to position a work of art in relation to “an art history” – from the great works of the Western canon to the more local scenario of “any prior art activity” – is what makes it art. For Levinson, a work that has been “seriously intended for regarding-as-a-work-of-art” is art because it is positioned to be regarded in the same specific ways that “preexisting or prior artworks are or were correctly regarded.” Jerrold Levinson, Music, Art and Metaphysics: essays in philosophical aesthetics (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1990), 44.

[2] Ben Quash, Found Theology: History, Imagination and the Holy Spirit (Edinburgh: Bloomsbury/T&T Clark, 2014), xiv.

[3] Quash, Found Theology, 17.

[4] A sign of the times in terms of the analog-to-digital trajectory of found footage work is Jen Proctor’s recent digital, shot-by-shot “remake” of Bruce Conner’s famous film A Movie. See Scott MacDonald, “Remaking a found-footage film in a digital age: an interview with Jennifer Proctor,” Millennium Film Journal 57 (April 2013): 84-91.

[5] Scott MacKenzie, “Flowers in the dustbin: termite cinema and detritus cinema,” CineAction 47:1 (1998): 24-29.

[6] The canonical text here is Nicolas Bourriaud, Postproduction: Culture as Screenplay: How Art Reprograms the World (New York: Lukas & Sternberg, 2002).

[7] Margot Bouman, “On Sampled Time and Intermedial Space: Postproduction, Video Installation and Christian Marclay’s The Clock,” Journal of Curatorial Studies 3:1 (2014): 5-6. For more on the changing nature of appropriative video in the digital age see the documentary film RiP: A Remix Manifesto (2009, dir. Brett Gaylor).

[8] Bouman, 4.

[9] The longer one watches, the more The Clock reveals itself as a metafilm in which our attention is concurrently and reflexively pulled into the action on the screen and thrust back out onto our own experience of viewing.” Julie Levinson, “Time and Time Again: Temporality, Narrativity, and Spectatorship in Christian Marclay’s The Clock,Cinema Journal 54:3 (Spring 2015).

[10] Quash, Found Theology, 6.

[11] Jeremy Begbie, Theology, Music and Time (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2000), 13

[12] I realize that the terms bricoleur and bricolage may sound hopelessly postmodern, connoting mere pastiche instead of a deeper level of appropriation. In the original sense the word simply means making something out of what is available.

[13] Quash, Found Theology, 4-7.

[14] Macbeth Act 5, Scene 8. The context here is, of course, childbirth – an apt metaphor for the artistic process.

Magic Powers: The Generous Work of Charley Friedman

“I just want real reactions. I want people to laugh from the gut, be sad from the gut, or get angry from the gut.” —Andy Kauffman

Reactions from the gut are scarce in the contemporary art world. Dealers, curators, and collectors simply don’t trust their gut, fearing it provides insufficient grounds to judge the quality of art. And many artists—as well as critics—presume that the goal of serious art is to address social, political, or cultural ideas, discourses or theory— not the gut.

Yet, the gut is where our emotional life simmers with our deepest desires, fears, regrets, and hopes. It is what St. Augustine called, “the stomach of the mind,” where our memories and thoughts are churned over and digested.[1]

The gut also requires time. The experience of a work of art can continue long after it is seen. It can insinuate itself into our consciousness, become a part of our psychological and emotional life. And for nearly six months I have been digesting my experience of Charley Friedman’s exhibition at Miami’s Gallery Diet. I have a long history with the artist, having followed his work for over two decades and working with him on a museum project nearly eight years ago. So this little exhibition in January was much more than simply another six-week gallery show that is forgotten as soon as it closes. It has made me reflect on the twenty-year arc of Friedman’s career and its impact on my emotional and intellectual life.

To work from the gut—either as an artist or a critic—also requires considerable vulnerability and risk—it’s my gut, my half-cooked emotional life, my fears and hopes—because my response may not be your response, may not be the “right” response. It may expose my feelings and emotions, reveal me to be incompetent or foolish. In the contemporary art world, as it often is in many other creative industries, what makes a work of art (film, painting, poem, song) “good” or “important” is always in doubt. It is wiser and safer to rely on other, allegedly more “objective” indicators of value than one’s gut.

But this vulnerable and risky emotional experience is where Charley Friedman’s work dwells, forging through fear, doubt, and even skepticism to offer extraordinarily close emotional relationships with those who allow it to address their gut. 

Friedman uses a conceptual and performance-based artistic framework that incorporates photography, painting, and sculpture that appears tightly wound around art, social, and political theory. But Friedman’s work invites a range of emotional responses that have less to do with the standard discourse of art than with the complex emotional experiences of daily life. Friedman’s emotional vulnerability gives his work a sense of authenticity and sincerity, but more than that; his work is generous. It opens toward the viewer, for the viewer.

Friedman’s Miami exhibition, The Western Code, was his fourth at Gallery Diet, a tight installation featuring paintings, photographs, and sculpture-like objects. It consisted of a room of small painted letters of the alphabet and numbers from zero to nine. It also included several modeled squirrels, unpainted, that are on the floor and wall of the gallery; a kinetic installation that twirled plastic beach balls; a photograph of the artist, nude, as an Hasidic Jew; a beautiful close-up photograph of a dandelion; and a odd, tiny, crudely hand-sewn figure (or creature) standing on a pedestal before a bright yellow-striped work on paper that was tacked to the wall.

In a statement about the exhibition, Friedman writes: 

“The themes in my new body of work reflect my preoccupations with how individuals, nations and cultures form and transmit ideas and values. How we perceive each other and ourselves and how we invent systems to categorize our own egocentric worldview.

Although these are familiar themes for the contemporary art world, Friedman refuses to keep them where many artists are most comfortable—the abstract, intellectual, or theoretic level. Rather, he explores them as a means to reveal  his vulnerability in an effort to connect with ours.

Identity

Friedman often explores his interest in personal and communal identity through Hasidic Judaism. In the photograph Chasid in the Woods (2015), Friedman performs the role of a Hasidic Jew. With beard, curl, and hat, he stands nude in a field. He carries what may be a Torah, and the sacred book’s primary use as a cover for his genitals is certainly significant.

Chasid in the Woods, 2013, C-Print, 60 x 45". Courtesy of Gallery Diet, Miami, Florida.

Chasid in the Woods, 2013, C-Print, 60 x 45″. Courtesy of Gallery Diet, Miami, Florida.

He does not treat Hasidic Judaism as an abstraction, as a cipher for religious fundamentalism or reactionary separatism that is “out there” affecting others. It is a response to his own Jewish identity,  and yet it is a role that he is not qualified to play. He is never Jewish enough for the Hasidic community. His nudity suggests his vulnerability as an outsider to this tightly knit religious community. Through Friedman’s own vulnerable role-playing, we are prompted to reflect on the roles we play, the costumes we wear, the curls we put in our hair (and in the hair of our children), the beards we grow, and the sacred books we use that protect ourselves from the risk that our personal and communal lives lack meaning and value.

Friedman has pursued this deeply personal approach to role-playing and performance in his photographic practice throughout his career. For example, in Untitled (Chuck Close), 1998, Friedman impersonates the artist Chuck Close’s famous self-portrait drawing, mimicking the artist’s arrogance and self-confidence. Several years later, Friedman expands the range of this role-playing by imitating Chuck Close (or is he re-performing his own photographic event?) as his Hasidic alter ego in Untitled (Chasid), 2008. Friedman’s vocational identity as an artist (although, according to the art world, not yet a “real” artist like Close) is further deepened through his cultural and social identity as Jewish (although not a “real” Jew according to Hasidism). Both alter egos suggest the importance of these social roles and his struggle to fulfill them.

Friedman, however, does not confine his impersonations, role-playing, and performances to his photography. Over the past decade, he has played “Betsey Geffen,” an art gallery dealer who gives tours and tries to sell “Charley Friedman’s” work and “The Adenoid,” a gruff, pushy Jewish salesman. The latter is featured in a touching video performance, Felix, Flowers, Flags, and Poems (2001) that takes place in Chelsea with Rumi’s poetry and Felix Gonzalez-Torres’s candies.

Photograph of Betsey Geffen & Whitney curator Christopher Lew, New York. Courtesy of Gallery Diet, Miami, Florida.

Photograph of Betsey Geffen & Whitney curator Christopher Lew, New York. Courtesy of Gallery Diet, Miami, Florida.

A more recent persona is “Bitzalel Friedemann, ” who seems to have emerged from Friedman’s photographic impersonations. In a 2013 performance at the Sheldon Museum of Art, this new alter-ego “koshers” the high modernist art museum designed by Phillip Johnson (whose relationship to anti-Semitism is acknowledged) in a ritual performance that transforms the Sheldon into a sacred Jewish “temple” by hanging mezuzahs and singing Shabbat Kiddush., transforming the Sheldon into a sacred Jewish “temple.” Then as he meets his wife and daughter in one of the galleries, he returns to “Charley” as they enjoy a meal together, further transforming the public gallery into the intimacy of a home, where new social roles are assumed. Through this performance the social roles of the audience are also transformed from museumgoers, to religious believers, to dinner guests. Each of these transformations suggests social roles should function not as means of division and separation but as a way to offer communal hospitality.

Magic

One of the more peculiar works in The Western Code is Looking Into the Sun (2012), a hand-sewn little creature standing on a pedestal, facing a large, bright yellow-striped work on paper. Perhaps the figure is wearing a suit, an old worn-out suit, like a football team mascot or a child’s fuzzy pajamas. Crouched and with outstretched hands, the figure appears to (or pretends) to create, conjure, or even venerate the work on the wall. Oblivious to the ridiculousness of his dramatic posture, the creature is engrossed in this  shaman-like performance with unwavering confidence. The self-importance of this inflated gesture is softened by the presence of this little figure’s butt crack, making the endeavor endearing and lending it an innocence and vulnerability.

Friedman explored this experience of vulnerability and absurdity previously in Magic Powers (2011), a crudely formed nude figure who conjures some kind of power through his hands. The brilliance of this “trick” is tested by the figure’s embarrassing nudity—his black hairy armpits, pubic hair, and penis—which seems to contradict his claim to power.

Magic Powers, 2011, felt, metal, clay. Human: 9 x 3 x 2" Pods: 25 x 6". Courtesy of Gallery Diet, Miami, Florida.

Magic Powers, 2011, felt, metal, clay. Human: 9 x 3 x 2″ Pods: 25 x 6″. Courtesy of Gallery Diet, Miami, Florida.

And yet, despite their silliness, vulnerability, and absurdity—or, perhaps because of them—we trust these creatures and believe in their endeavors. In fact, Friedman creates the space for us to risk identifying with them. For Friedman, art is a magic trick. For it to work, both the artist and the viewer must believe it, must trust it. This is an important and abiding interest of Friedman’s—the self-delusion, impotency, vulnerability, and silliness of art. It would be too easy to regard this insight cynically, as if the artist is conning the viewer. Far from it, Friedman recognizes that his work, in order for it to “work” as art, depends on the viewer’s faith and willingness to believe in it. Friedman, however, always respects this risk to believe on the part of the viewer.

Perhaps this is to be expected from an artist who moved his family from Brooklyn to Lincoln, Nebraska just as his career as an artist was developing.

Geography

In The Western Code, several grey plasticine squirrels invade the gallery space, disrupting the pristine nature of the art gallery—breaking the illusion that the “white cube” is a cultural laboratory cut off from the banalities of day-to-day experience and emotional life. The squirrels might function as humorous ciphers for the emotional chaos and messiness of his personal life or even a reference to the constant presence of these creatures outside his studio in Nebraska. Humor is a crucial part of Friedman’s artistic practice, but it is rarely considered serious enough to be trusted in the contemporary art world. Aware of this distrust, Friedman also understands the power and mystery of laughter. The humor that saturates all of his work only becomes visible gradually, against the grain of the work of art’s presumed seriousness. In fact, Friedman’s humor only reveals itself fully to those who are willing to trust him. And moreover, the profound seriousness of his work is found precisely in and through its humor.

Family Portrait, 2013, C-Print, 30 x 45, Courtesy of Gallery Diet, Miami, Florida.

Family Portrait, 2013, C-Print, 30 x 45, Courtesy of Gallery Diet, Miami, Florida.

Friedman pursues this complex blend of emotions, risk, and vulnerability in Group Portrait (2013), which depicts he and his family not long after their move from Brooklyn to Nebraska. The family resembles fellow Midwesterner Grant Wood’s iconic American Gothic, facing us in the snow, ice, and cold, standing in front of a large white utility van with “Friedman Realty and Conceptual Art” stenciled on its side—a van that transports supplies and art, as well as advertising their real estate business which helps them pay the bills. This “realty” becomes an important part of the “reality” for the artist and his family—a cold, vulnerable, and uncomfortable reality, one filled with the sacrifices and compromises of art and life and the multiple (and often competing) social roles that Friedman plays: artist, husband, father, financial provider, supporter of his partner’s own career as an artist. It is precisely this discomfort and vulnerability—smuggled in through humor—and brought about by the compression of these vocations and the pressure of living them in a new geographic location that Friedman sought. That the family maintains their Brooklyn apartment is a testimony to their desire to preserve the tensions, contradictions, and challenges of maintaining these social roles.  According to the artist, he took several versions of this family portrait and decided on the one “he couldn’t bear to look at.”

From the beginning, with a smile

Friedman produced two early works while a resident at the Skowhegan School of Painting and Sculpture in 1995, launching the trajectory of his career. As the artist recalls, surrounded by egocentric, professionally ambitious, and extremely talented young artists, he responded by experimenting with what he called “gestures of psychological and emotional resonance.” These aesthetic experiences (Friedman still hesitates to call them “art”) are defined less by the discourses of art than by his creative response to the community’s highly charged and serious emotional atmosphere.

In One-Hour Smile (1995), Friedman set up a video camera, turned it on, sat down, and looked into it. Then he smiled. And he kept that smile for an hour. Watching this performance was my first encounter with Friedman’s work nearly twenty years ago. His full, open, remarkably generous smile was subjected to the pain and suffering of muscle twitches, tears, and all manner of physical and emotional torture.

Film still (40 minutes), from One Hour Smile, 1995, 60-minute video. Courtesy of Gallery Diet, Miami, Florida.

Film still (40 minutes), from One Hour Smile, 1995, 60-minute video. Courtesy of Gallery Diet, Miami, Florida.

This simple but profound performance is not “about” being happy (or the absurdity of being happy or the analysis of being happy). There is no room for irony or cynicism, no room for the smile that is really a condescending smirk, or an inside joke. One-Hour Smile embraces suffering; in fact, the smile even causes it. It is the artist’s commitment, his willful decision to smile—as an artist as a human being—that is the very source of his pain. His earnestness, not unlike that silly creature in Looking into the Sun, wins us over, making us believe in the importance and power of this absurd and futile act. As we watch him suffer, we cannot help but suffer with him.

The smile is a risky artistic gesture in an art world that too often hides pain, fear, and vulnerability under a furrowed brow, a frown of cynicism, or irony and theory. That vulnerable smile has been in, with, and under all of Friedman’s work—you can see the smile in the naked Hasid, the arrogant Chuck Close, and the middle-aged artist in a corny winter cap standing in the cold and snow with his family. His work asks only one thing from us—trust. But to do so we must become emotionally vulnerable; we must expose our gut. Friedman’s work has, for over twenty years, respected the risk involved in this commitment. And over time, his work may enable us to smile through our own fragility, vulnerability, and pain. Now, that would be generous. 

[1] St. Augustine, Confessions, Book X, xiv (21).

How Art Cares

“There’s not a moment of your day that you are not affected by an artist. Art is an integral part of our lives. Art is a principle way of communicating.”

 –Dean Renwick Field

Art is a conversation. The viewer steps into a relationship with a painting based upon a variety of visual factors which unfolds into an emotional or intellectual dialogue. The conversation begins when viewers pay careful attention to the visual impact manifested by shape, color, space and other elements. This spring, students, faculty and guests at Cairn University benefited from an opportunity for such conversation from not only viewing works of art by painter Dean Renwick Field, but also directly engaging with him while gathered to celebrate his work. The New Perspectives exhibit created an opportunity to dialogue, commune, and be changed by the presence of beauty, providing teaching moments among my freshman students.

A native of New Jersey, Field’s career in the arts integrated a variety of creative disciplines from architecture to graphic design to international aviation marketing to fine arts education. In addition, he is also a pianist and former pilot. Yet what strikes me the most about meeting him is the single driving force behind his work—an insatiable drive for excellence and a fervent desire to touch the human spirit. His view of the world and sense of calling flows through the canvas. His values are expressed in effortless simplicity. Everything about his work and person exudes quality and careful decision making, knowledge and balance, and humility and praise for the God whom he diligently strives to serve.

Solitude

 

Prior to the reception, I took my Arts & Culture First Year Program students down to the gallery to prepare for the artist’s visit. Their only assignment was to look, and take the time to truly notice and experience the work. There was a noticeable change of pace and noise level when they entered the exhibition space, in stark contrast to their usual hustle and bustle. My students moved slowly, frequently pausing in front of the paintings Solitude and The Walk. Field’s works invited and nudged them to calmly explore, sit, and reflect—to be cared for.

DSC_9976

Cheyenne

 

New Perspectives exudes a calming sense of security and quiet authority. Field’s paintings depict the complex beauty of nature in a seemingly simple design. In two of his paintings, This America and Cheyenne, images of just a few positive shapes and soft gradations call the viewer to consider the negative space and asks us to complete the narrative or potential idea. Dean hints at the narrative, providing the viewer clues for consideration. Through Cheyenne’s colors, composition, and even title itself, Field respectfully brings to attention the relationship between stately expressed elements, the call for stewardship of nature, and Native American culture. A white moon is perfectly balanced on the white horizon line that nearly disappears just before it swells upward, forming a rise of the land. I challenged my students not only to consider Dean’s methods in composing this work, but its communicative invitation to the viewer to care and stewardship.

DSC_9975

This America

 

Their thoughts directed our attention to This America. Field’s handling of the interplay between the midway negative space and land mass with a stout and nearly square geometric framing embodies the spirit of freedom and unbridled enthusiasm. The proud red, white, and blue hints of Rothko’s color psychology, gently glows within as an entire dwelling. “Do you feel anything?” I ask them. “Do you care?”

Other works demonstrate Field’s painterliness—his illustrative bend to realism and his connectedness to the human viewer and the natural world. The Twig generates a thoughtful visual conversation as the barren tree protrudes ever slightly into our space and the leftmost rock form layers toward the viewer in front of the other carefully crafted boundaries. The space sinks backwards following a directional force led by the dove towards the subtle rays breaking through the looming yet controlled clouds. I walked away from the piece wanting to sit on the ground at the roots of the tree.

At the artist reception, Dean ended his brief introduction with a simple comment, “I paint for the idea that it may make you stop and think for a little bit. The care of a human being is art.” That single expressed statement put words to the earnest hospitality viewers experience in the presence of Dean Field’s work. At the end of the night, one of my students, Maggie, approached the artist and came back a few minutes later inspired and challenged. “His advice and encouragement motivates me to be wise with how I spend my time, skills, and life,” she remarked. That brief encounter between the artist and an impressionable college freshman is the reason why we at Cairn don’t just show work, but also create the space for dialogue with it, the artist, and each other. If you’re near Philadelphia, keep your eye out for future artist visits on our campus. If you’re not, find galleries near you which host their artists, grab a few friends, and take the opportunity to dialogue with the artist, their work, and each other.

Photo Credit: David Steininger.
Location: Connie A. Eastburn Gallery, Cairn University, Langhorne, PA

Questioning Our Vision

In collaboration with Christians in the Visual Arts, The Curator is publishing previews of scholarly papers from the 2015 CIVA conference “Between Two Worlds: Contemporary Art and the Church” to be held at Calvin College on June 11-14. This paper comes from the Theology and Visual Arts Track.

 

Very little has been said about the unique and timely vision of David Hammons. Much of Hammons’ work investigates vision and visibility, seeing in general. Hammons’ historical catalogue over the last forty years has dealt with the narratization of black bodies and black culture in the American landscape and imagination. While taking cues from Hammons’ broader canon of work, I want to primarily investigate a single painting: How Ya Like Me Now? In this work, Hammons is concerned with the theological task of seeing, of having eyes to see, and Hammons chiefly interested in complicating our understanding of seeing, as he aims to reveal the loaded, politically-charged and value-laden nature of the task. How Ya Like Me Now? sheds light on the politics of value inscribed into vision, into visibility itself. What gets seen and what does not? Who notices? And what is at stake in such issues?

The Hammons Legacy

Hammons’ work has been investigating blackness, black bodies, and vision since the 1960s. Be it the Spade series, Higher Goals, or even the Bliz-aard Ball Sale, Hammons has been interrogating issues of racialized bodies and the ways in which they are narrated. Rather than speaking to the nature of the black body as such, though, Hammons work is primarily interested in the ways in which those bodies begin to take on certain meanings and inscriptions. That is, he is interested in certain ways of seeing those bodies.

Some of Hammons’ work is constructed out of certain artifacts and objects—both bodily and culturally—that might or might not be seen by different viewers. These works curiously involve half-eaten chicken wings, cheap wine bottles, and strands of African-American hair from barbershops around New York City. The fascinating, layered use of these abject, culturally-inscribed materials is certainly socioeconomic commentary on black perception and cultural rituals. Perhaps most interestingly, though, is the subtlety with which these objects are made present; they risk not being seen. Both because of their size and their cultural significance, Hammons has always been aware of the possibility of his work being missed, being overlooked or un-seen, even in the midst of his popularity. And this sort of tension—this liminal space between that which is seen and that which is not—is arguably where Hammons is most at home. This is precisely why artist Lorraine O’Grady pointed out that “Hammons tries to make art in which white people can’t see themselves.”

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How Ya Like Me Now?

All of these tensions and questions seem to come to a head in a singular work of Hammons’.  How Ya Like Me Now? is, and has been for some time, a controversial work. The 20ft. wide oil painting is a depiction of Jesse Jackson, a particular rendering of the man whom both demonstrates and confronts a particular way of seeing. Unlike the original campaign portrait that How Ya Like Me Now? draws on, this 1989 rendition features a white Jesse Jackson, carefully depicted with blonde hair and blue eyes. To the bottom right of the image, we find a spray-painted text, rhetorically asking the viewer, “How Ya Like Me Now?” The text looks like the final, sloppy feature from a previously careful vandal, and it is uniquely, confrontationally positioned to question anyone looking on. While this piece is now a historical artifact, it’s important  to remember that it was constructed in the height of Jackson’s influence, in a very different Washington D.C. than what we know today. This is precisely why the piece was quite controversial in its early manifestations.

The original piece was supposed to be installed as an anonymous billboard in a D.C. parking lot as an initiative from the Washington Project for the Arts. The piece itself resembled a graffitied campaign poster, and there was no indication that this billboard had anything to do with Hammons. Removed from the gallery space, bereft of any informative placard, and ultimately placed into the masses, this piece could be read as a cruel, tasteless object of bigotry against one of the nation’s foremost black leaders. Things get all the more interesting, though, when we consider the fact that a group of young black kids destroyed the piece with sledgehammers just minutes after it was installed. The piece was sent back to Hammons for repair, and it was eventually displayed indoors after Hammons made the necessary repairs.

Hammons is an infamously mysterious artist. We ultimately can’t know whether or not he orchestrated or even commissioned the vandalism of the piece. There can be no doubt, though, that its destruction plays a defining role in our interpretation of the piece, in the implications and meanings of the piece itself, which would eventually go on to sell for 18 million dollars and wind up in a private collection. It was only after the destruction of the piece–a destruction that resulted from a certain vision–that it was reconstructed and properly installed into a gallery space, bearing witness to the values-laden nature of our vision. The mixed and tumultuous destruction/re-creation and installation of How Ya Like Me Now? speaks to the complex process of seeing that Hammons is so keen to investigate. The response to the work—i.e. its destruction—then, ultimately demands and legitimizes the power and necessity of its presence, of its ability to speak to whoever struggles to have eyes to see.

Vision/Seeing

In addition to investigating blackness, Hammons has been somewhat fascinated with the idea of seeing, with the process of things coming into sight. At his L&M Arts show in 2011, Hammons hung abstract paintings to the wall of the gallery space, only to cover most of them entirely with ripped and shredded tarps he supposedly found on the street. Touching on this point, ART-now editor Andrew Russeth argues that,

“Ambiguity has entered Hammons’ art in an even more purposive, physical way of late, as in his much-discussed 2011 show at L&M Arts in New York. The exhibition consisted of a number of punchy, swirling abstract paintings partially obscured by found tarpaulins or plastic sheets—the stuff of makeshift shelters, and the street—or, in one case, a hulking wooden armoire.

Take another instance, in which drawings made of Kool-Aid powder were concealed behind a curtain at a MOMA installation, only viewed through private, special appointments. By taking that which is discarded, that which is found in the alleyway and constructing it into something else, by simply placing it within the gallery space, Hammons creates something new, opens up the thing itself to a new way of reading and to multiple interpretations. It’s a way of pointing to obscured histories and discourses typically kept in the alleyway, in the barbershop. What sort of re-telling straight-talk is available in those liminal spaces that Hammons is inviting into the gallery?

Hammons has realized, perhaps before most, that value precedes sight. Similar to the way in which the values of the historian dictate what events and facts get re-told and thereby historicized, the values of the seer largely determine what gets noticed. Seeing itself is a loaded, value-laden process. We remain trapped in our own ideologies, our own subjectivities, prejudices and places within history. These are the dynamics of vision, of seeing, of what gets seen and then consequentially how that limited scope gets narrated within our own broader narratival framework. And this makes all the more sense when we begin to read Hammons’ investigation of race through the use of abject objects along these lines, particularly if he is making art in which white folks fail to see things, be they themselves or non-normed possibilities.

This notion is what makes the infamous Cheselden Case of 1727 so fascinating and troubling. First published in the Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society of London, this study examined the vision of a recently healed, thirteen year old boy. Because the boy was seeing for the first time at the age of thirteen, the idea at play was that his vision, supposedly free of any sort of associative mechanics, was considered to be ‘pure,’ the norming norm. On the topic, Matt Elia writes, “His sight ostensibly granted philosophers and scientists an immediacy of access into the nature of sensual and especially visual perception, untainted by society and its contingencies.” Elia points out that this particular study, which ultimately pointed to the ‘natural’ fear the young white boy experienced upon seeing black bodies:

“was no sideshow or curiosity; it was an event of serious intellectual and scientific consideration in its day. And because, whether we wish to or not, we remain inside a shared historical trajectory with these figures of Western thought, it has remained an event worthy of ongoing critical consideration in our own day as well.

This study is of interest to our larger investigation of Hammons’ project for a number of reasons. Our socioeconomic status, our hyper-racialized bodies, operating according to varying narratives from various sources of power and ideological vantage points, play a massive role in determining how and what we see, as well as the value we ascribe to the things lying before us. The cultural force at work in this historicized pseudo-science is not any sort of side-stepping distraction. Rather, the findings of this test—cited and lauded by the heights of eighteenth century European intellectuals—demonstrates the way in which pathologies and ideologies of whiteness, as Elia concludes, “play a central, rather than incidental, role in the emerging aesthetic and scientific rationalities of Western modernity.”

What is it we value? What is it we are looking for, and what are we seeing at the cost of other details? These are the questions Hammons himself is asking. Hammons is keenly aware of the different ways we see things. His entire project has determined and borne witness to that. But Hammons does not stop there; this is merely his jumping off point. It is no stretch to say that he plays the role of specter to the contemporary art world, perpetually coming and going, sliding in and out of vision, beckoning that space to more open, inviting more just horizons and possibilities. He is aiming to, as was performed so clearly through the unique life of How Ya Like Me Now?, challenge the ways we see. He is confronting us, trying to teach us to see, to see a people whose lives have been shaped by a radically different set of socioeconomic realities, myths, norms and histories than that of dominant American culture of whiteness.

Having Eyes to See

The spirit of this new vision strikes at the heart of Jesus’ own mission. Jesus spoke both explicitly and implicitly about this sort of seeing, about having eyes to see (Mark 8). The parables themselves operate as this Hammons-esque sort of encoded telling. Even the disciples, the ones Jesus empowered—struggled to see and understand (Luke 8). The gospels are riddled with stories of people failing to see that infinite being made plain, even while it was unfolding in front of their own eyes.

Perhaps all the more interesting, though, is that this is not a historically contingent possibility. Jesus is quite clear in Matthew 25 that such mis-sights will characterize a certain populace of those of us who, according to their own interpretations and judgments, are in and of the kingdom of God. Jesus explains that this particular group—in failing to see Jesus in the their brothers and sisters—failed him, and in so doing missed that which Jesus was so concerned about. In looking at our brothers and sisters, they failed to see the infinite made plain. And this remains a distinct possibility for both you and me.

How Ya Like Me Now? operates according to the same parable-like dynamics, or what David Dark refers to as “cosmic plainspeak.”[1] In revealing the process and nature of our seeing as value-laden and culturally-inscribed, How Ya Like Me Now? speaks to both the nature of seeing and the content of a newly re-visioned sight. That is, in and through the disruption of the popular narrative on sight and racial narratization, the piece actually puts forward an alternative politic of sight and vision, a new way of seeing that bears witness to an unspoken treasure hidden in a field, a treasure that just might warrant the selling of everything we have. This is the timely vision of David Hammons. To what extent will we recognize ourselves in that white, blonde and blue image, in that which has been inscribed onto the surface? Or will we begin to peer beneath that paint?

Hammons has a legendary ability to influence his viewers; this is precisely why so much of his work has been controversial and so highly affective. It’s as if he can, both in his absence and through a preconceived notion, position pieces and space itself so as to determine the experience of the viewer. The experience of being subsumed, of being called into question is itself the theological vision and power at play in his work. Hammons, in positioning the piece from the all-too-common space of the roadside billboard and transitioning it into the gallery space, is trying to train us, trying to reveal something to us about the nature of our seeing. And in doing so, he’s ultimately bearing witness to what it might mean to have eyes to see, as well as positioning some things that might be seen by such eyes. Maybe the only truly proper reception of How Ya Like Me Now? is through prayerful reflection, by trying to cultivate a new form of sight, of seeing itself.

 

 Citations

David Dark, The Sacredness of Questioning Everything (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2009), 33.

FROM HOSTILITY TO HOSPITALITY

This article is part of the publishing partnership between The Curator and Christians in the Visual Arts. It originally appeared in SEEN Journal.

“No real dialogue is possible between somebody and a nobody.”– Henri J. M. Nouwen, Reaching Out

“PLAY AT YOUR OWN RISK.”

Such a warning could be suitably placed alongside many of the participatory artworks of recent years. Indeed museum goers were understandably unprepared for the meals that Rirkrit Tiravanija offered, the playful environments of Carsten Höller, or the sometimes awkward encounters curated by Tino Sehgal. As a style or a movement, these works are notoriously difficult to categorize. Often associated with Nicolas Bourriaud’s influential text Relational Aesthetics or the titles “participatory art” or “art and social practice,” this tribe of artists has managed to expand creatively on the legacy of the performance art and the conceptual art of previous generations. Despite garnering large, curated exhibitions at leading museums and infiltrating the major biennials, the perceived novelty and broad appeal of this movement has been harshly scrutinized by critics like Claire Bishop and Hal Foster.

The artworks of Felix Gonzalez-Torres (1957-96, Cuban born, American), however, have managed to outlast the unchecked enthusiasm of relational art and sustain a broad audience of critics and scholars many years after his death. While his paper stacks and candy spills –undoubtedly his most well-known bodies of work–cannot escape easy associations, these works bear as much or more connection to minimalism and conceptual art as they do to relational works. Like many artists associated with the movement, Gonzalez-Torres invites forms of participation from his audience, but these modes of engagement are but one of the many layers within the matrix of references and allusions within his work. Gonzalez-Torres stands out from this generation because the participatory encounter is merely a means and not the end. For this reason, his works offer something more–something beyond a fresh reorientation of the gallery as a public space, something more tender and human.

Perhaps the least considered of his works, the beaded curtains evoke this ‘more’ with eerie resonance. In all his works, we find an unlikely humaneness embedded in the most everyday objects, but the curtain works provide a particularly poignant example of his humanizing touch. Felix Gonzalez-Torres’ curtains present a generative form of hospitality unparalleled among contemporary artworks, and their novel hospitality evidences a dual character: at once, generous and confrontational. The work remains open but not empty, humble but not self-defeating. Through the curtain, we encounter a somebody rather than a nobody.

WHY CURTAINS?

As a specific set of works, the beaded curtains have a singular and moving antecedent evident in his “Untitled” (Loverboy), which was first exhibited as a part of the momentous rotating show “Every Week There Is Something Different” at Andrea Rosen Gallery in 1991. Consisting of simple curtains of sheer blue fabric covering the windows of a gallery or museum space, “Untitled” (Loverboy) showcases the exquisitely soft touch of his sculptural forms. Primarily an accessory for the space, this installation refuses to dominate its environment. Rather it nestles into the existing features of the room. Like his wall portraits or candy spills, the curtains merely map onto the structures already present. Perhaps if the windows can open, then the curtains can respond to that feature of the space. By resisting dramatic displays of size or color or shape, they transform such spaces through negation–announcing what’s not there.

Felix Gonzalez-Torres "Untitled" (Chemo), 1991 Strands of beads and hanging device Dimensions vary with installation © The Felix Gonzalez-Torres Foundation Courtesy of Andrea Rosen Gallery, New York Installation view of: Not Quiet. Galerie Jennifer Flay, Paris. 21 Mar. – 18 Apr. 1992. Cur. Nicolas Bourriaud. Catalogue.

Felix Gonzalez-Torres
“Untitled” (Chemo), 1991
Strands of beads and hanging device
Dimensions vary with installation
© The Felix Gonzalez-Torres Foundation
Courtesy of Andrea Rosen Gallery, New York
Installation view of: Not Quiet. Galerie Jennifer Flay, Paris. 21 Mar. – 18 Apr. 1992. Cur. Nicolas Bourriaud. Catalogue.

Adjusting the space in such small, restrained increments, Gonzalez- Torres’ work creates a profound mood in the room and invites stillness and reflection. Simple and unassuming, these curtains can be overlooked by an impatient gallery visitor. Whereas some of his works necessitate a consumer, this piece merely calls for a witness–some presence to feel the absence it reflects. As the air catches these faint sheets of fabric, the forms shift in that everyday way that we normally ignore.

Held with fresh attention, the movements of these curtains appear alien, and in stark contrast to their lifeless suspension, as sails on the breeze they give tangible form to the emptiness of the room for a few, brief moments. When the wind changes, they resume their delicate vigilance, and we are more aware of the space’s void. We are left with our solitude.

Why curtains? Why make emptiness perceptible with these forms? A few answers could be given. We could probe Gonzalez-Torres’ reliance on the strictures of minimalism or the appropriation tactics of the readymade, but perhaps the emotional resonances of the work are more central. Curtains are emblems of domesticity; they invoke a sense of home, a place of rest, like a bedroom or its surrogate in a hotel or a hospital. These curtains merely suggest such associations without dictating anything, but if they are there, then what should we feel? Should we feel an acknowledgement of loneliness? Do we find here some room for grieving–for feeling our losses and mourning them?

This, it seems, is the very invitation he offers.

As something of a landmark piece in his production, “Untitled” (Loverboy), 1989 remains perhaps the most recognizable example of what numerous critics have described as the “elegiac” character of Gonzalez-Torres’ artworks. Beyond merely a material or structural resemblance, however, their connection to the beaded curtains is imaginative and poetic. Most of all perhaps, the somber mood conveyed by the blue sheer curtains helps to balance and steady the inherent playfulness of the beaded curtains and in that way protect the less playful associations that the artist allows in them.

Felix Gonzalez-Torres "Untitled" (Blood), 1992 Strands of beads and hanging device Dimensions vary with installation © The Felix Gonzalez-Torres Foundation Courtesy of Andrea Rosen Gallery, New York Installation view of:  Passages: Felix Gonzalez-Torres. Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. 17 Sep. 2011 – Jan. 2015. Cur. Jen Mergel.

Felix Gonzalez-Torres
“Untitled” (Blood), 1992
Strands of beads and hanging device
Dimensions vary with installation
© The Felix Gonzalez-Torres Foundation
Courtesy of Andrea Rosen Gallery, New York
Installation view of: Passages: Felix Gonzalez-Torres. Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. 17 Sep. 2011 – Jan. 2015. Cur. Jen Mergel.

 LIFE AND DEATH THROUGH THE CURTAIN

During the years 1991 to 1995, Felix Gonzalez-Torres created five beaded curtain works. Some were key pieces in major international exhibitions in the artist’s lifetime, and some were quietly shown alone in small gallery shows. While the pieces consist of simply “strands of beads and hanging device,” the aggregate effect of these curtains produces a playful but potentially disturbing impression. Consider their ambiguous titles. This class of works includes: “Untitled” (Chemo), 1991; “Untitled” (Blood), 1992; “Untitled” (Beginning), 1994; “Untitled” (Golden), 1995; and “Untitled” (Water), 1995. While the parenthetical references within these titles may suggest a more abstract or generalized theme for each piece, these curtains are no less layered with multiple meanings and allusions than the rest of his oeuvre.

Like all of his manifestable pieces, the artist provided for the future life of these works by generating specific certificates for each one. These certificates are the property of collectors and lay out the essential instructions for manifesting the piece. In the case of the beaded curtains, the certificates specify the type and size of bead to be used along with the colors and patterns in which they should be displayed. The materials for the piece should be sourced locally and easily. All curtains should hang the entire distance from ceiling to floor and not touch or drag on the floor when visitors pass through them. Gonzalez-Torres tried to keep the installation of these works as straightforward and undemanding as possible, and the end results are simple, beautiful obstacles.

The beaded curtains transform the art space in a much more direct fashion than “Untitled” (Loverboy), 1989. With these works, much of the subtlety is gone, and the artistic gesture is confrontational, even antagonistic. The most important aspect of the installation instructions, as specified in the certificates for the artworks, is the curtain’s strategic placement in the gallery or museum space. All curtains must bisect some entryway or transitional space in the gallery. To move forward, visitors must move through the curtains. In this respect, the beaded curtains remain the artist’s most confrontational work.

The color combinations and patterns represented in the actual strands of beads are more complex and considered than they first appear. For instance, in the last curtain piece “Untitled” (Water), 1995 Gonzalez-Torres did not merely select one remarkable blue bead to be used throughout, but rather the artist’s inventory lists the materials as “blue, clear and silver plastic beads.” By setting the ratio to include more blue beads, the overall look of the curtain reflects the blue of water, but patterning it with clear and silver beads creates a more lively visual impression for the participant. These patterns help to give life to the ambiguous associations in the titles. Water is referenced here not only by its material identifiers but also in the liveliness of its remarkable forms. At the same time, however, the artist’s mixture of colored beads seems to suggest an essential mixture within the thing alluded to by the beads.

The beaded curtains invite a range of responses from museum goers. Because of their placement within the space, all visitors must interact with them to some degree, but the playful appearance of the work and the material resemblance to so many doorways in 1970s homes keep many responses light and fun, perhaps mostly inconsequential. Like children, we all enjoy breaking the surface integrity of the beaded wall and feeling the strands brush across our bodies as we step through them. While all visitors can enjoy the fun of interacting with the strings of beads, others are aware of the multiple other associations with “passing through” the curtain. They are subtle but never shy about it. Passing through the gorgeous sheet of “green, clear and silver” in “Untitled” (Beginning), 1994; the viewer is invited to imagine an awakening, a renewal, a rebirth. Such are the hopes embedded in that gorgeous green curtain. As an imagined veil between life and death, the beaded curtains enact a formidable interchange of play and ritual. In this way, Gonzalez-Torres animates an empty and clichéd form with new possibilities and at the same time profound conundrums. Rather than merely contemplating loss with the mournful dance of “Untitled” (Loverboy), 1989, the beaded curtains help us enter the mourning more fully.

CONFRONTATION AND CONTAGION

Again, with these works, invitation turns to confrontation, but confrontation yields surprising gifts. Passing through Gonzalez-Torres’ curtains not only provides an imaginative passage to rebirth and renewal, as two particular pieces, the first of this series–“Untitled” (Chemo), 1991 and “Untitled” (Blood), 1992–embrace the pain of disease and death. By reversing the benignly positive experience of the other curtains, “Untitled” (Chemo) and “Untitled” (Blood) affect their participants in a completely unique way: they infect us with empathy. These contaminations issue from two related but distinct realizations. More pointed and direct, “Untitled” (Chemo) and “Untitled” (Blood) deliver encounters that we would likely resist if not for the artist’s powerful invitation.

Felix Gonzalez-Torres "Untitled" (Blood), 1992 Strands of beads and hanging device Dimensions vary with installation © The Felix Gonzalez-Torres Foundation Courtesy of Andrea Rosen Gallery, New York Installation view of: Felix Gonzalez-Torres: Traveling. The Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, the Smithsonian Institution, Washington, D.C. 16 June – 11 Sept. 1994. Co-organized by Amada Cruz, Ann Goldstein and Suzanne Ghez.

Felix Gonzalez-Torres
“Untitled” (Blood), 1992
Strands of beads and hanging device
Dimensions vary with installation
© The Felix Gonzalez-Torres Foundation
Courtesy of Andrea Rosen Gallery, New York
Installation view of: Felix Gonzalez-Torres: Traveling. The Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, the Smithsonian Institution, Washington, D.C. 16 June – 11 Sept. 1994. Co-organized by Amada Cruz, Ann Goldstein and Suzanne Ghez.

In similar fashion to the other curtain works, “Untitled” (Chemo) presents a unique mixture of its own. Its inventory description reads, “white, clear and silver plastic beads and metal rod”–simple enough, but powerful in what it evokes. Unlike all the other curtains, this one does not provide a wall of color through which to move. Unassuming and nearly blank, the appearance of this curtain pairs well with the sterile and austere environment of the health care system and the workaday world of blithely administering deadly medicines to innumerable patients. By bracketing the majority of white bulbs with small drops of clear and silver beads, Gonzalez-Torres evokes the material qualities of the therapy itself. In this precise way, “Untitled” (Chemo) suggests the awful presence of some intruder, the unsettling thought of some hostile parasite moving almost undetected throughout the body. In no way a literalist depiction of the medical process, this curtain recalls the uncomfortable prospect of injecting poison in hopes of eliminating another poison. As an abstraction–killing the killer inside you–chemotherapy is devastating even to contemplate. Agreeing to undergo such treatment signifies a level of desperation that would cripple most people.

What is most astounding and overwhelming about “Untitled” (Chemo) is its pallid contingency. In contrast to the other curtains, it collaborates significantly with its surroundings. More like a screen that reflects what is already present in the space, it gives off very different effects based on the amount of light in the space along with its shape and size, and thus signals either hope or dread. There is no better illustration of this elasticity of effect than the 1994 collaboration that Gonzalez-Torres undertook with Rudolf Stingel at the Neue Galerie am Landesmuseum Joanneum, Graz, Austria. For the exhibition, the artist installed two lengths of “Untitled” (Chemo) at the entrance and exit to the rooms and corridors in which Stingel had installed his signature monochrome carpets. In this instance, Stingel elected to use pitch-black carpets through- out the installation, and in their chameleon-like way, the curtains of Gonzalez-Torres adjusted themselves appropriately. Because the lights in the space were fully dimmed and the carpets absorbed so much light in the space, the curtains simultaneously beckoned and warned visitors against entry into the ominous void. While the Baroque interiors of the Austrian museum echo with opulence, luxury, and frivolity, the installation rendered the architecture mute and recast the space as absurd and trite. The dark passage proved a superior example of the curtain’s inherent ambiguity. Reflecting on the sense of internal conflict accompanying interaction with their space, Francesco Bonami concludes in his catalog essay that the installation prompts us to recall that, “we are condemned to hope.”

Indeed, that impasse represents the full poignancy of “Untitled” (Chemo). Up to and at the very point of death, we must admit our own fragility and contingency. We resist that reality in a myriad of ways, but in a broken world such moments of painful clarity intrude on us often without warning. In his quiet way, the artist forces us to recognize our fragility. For a moment, facing the horrific uncertainty of chemotherapy is not the solitary challenge of an AIDS patient struggling to understand his disease and somehow survive the criminally slow efforts of the medical community nor is it the unlucky fate of someone with a terminal cancer diagnosis. Rather, the uncertainty recalled here is, in part, the vocation of all life. As the artist allows us to experience it in this playful but ominous curtain, every person must at some point or other consider the course of their existence. We must feel the trajectory of our lives. The fear of death or the hope for survival animate daily life, but this often goes unnoticed.

Uncovering the vulnerability of our lives is but one service that Gonzalez-Torres renders those who encounter his work. With “Untitled” (Blood) he goes further to expose us to an emotional contagion. More than any of his other curtains, this curtain makes the experiential component of these pieces veer away from a generic nobody and toward a specific somebody. What is more intimate than blood, the life force of the body? But in an age of alarm over AIDS, what appears more threatening?

In his essay “The Everyday Art of Felix Gonzalez-Torres,” the critic David Deitcher employs the term “hemophobia” to name the backdrop of paranoia and the unbridled fear of blood at the height of the AIDS crisis. Indeed, for any person having reached sexual maturity by the early to mid 1990s, contact with another person’s blood became a source of deep and almost irrational fear. As new celebrities and public figures emerged with their own lethal connections to the disease and as hopes for medical relief for the afflicted–let alone a cure–seemed out of reach, a profound malaise and even pessimism descended on generations of young Americans. The fear of blood remained at the center of that obsession. Gonzalez-Torres’ “Untitled” (Blood) delivers both a confrontation with and a means of overcoming that “hemophobia.” While his cure offers no medical advantage, the personal health benefits are potent for one’s emotional life.

“Untitled” (Blood) functions like all of his beaded curtains–simple yet striking to behold, delicate but playful to the touch. With its own mixture of red and clear plastic beads, it is–like any of his curtains–barely there. The combination of colors, however, speaks to something more sinister than even the chemical make-up illustrated by “Untitled” (Chemo). The color pattern of this curtain begins with six red beaded strands followed by one clear strand and in its appearance is more striking as a pattern than what we see in any of the others. Beyond merely referencing the complex makeup of our blood (something less commonly understood prior to the onset of the AIDS crisis), the presence of clear strands alongside so many strands of red evokes a curious unease and mimics the preoccupation of so many patients keeping up with their white blood cell counts. This preoccupation is a larger theme in Gonzalez-Torres’ work and provides the basis for a number of minimally graphed drawings on paper exhibited toward the end of his life like “Untitled”(9 Days of Bloodwork–Steady Decline and False Hope), 1993. Does the presence of his clear beaded strand suggest a depleted white blood cell count hint at contaminated blood? Perhaps, but the allusions and metaphors present in Gonzalez-Torres’ work never satisfies any simple explanation. Uncertainty over the blood’s hostility is certainly part of it.

Like his other curtains, visitors are required to pass through “Untitled” (Blood) in order to reach the other side. By design, the artist prevents visitors from avoiding the confrontation. For those who want to connect the experience of his lighthearted and playful curtain with the network of meanings it embodies, the invitation goes out broadly. For those who recognize the distinctive works of this artist, the whole story is there–a big, open story that Felix Gonzalez-Torres invites us to hear again and again. Rather than a political accusation or social indictment, we must face the bare facts–an artist’s dying of AIDS after losing his partner to the same disease. The awkward confrontation, leads to a surprising gift: renewed empathy. Here, we break the wall of beaded colors and cross the threshold of hospitality. We transgress the wall that separates the faceless, suffering stranger from the familiar, accepted beloved. Like making introductions between new friends, the gift of “Untitled” (Blood) is a fresh confidence for meeting others in their profound dignity and difference.

On more than a few occasions, Gonzalez-Torres explained in interviews how the particular con- tours of his practice were about resisting a direct representation of the AIDS sufferer. The characteristically soft touch of Gonzalez-Torres’ work must be seen in contrast to the injuriously controversial or the painfully didactic art of other contemporary artists addressing the AIDS crisis–artists like David Wojnarowicz, Robert Mapplethorpe, Gregg Bordowitz, or Nan Goldin. In conversation with the artist Ross Bleckner, he explained himself this way, “What I’m trying to say is that we cannot give the powers that be what they want, what they expect from us. Some homophobic senator is going to have a very hard time trying to explain to his constituency that my work is homoerotic or pornographic, but if I were to do a performance with HIV blood— that’s what he wants, that’s what the rags expect because they can sensationalize that, and that’s what’s disappointing.” The particular show in mind was the three part exhibition “Felix Gonzalez-Torres: Traveling,” which spent time in Chicago, L.A., and Washington D.C. In the nation’s capital, the artist made sure to display his most poignant beaded curtains “Untitled” (Chemo) and “Untitled” (Blood). They were never shown together before nor since that time.

PASSING THROUGH

Since the artist’s death in 1996, little has changed with respect to the beaded curtains. They are still a favorite of many visitors. Recently, all five curtains have been a part of a special exhibition entitled “Passages: Felix Gonzalez-Torres” at the Linde Family Wing for Contemporary Art at the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston that continues through January 2015. Interestingly, the sequence for displaying the curtains seems random and unconsidered. The order of their showing was “Untitled” (Beginning), “Untitled” (Golden), “Untitled” (Water), “Untitled” (Blood), and “Untitled” (Chemo), which feels anachronistic and lacks a clear theme or narrative. The seemingly arbitrary choices behind this special exhibition beg the question: Beyond their mass appeal and enjoyment factor, what is the enduring value of the beaded curtains?

Here, I return to the late priest and spiritual writer Henri Nouwen for guidance. With a somewhat surprising turn in his classic Reaching Out, Nouwen describes authentic and meaningful hospitality as both receptivity and confrontation. By confrontation, he means the assertive presence of a some- body rather than an indistinct, supposedly neutral nobody. He explains, “Confrontation results from the articulate presence, the presence within boundaries, of the host to the guest by which he offers himself as a point of orientation and a frame of reference. We are not hospitable when we leave our house to strangers and let them use it any way they want. An empty house is not a hospitable house. In fact, it quickly becomes a ghost house, making the stranger feel uncomfortable.” This balance of receptivity and confrontation, as Nouwen helpfully clarifies, is the essence of hospitality’s risk, and without such risks, how could hospitality ever prove itself?

Indeed, the artworks of Gonzalez-Torres are not “empty houses.” They are invitingly spacious and roomy, yet never vacuous. The imaginative empathy of the artist is surely there, but he leaves plenty of room for visitors to take part on their own terms, with their own concerns. With their strangely captivating blend of pretty playfulness and somber mourning, the beaded curtains showcase the artist’s witness to the power of personal hospitality like no other. Even devastating delights like “Untitled” (Chemo) and “Untitled” (Blood) invite us to inhabit, for at least a moment, the story of someone else–a someone defined, just as we are all, by love and loss. In one of only a few talks given by the artist during his tragically brief life, Felix Gonzalez-Torres pleaded with his fellow avant-garde to resist the traps of sensationalism and find more humane modes of communication. He made this plea in hopes that, “Maybe in this way, our voice of opposition will be a more complex voice–less easy to dissect and categorize.” It is safe to assume that his voice resonates so deeply because he was able to harness the most powerful and effective weapons of opposition: empathy, shared experience, and hospitality.

Thanks are due to the Center for Faculty Development at Union University and their generous support in providing a Pew Research Grant to undertake the research represented here. Also, special thanks are due to Emilie Keldie and the staff of the Felix Gonzalez-Torres Foundation for their amazing hospitality and remarkable assistance in this research project.

From the Roster: Santiago Escobar-Jaramillo

Every Tuesday afternoon, we are showcasing an individual artist recognized for their unique voice, ideas and process. Once a month, a featured artist will be selected by Rebecca Locke, a New York City-based artist and curator, who develops collaborative and artist-led projects.

Curator’s introduction:

Santiago Escobar-Jaramillo’s work is marked by his craft as an architect, defined by his use of space, by his understanding of construct, lines and placement. He appropriates the environment right in front of him, just where he stands—buildings, steps, floors, walls—to create scenarios, and so doing, asks the viewer what they see?

He plays with scale, he plays with unexpected elements, and by using the insignificant—objects and toys—he appropriates the innocent to show the horror of war, of loss, of uncertainty. The series INVIS!BLES exposes the human cost of war, inviting us to consider displaced people, their ‘not knowing’, their ‘not fully living’. Through this series Escobar-Jaramillo draws attention to the suffering of those who have been affected by war over the last six decades in his native Colombia, and in this context the cold reality of his staged scenes is humanizing.

Hombresolo, kidnapping Utopia / Hombresolo, utopía de un secuestro from INVIS!BLES 35 mm C-Print, metallized paper, 2007 80 cm x 116 cm

Hombresolo, kidnapping Utopia / Hombresolo, utopía de un secuestro from INVIS!BLES
35 mm C-Print, metallized paper, 2007
80 cm x 116 cm

The forest of tools, for example, in Hombresolo, kidnapping Utopia, depicting a row of trees, symbolizes the coldness of the jungle, the image visualizing a utopian scenery which reflects the pain not merely of kidnapped individuals, but through their absence, the trauma suffered by their families and also society.

Under the sea, upside love / Abajo del Mar, Arriba el Amor from INVIS!BLES Digital print,  metallized paper, 2007 100 cm x 150 cm  

Under the sea, upside love / Abajo del Mar, Arriba el Amor from INVIS!BLES
Digital print, metallized paper, 2007
100 cm x 150 cm

Under the sea, upside love / Abajo del Mar, Arriba el Amor, an image made during an intervention outside the University of London’s Goldsmith College, through which the artist brought the brutal reality of war to viewers in London: a soldier, leg amputated by a mine, waits for the sun, for an answer to cancel out the grief and the cold of war.

He who invented this Nativity was sole / El que inventó esta Navidad estaba solo from INVIS!BLES Digital print, printed in metallized paper, 2008 90 cm x 130 cm

He who invented this Nativity was sole / El que inventó esta Navidad estaba solo from INVIS!BLES
Digital print, printed in metallized paper, 2008
90 cm x 130 cm

He who invented this Nativity was sole / El que inventó esta Navidad estaba solo’ explores the loneliness of Decembers for kidnapped people held in the Colombian jungle.

Through his practice Escobar-Jaramillo asks “what is more direct and crude than violence? What is more sad and terrible than injustice and poverty?” Zapatitos de Algodón: Right or left shoe? / ¿izquierda o derecha? reflects on how this violence and the displacement of refugees’ often happens in silence, under the world’s radar.

Zapatitos de Algodón: right or left shoe? / ¿izquierda o derecha? from INVIS!BLES Digital print, printed in metallized paper, 2007 90 cm x 130 cm  

Zapatitos de Algodón: right or left shoe? / ¿izquierda o derecha? from INVIS!BLES
Digital print, printed in metallized paper, 2007
90 cm x 130 cm

With his most recent work, Colombia, Tierra de Luz (Land of Light) Escobar-Jaramillo uses participatory practices to bring reconciliation, to throw light on the lives of those across diverse regions of Colombia to try to make sense of the past. His statement below outlines his process.

Alive Souls (Almas Vivas), Aguas Vivas-Córdoba, 2012 Digital print, Ilford Galerie Smooth Pearl 290gr, 90 x 130 cm

Alive Souls (Almas Vivas), Aguas Vivas-Córdoba, 2012
Digital print, Ilford Galerie Smooth Pearl 290gr, 90 x 130 cm

Bio:

Santiago Escobar-Jaramillo, is an architect and photographer, and graduate of the National University of Colombia, and Goldsmiths College, University of London where he gained a MA (merit) in Photography and Urban Cultures. His projects have been exhibited internationally in over 80 individual and collective exhibitions, including festivals and shows in Istanbul, Venice, London, Berlin, Beijing, Lima, San Salvador, Querétaro, Oaxaca, Montevideo, Bogotá, La Havana. His recent series, Colombia, Land of Light, has been exhibited and presented at the DRCLAS@Harvard University, MIT and Emerson College in Boston, MA, USA. Santiago has photographed for Villegas Editores, Revista Semana, UNHCR, MFO-Egypt, ICIPE- Kenya, Banco de la República, Colombia. He has been commissioned to run workshops for National Geographic Student Expeditions, Zona Cinco, Don Bosco Vocational Center, Fujifilm, CUCR, Goldsmiths, University of London, UNHCR. His published books include Solidarity In Colombia and London, Gap My Mind, he is a former Fujifilm’s X-Photographer, and member of the Association of Urban Photographers, La Hydra and Colectivo +1.

Artist Statement:

Colombia, Tierra de Luz (Land of Light) consists of a series of symbolic acts of support through the medium of photography and art, for victims of violence and those displaced across Colombia. Violence and forced displacement in Colombia has been one of the most worrying and most direct effects of the armed conflict for over five decades.

In 2013, the Colombian Historical Memory Centre released Enough Already! Colombia: Memories of War and Dignity. The report documents that between 1958-2012, armed militia were responsible for at least 220,000 deaths, 4.7 million internal displaced persons, 6.6 million hectares of land usurped and 27,023 kidnappings. Nonetheless, the Colombian Government and guerrilla FARC-EP are currently in La Havana, Cuba discussing the agenda to end the conflict and aim for a sustainable peace. A sustainable post-conflict process must be implemented if Colombians want to change their history and build a stable base for the future.

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During the interventions (artistic actions, poetry workshops, celebrations and testimonial records), villagers (peasants and indigenous people) expressed their thoughts and emotions through words, gestures and singing while they assisted Santiago in constructing and lighting sculptural objects and scenarios using consuming light, lanterns, mobile devices, candles and bonfires. The photographs made are indispensable as vessels for memory and imagination for children, teenagers and adults who participated in the actions. Thus, the photographs made of light (through the process of capturing light by the camera) are considered memorials when copies are given to each family, to be hung in their homes.

The selection of locations for the interventions (i.e. Amazonas, Guajira, Chocó, etc.) reflects Colombia’s rich variety of multicultural groups, regions, landscapes, climate, historical context, traditions and celebrations, geopolitics, as well as social problems and different armed groups.

www.colombiatierradeluz.org

www.colombialandoflight.org

www.urbanphotographers.org/members-santiago-escobar-jaramillo

www.fujifilm-x.com/photographers/es/santiago_escobar_jaramillo

Representing Women in Contemporary Religious Painting

Contemporary artists Bruce Herman and Makoto Fujimura have collaborated with composer Chris Theofanidis in a multi-media exhibition called QU4RTETS in response to T.S. Eliot’s Four Quartets. Premiering at Baylor University (2013), the exhibit traveled to Duke, Yale, Hong Kong, and most recently Cambridge University during Holy Week. Theofanidis’s original score for the quintet, At The Still Point debuted at Carnegie Hall in February 2013, with subsequent performances accompanying the painting installations at the Eliot symposiums. The contemporary musical composition is fitting for the poetic text, evoking unfamiliarity and restlessness in the audience, stylistically echoing the fragments and irresolution from Eliot’s poetic structure. Both Herman and Fujimura agreed that similar tensions exist in their paintings, a kind of visual synesthesia in form and color, meditating on the complexities of Theofanidis’s music and Eliot’s language.

In an art salon colloquium at Duke Divinity School amidst the Engaging Eliot symposium, Bruce Herman expressed the difficulty of rendering the two female figures in his series, repainting each of them many times, continually unsatisfied with the results. Herman voiced the challenge of executing a realistic female form due to the convoluted visual narrative of modern and contemporary art history, in which the (historically male) artist tends to objectify, sexualize, deify, or domesticize women. For Herman, this presents a problematic visual inheritance for the artist to grapple with, which we can see in his two female depictions from QU4RTETS. Herman’s paintings raise the question: What makes the representation of the female image in contemporary art, particularly religious art, so difficult?

In “Virility and Domination in Early Twentieth Century Painting,” art historian Carol Ducan posits that women from the beginning of modernism onwards are depicted one of two ways.[1] On one end of the spectrum, the virility of the male artist is present in the uninhibited sexual appetite of the artist’s depiction of powerless and sexually subjected woman, often sexual clients before or after the portraiture session, sometimes portrayed in the very room or studio in which they were used. In this mode of representation, the male artist’s productivity is dependant on the woman as his creative muse, where she is reduced to flesh as an obedient animal. We see this approach dominate painting schools from Fauvist and German Expressionism, in works by Vlahminck and Kirchner (Girl Under a Japanese Umbrella, 1909).

Ernst Ludwig Kirchner Mädchen unter Japanschirm (Girl under a Japanese Umbrella), 1909 Oil on canvas 36 1/5 × 31 1/2 in 92 × 80 cm Erich Lessing / Art Resource, New York

Ernst Ludwig Kirchner Mädchen unter Japanschirm (Girl under a Japanese Umbrella), 1909
Oil on canvas
36 1/5 × 31 1/2 in
92 × 80 cm
Erich Lessing / Art Resource, New York

In contrast, the other method of female representation is a type of femme fatale or mythologized goddess, usually a type of Eve, Lilith, Salome, Sphinx or Madonna figure. Employed in works by both Munch and Van Dongen, perhaps Gustav Klimt’s sirens from the Jugendstil fin-de-siècle period in Vienna are the quintessential illustration of this type (Judith, 1901). Klimt’s usage of metals, particularly gold (not unlike Herman’s), is rooted in the tradition of orthodox iconography. While Klimt diverges from the explicit realm of the religious, his gold nevertheless divinizes his women as goddess figures, often associating sexuality with violence and death. The metals connected with these images are “decorative”, an aesthetic decadence acting as a facade concerned with the mere surfaces of things. While Klimt’s depiction of woman is provocative by using beauty as a seductive yet animating force, there is a disturbing undercurrent that does violence to feminine sexuality.

Gustav Klimt Judith and the Head of Holofernes 1901 Oil on canvas 84 cm × 42 cm Österreichische Galerie Belvedere, Vienna

Gustav Klimt
Judith and the Head of Holofernes
1901
Oil on canvas
84 cm × 42 cm
Österreichische Galerie Belvedere, Vienna

Duncan argues that Picasso attempts to critique both positions in his frightening masterpiece Les Demoiselles D’Avignon (1907) where he:

“brings together both the femme fatale and the primitive; whore and deity; decadent and savage, tempting and repelling; awesome and obscene, threatening and powerless…Picasso presents [his women] as desecrated icons already slashed and torn to bits…Only in ancient art are women as supreme and subhuman as this…They are real bodies, in a real brothel that really is commodified. And you are the commodifier.[2]

Thus, Picasso diagnoses and unmasks the spectrum of female representation in modern painting, implicating the viewer as a participating voyeur in the artist’s schema. His hermeneutic opened up new questions of art criticism in regards to how and which female forms were rendered and why. Race, colonialism, class, power, gender, sexuality and even body weight all became significant factors in conveying and assessing the subject’s humanity to the viewer. This critique, however, carried new responsibilities for the artist by acknowledging the problematic precedence of female portraiture.

Drawing upon T.S. Eliot’s Four Quartets as the inspiration for the QU4RTETS project, Herman’s subject matter and thematic representation of women are arguably informed by Eliot’s text. The name of Eliot’s “Dry Salvages” references a location known well to Herman, a cluster of rocky islands off the coast of Glouchester Massachusetts. Herman’s atmospheric familiarity of Eliot’s setting aids his painterly interpretation of Eliot’s poetic symbolism of water, fitting for both seaside landscape and baptismal iconography. Perhaps Eliot also utilized this particular location for the title’s enunciation (“sal-vay-ges”), playing on “salve”, the hail given by Gabriel at Mary’s Annunciation (“Hail, favored one! The Lord is with you!”).[3]

We find Eliot’s explicit referral to Mary in the text of the “Dry Salvages”, providing us with a larger narrative of both Annunciation and Incarnation. For Eliot, Mary is the Stella Maris, the “star of the sea,” the guiding light to voyagers as an intercessor to her Son:

Lady…pray for those who were in ships, and
Ended their voyage on the sand, in the sea’s lips
Or in the dark throat which will not reject them
or wherever cannot reach them the sound of the sea bell’s
Perpetual angelus.[4]

For Dante, the stars were a theological symbol of hope, an ever-present guide for Virgil and Dante in the Divine Comedy. Astronomically, the Stella Maris refer to Polaris, the “North Star”, which seamen used as a navigational axis for transversing the seas. The vespers hymn “Ave Maris Stella” to which Eliot alludes in the “Dry Salvages” illuminates Herman’s QU4RTETS depictions:

Receiving that “Ave” (hail)
From the mouth of Gabriel
Establish us in peace
transforming the name of “Eva.”[5]

This hymn relates to trope from St. Irenaeus of Lyons that Mary’s “yes” to the Annunciation transposes Eve’s “no”, the theological recapitulation of female history. We might consider Eliot’s employment of patristic typology the entry point for discussing Herman’s representation of women in his QU4RTETS series.

The Marian undercurrents from Eliot’s “Dry Salvages” frame and inform Herman’s two female portraits: one younger, with her back towards us (QU4RTETS No. 2: Summer) and the other middle-aged, in a kind of afternoon reverie (QU4RTETS No. 3: Autumn). Attempting to navigate the modernist typologies of female portraiture, Herman draws upon Eliot’s Marian typologies seeking to humanize his female bodies. In this way, Herman tries to avoid objectification and deification by situating the visual imagination of women within Christian iconography—the Magdalene and the Virgin.

QU4RTETS No.2 (Summer) oil and alkyd resin with gold leaf, moon-gold leaf, and silver leaf on wood panel 97" x 60” ©Bruce Herman 2012

QU4RTETS No.2 (Summer)
oil and alkyd resin with gold leaf, moon-gold leaf, and silver leaf on wood panel
97″ x 60”
©Bruce Herman 2012   www.bruceherman.com

In QU4RTETS No. 2 Summer, Herman gives us a kind of Magdalene figure who wears the scars of suffering in her very body, aligning herself with the tree as a kind of participation in the cross. Glancing at the woman’s back, Grünewald’s Isenheim Altarpiece for the community of lepers and Donatello’s sculpture of Mary Magdalene come to mind, which Herman admits were formative for conceptualizing the young woman’s portrayal. Grünewald’s Christ is contorted with skin lesions and open sores, his immense suffering evident with his outstretched hands in surrender. In a similar manner, Donatello’s Mary Magdalene is gaunt and emaciated, with her skeleton protruding, teeth missing as she attempts to fold her hands in prayer. Herman additionally draws upon Georges Rouault’s prostitutes (Fille), whose grotesque women (or “gutter Venuses” as French Novelist Emile Zola would say) reject objectification from the viewer’s gaze, evoking compassion instead of judgment.

Using a palette knife, Herman builds textural elements with paint to create stigmata-like depictions on her body. This expressive “unfinished” process descends from Willem De Kooning, a formative stylistic influence on Herman, as Herman’s mentor Philip Guston was among the New York Abstract Expressionist school. De Kooning himself had a radical approach in his female depiction of women, especially his haunting Woman series. Looking more like fallen Eves over Paleolithic goddesses, De Kooning critiqued societal mores of women in 1950s advertising through his representations of obtuse bodies with garish faces. Both Willem De Kooning as well as Richard Diebenkorn influence Herman’s color palette employed in these QU4RTETS portraits, particularly the paring of periwinkle and cerillium from Diebenkorn’s Ocean Park series, followed with lilac, celery and chartreuse, sienna and terra cotta, aquamarine and cobalt. Consequently, Herman is not only drawing upon De Kooning and Diebenkorn merely in their employment of color alone, but also in how they are innovating representational portraiture and landscape with the medium of paint itself.

QU4RTETS No.3(Autumn) oil and alkyd resin with gold leaf, moon-gold leaf, and silver leaf on wood panel 97" x 60” ©Bruce Herman 2012

QU4RTETS No.3 (Autumn)
oil and alkyd resin with gold leaf, moon-gold leaf, and silver leaf on wood panel
97″ x 60”
©Bruce Herman 2012 www.bruceherman.com

In QU4RTETS No. 3 Autumn, we see a woman in a French-bateau striped shirt wading in the aquamarine pool, fallen leaves surrounding her. The barren tree indicates the presence of Autumn, both literally and figuratively in the woman’s season of life. In this type of portrait, we see a mature woman, perhaps a mother—an allusion to the Blessed Mother. Marian iconography is not unfamiliar to Herman, as Matthew Milliner has also associated the Virgin Mary with QU4RTETS No. 3 Autumn in his exhibition catalog essay. Herman’s earlier Magnificat triptych (2009), Overshadowed, captures the moment of the Incarnation, while the nod to Mary as the “New Eve” informs his Second Adam and Miriam: Virgin Mother. Both his Woman and Virgin Mother series establish a Marian precedence for these portraits, making the female typologies a direct projection of the Magdalene and Marian figures.

Following the earlier paradigm of  “Eva” becoming “Maria”, the task of the painter who attempts to portray the female in contemporary art must wrestle with depictions of Eve (like Picasso’s “desecrated icons”), idealized goddesses (Klimt’s Judith) and even the Virgin Mary, Mother of God. Whether we see suffering and brokenness in the Magdalene or perfect humility and obedience from the Virgin, both women have an iconographic history in artistic representation. However, post-modernist painting challenges these tropes because they fail to provide a spectrum for women between the polarizing typologies of the prostitute and the virgin.

Eleanor Heartney argues in Postmodern Heretics: The Catholic Imagination in Contemporary Art that contemporary feminist artists have found the Magdalene and Virgin tropes an oversimplification for the iconography of women. In attempting to deal honestly with female sexuality and human equality, many have found the Virgin Mary to be a problematic ideal for women. For Catholics, she is not only conceived without sin and perpetually a virgin, but she is also uniquely the Mother of God—an event unprecedented or proceeded by any other woman. To offer the Virgin as the anecdote for female objectification is hardly generous nor helpful. She is not the archetype of femininity as achievable by women, but a paragon of divine motherhood—the Queen of Heaven.

Grünewald, Donatello and Rouault offer three artistic depictions of women’s humanity that is worn and broken beyond recognition, suffering in the very surface of their skin. This deeply incarnational approach to rendering the female form indeed resists objectification, but we must ask if Herman’s QU4RTETS align themselves with and draw upon these seminal works of art. To consider them as Eliot’s Stella Maris, Donatello’s Mary Magdalene and Rouault’s Fille, I’m left wanting. The sentimental expression in both women lack a three-dimensional depth with which I can identify. The challenge for Herman to narrate the iconicity of the female face lies in authenticity, having eyes to the past aware of what male artists have failed to do, as well as thoughtful attention to contemporary female artists’ rendition and representation of themselves. Though perhaps graphic and unsettling at times, as in the portraits by Jenny Saville, they are real women in an embodied world that cannot evade representation through abstraction nor spiritualization.

 

 

[1] Duncan, Carol (1973) `Virility and Domination in Early Twentieth-Century Painting’, Artforum December.

[2] Duncan, Ibid.

[3] Luke 1:28

[4] Eliot, T. S. Four Quartets. London: Faber, 2000. III:IV

[5] “Ave Maris Stella.” Ave Maris Stella. http://www.preces-latinae.org/thesaurus/BVM/AveMarisStella.html 07 Apr. 2015

[6] Eliot, Ibid.

Art as Hospitality

Since its beginning in 2008, The Curator has sought to celebrate cultural artifacts and inspire its readers to engage deeply with–and ultimately create–culture which enriches life and broadens experience. In keeping with our belief that a multitude of voices are necessary for conversations about art and humanity to flourish, The Curator and Christians in the Visual Arts are excited to announce a publishing partnership. 

Founded in 1979, CIVA’s longstanding vision is to help artists, collectors, critics, professors, historians, pastors and arts professionals explore the profound relationship between art and faith. From this beginning, CIVA’s broad range of conferences, exhibits, programs, and publications exist to help the art and faith movement flourish both in the Church and in culture. 

Emerging from an institutional friendship and resonant missions, both organizations present a unique voice and shared commitment to the conversation between faith and the arts. Among other initiatives, the partnership will include sharing essays from CIVA’s SEEN Journal, conference talks, and other network-serving original content created specifically for The Curator.

This article is part of the publishing partnership between The Curator and Christians in the Visual Arts. It originally appeared in SEEN Journal.

 

Harrell Fletcher founded and continues to direct the art and social practice emphasis in the M.F.A. program at Portland State University.

Leah Samuelson oversees the community art program at Wheaton College. We posed three questions to them regarding the future of socially engaged art.

CIVA: What are the inhospitable conditions of academia and the artworld that help artists decide to turn to social practice as some kind of solution? As an option or cluster of options among many, many more in the artworld, why are some artists—you two in particular—drawn to socially engaged art?

HARRELL FLETCHER: The academic part is a bit inexplicable to me. Why it’s happening now I don’t really understand, but there seems to be an interest in community engagement. Social media plays some sort of role, and the realization that the art market only works for a small number of people adds to it. But honestly, I am not totally sure.

Personally, I am drawn to socially engaged art because it allows me to learn about and connect with people and subjects and places that are outside of my little life. I’m very familiar with spending time by myself and I have plenty of that (and love it), but I want to use my work to do something that I don’t do in my normal life. Also, I found showing my own “art work” to be sort of embarrassing. It’s much easier to promote and ask people to appreciate someone else and their interests than it is for me to do that for myself, though of course I see the work I do as my “art work.” But this is a little more comfortably distanced than studio style weird object work.

LEAH SAMUELSON: At a recent School of the Art Institute of Chicago dialogue event, hosting critic and historian Claire Bishop and curator Claire Doherty, an astute audience member posed a question about whose values system guides interpretation and analysis when community art projects center around persons outside the artworld (e.g., young, single mothers?). Bishop replied on behalf of her discipline. That got me thinking about what kinds of art and occasions make artists accountable to the people about whom their art makes claims.

I wonder if socially engaged art brings opportunity for hospitable treatment of the world because art that engages society directly—or through prophetic advocacy—makes artists accountable. Maybe we like accountability. Recently one morning while on the train, a colleague asked me why people stifle their creativity. That got me thinking about how busy members of my “professional” culture back away from responsibility (e.g., for our use of human labor, waste, and other labors of nature). When we depart from our physical life mediums do we forego connection to our conceptual media such as story, values, and art (art as the common element of what is material and what is meaning)? Maybe hospitality, accountability, and creativity come bundled together, and academia and the artworld can put the squeeze on any one of these.

Sandra Bowden, Elements, 2008, encaustic, 11 x 38 inches (diptych).

Sandra Bowden, Elements, 2008, encaustic, 11 x 38 inches (diptych).

CIVA: In conversation with Michael Rakowitz for the Between Artists publication, Harrell identified two kinds of failures with students: “successful failures” and “real failures.” When is excellence the wrong idea or goal for students? How much is teaching really about sharing the ability to trust others?

HF: Good questions. I don’t even recall saying that, but I like the idea anyway. Excellence is subjective, as are so many things in life and art, so really it’s about recalibrating our sense of excellence. Failure doesn’t really have to be a failure, but apathy is a real problem and so is a lack of risk-taking. Some things are hard to get wrong. For instance, getting students to talk to people outside of their own sphere, learning to be a learner, engaging with the world, and realizing your agency are all good things.

For me, teaching is a lot about trusting others. Collaboration is hard for artists. We have been trained to really value originality, signature styles, newness, and “mastery.” But all of that sometimes gets in the way of just being human, and seeing the beauty of working together.

LS: Okay, it’s becoming clear to me that everything I learn comes from what people say, because last year I heard filmmaker Earnest M. Whitman III ask why people trust the voice of an expert (even foreign expert) above the voice of experience. The tragically funny thing was no one in the room could even digest the question, but we picked the message apart with critical questions from our own disciplines that would have earned us smarty points in most other academic settings. I agree with Harrell that the power to define excellence is clasped in the fists of experts but life is better lived with standards set by a wide range of experiences, which means by a wide range of people.

While students feel as though they are not going to the head of the class in any particular skill set, it may seem to them that the definition of success is too narrow for them to achieve it. If we want students to trust us and trust each other, we might have to start by demonstrating our commitment to a broader range of definitions for excellence.

CIVA: How would each of you envision art “getting through” to people from a broader audience, especially folks outside the art-critical discourse? Is this something you’re dedicated to? If so, what are the best instances of this in your experience?

HF: It’s really not that hard: if you make work that is with and about people who are not normally included in the art world dialogue, then they may take an interest and become invested. But doing that really well can be surprisingly tricky. Mostly, I think it is about unlearning what we have been conditioned into by society, education, capitalism, etc. Think about how easy it is for a baby or young child to create a connection with someone from any demographic, sometimes just with a smile and by showing interest. Adults can learn a lot from this. We need to just chill out, find simple ways to relate, and then the shared complexity can happen.

LS: More than other types of projects, social practices highlight (alternating) roles for collaborators as guests and hosts of projects, processes, and materials. Well-acted guest and host roles are not intellectually difficult, but are hard for our wills, and these alternating roles connect us to each other. So if the power of hosting can roughly be described as choice, and the power of guesting can roughly be described as judgment, then artists can play guest more often than we do in order to “get through” to a broader audience. I like Harrell’s advice to just chill out. I can’t describe any best instances of this, because you have to have been there; but we do need more education in this area at liberal arts colleges and art schools.

CIVA: Thank you for both for your thoughtful responses to these questions. We’re glad to have a few moments of collaboration and shared complexity here.

From the Roster:  Konstantin Sergeyev

On Tuesday afternoons, The Curator is showcasing an individual artist recognized for their unique voice, ideas and process. Once a month, a featured artist will be selected by Rebecca Locke, a New York City-based artist and curator, who develops collaborative and artist-led projects. 

 

Curator’s introduction:

Konstantin Sergeyev’s practice explores subcultures and minorities. He looks for ways in which groups, consciously or unconsciously, assert their uniqueness and define difference in contrast to mainstream American culture.

No Knocking or Banging, Go Away! – A Portrait of C-Squat is Sergeyev’s ongoing work documenting one of the last remaining squats on New York City’s Lower East Side. The artist has photographed the building and the lives of its inhabitants over eight years, becoming accepted by the community in the process and allowed to live there for several months. His work is a glimpse inside a self-contained, insular community that functions within its own rules and culture. This series continues to document the changes to this community, particularly the transition of squatters becoming legal owners of their apartments. Approximately a dozen illegal NYC squats that survived the 80s and 90s (without burning down or eviction by the police) entered into a deal with the city to turn the buildings into low-cost co-ops.

A number of squats completed this process, but others such as C-Squat are still working towards this, still under pressure that the building might end up in a bank’s possession. C-Squat is considered to be the most radical of these squats, its residents punks and radicals (rather than the low-income residents of the many other squats and ex-squats); its basement serving as a performance space hosting underground punk shows. Sergeyev’s work explores how this now aging population is adjusting to this transition, to the changes and pressures that come with establishing legal residence, with paying bills and rent, and how this community not used to paying rent for years is adapting. To the artist, this project is about watching a squat enter into adulthood whilst still trying to keep its sense of rebellious, youthful identity. Through his work Sergeyev advocates for the squatters, for the absolute validity of the squat, where they have established home and community in this city.

Sergeyev’s work tells the stories of those fighting for their rights, standing up against police brutality, for the working class, for gender equality. His work, often depicting scenes in New York City, show marginalized people reclaiming symbols of this marginalization, appropriating them and using them to define themselves and to make their voices heard.

John & Vera tending to their rooftop garden, 2014 From <i>No Knocking or Banging, Go Away!</i> – A Portrait of C-Squat, 2007-2014

Untitled (C-Squat, John & Vera tending to their rooftop garden), 2014 From No Knocking or Banging, Go Away! – A Portrait of C-Squat, 2007-2014

Artist Bio:

Konstantin Sergeyev was born in Odessa, Ukraine, and moved to New York City at the age of twelve. In his early teens he began photographing punk rock shows, and has gone on to document life on the road with touring bands, residents of punk houses and squats, and members of other subcultures and minority groups. He graduated from Hunter College of the City University of New York with a BA in Studio Art, with a concentration in Photography. His images have been published and exhibited in the US and internationally.

Gedas, 2014 From No Knocking or Banging, Go Away! – A Portrait of C-Squat, 2007-2014

Untitled (C-Squat, Gedas), 2014 From No Knocking or Banging, Go Away! – A Portrait of C-Squat, 2007-2014

Artist Statement:

As an immigrant, Konstantin Sergeyev displays a fascination with American culture which he approaches as an outsider. His practice explores the personal and social dynamics of subcultures and minority groups and their relationship to mainstream culture. His approach is two-fold: he immerses himself in the cultures of his subjects in order to better understand the social microcosm that each group manifests, and at other times places himself as an observer in public actions, to see culture from the point of view of the public. Subcultures and minority groups bring to the surface the grievances each one has against society at large – state-sanctioned racist violence, an obsession with materialism, and attitudes toward sex – thus his work becomes a mirror to challenge the viewer. Sergeyev attempts to bring together the perspectives of these disparate groups to reveal the picture they collectively paint.

Untitled (C-Squat, Brett and Little), 2011

Untitled (C-Squat, Brett and Little), 2011

Untitled (C-Squat, No Knocking), 2007

Untitled (C-Squat, No Knocking), 2007

Untitled (C-Squat, House Member), 2007 From No Knocking or Banging, Go Away! – A Portrait of C-Squat, 2007-2014

Untitled (C-Squat, House Member), 2007 From No Knocking or Banging, Go Away! – A Portrait of C-Squat, 2007-2014

Untitled (C-Squat, O’Death), 2011 From No Knocking or Banging, Go Away! – A Portrait of C-Squat, 2007-2014

Untitled (C-Squat, O’Death), 2011 From No Knocking or Banging, Go Away! – A Portrait of C-Squat, 2007-2014

Untitled (West Indian Day, Bling), 2014

Untitled (West Indian Day, Bling), 2014

Untitled (Black Lives Matter, Not My Son), 2014

Untitled (Black Lives Matter, Not My Son), 2014

Untitled (May Day, Castrate The State), 2012

Untitled (May Day, Castrate The State), 2012

Fairground worker with machine guns, Ukraine, 2012

Fairground worker with machine guns, Ukraine, 2012

More of Konstantin Sergeyev’s work can be seen here:

konstphoto.tumblr.com
csquat.tumblr.com
Twitter: @konstphoto
Instagram: @konstphoto

From the Roster: Len Cicio

Every Tuesday afternoon, The Curator is showcasing an individual artist recognized for their unique voice, ideas and process. Once a month, a featured artist will be selected by Rebecca Locke, a New York City-based artist and curator, who develops collaborative and artist-led projects. 

Curator’s introduction:

Len Cicio’s practice hinges on color—and in defining his voice, the artist has embraced the media of color pencils and oil pastel. These are often used in traditional landscapes, of the rural and the natural, of lakes and trees, and yet Cicio depicts the urban, creating urban scenes and forging the structural forms of New York City in wax and color. An exhibition of Cicio’s work is coming soon to Next Door, 813 W. 187th St., Washington Heights.

Visions Under A Manhattan Subway, 2013 Oil pastel, colored pencil, wax

Visions Under A Manhattan Subway, 2013
Oil pastel, colored pencil, wax

Cicio’s forms echo his own background in textile design, and the artist cites Vincent Van Gogh’s use of strong, vibrant color in landscapes, and German expressionist artist Lyonel Feininger’s architectural works, as inspiration for his practice. Indeed, Cicio’s forms reflect Feininger’s vistas, aspects of which often appear to be viewed through cut-glass, or stained glass windows, highlighted by the sun. Yet, Cicio’s work is also reminiscent of the Futurists, with their regard for innovtion and the strength of the machine, their delight in the urban, and the man-made. A reverance for this aspect of the city (although these public structures depict twentieth century innovation) radiates through Cicio’s work. His spaces, found under the tracks of the city’s elevated Subways, drawn across bridges, structures, and cavernous, underground subway stations are illuminated and majestic. He creates a sense of a mystical urban space, formed by color.

In contrast to the city of the every day, the tedium of the overcrowded subway journey, the dirt and grime of mass transport, Cicio’s city—a city he knows well—is a city elevated.

The 1 Train To Riverdale, 2011 Oil pastel, colored pencil, wax

The 1 Train To Riverdale, 2011
Oil pastel, colored pencil, wax

Bio: 

Len Cicio lives and works in Manhattan, New York. A graduate of the Fashion Institute of Technology, Cicio studied textile design; his career designing home furnishings and apparel spanned 20 years. He developed his practice, studying life drawing and techniques in oil painting at The Art Students League in NYC, and The Brooklyn Museum of Art’s Studio Program. Cicio’s work belongs to private collections, has been featured in The Manhattan Times, and is frequently exhibited in Manhattan. 

1904 Inwood NY, 2014 Oil pastel, colored pencil, wax

1904 Inwood NY, 2014
Oil pastel, colored pencil, wax

Artist Statement:

With a background in textile design, Cicio’s landscapes and architectural works reflect an understanding of pattern, texture and form. Cicio’s practice utilizes the mediums of colored pencils, oil pastels, and colored wax to depict the dynamic structural forms of New York City’s elevated subways.

More of Len Cicio’s work can be seen here:

www.lencicio.com

 

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Urban Theater: New York in the 1980s

“All the world’s a stage, and all the men and women are merely players; they have their exits and their entrances, and one man in his time plays many parts.”  As You Like It (Act II, Scene VII)

In an era before social media, the street was essential to visual art’s mass communication. The latest exhibition at Fort Worth, Texas’ Modern museum is Urban Theater: New York in the 1980s. Michael Auping, the Modern’s chief curator, remarked, “I titled it Urban Theater because, for me, the whole theme that runs through the ’80s is performance, staging and display.” The street territory outside the walls of galleries and esteemed museum collections was the new exhibition space of the ‘80s, facilitating free exposure, offering a starting place for artists such as Jean-Michel Basquiat and Keith Haring. New York City provided the ideal urban landscape for artists to experiment in a kind of civic theater—where the world was the stage in the labyrinth of boulevards and subway stations.

Considering the idea of the theater as central to the exhibition’s thesis, we might consider its featured performance a dazzling spectacle. Artists sought to contribute pieces in the most frequented, industrial, sterile, and average city-going spaces. Jenny Holzer’s truism’s lit up on billboards in Times Square as an alternate form of “advertising,” (i.e. Protect Me From What I Want, 1986). Haring’s spray-painted images in subway stations and Basquiat’s graffiti transformed the banal and quotidian into vehicles of activism. Photographers like Robert Mapplethorpe and Cindy Sherman both starred in and documented the unfolding spectacle of  ‘80s New York, highlighting the disparity of racial and gender issues as a kind of art-in-action on an urban stage. Thus, Urban Theatre concerns both the civic space in and where works were created and also its actors, the particularized bodies which occupied and acted on the specified stage.

Which bodies can act in what places?

Michael Auping’s curation of Urban Theater groups work in two themes: sexual and racial equality and criticism of the market.

Guerrilla Girls [no title], 1985–90 Screenprint on paper 280 x 710 mm Tate Collection

Guerrilla Girls
Untitled 
1985–90
Screenprint on paper
280 x 710 mm
Tate Collection

Simone de Beauvoir’s Second Sex (1949) not only ignited the second-wave of feminism but also helped female artists have a deeper understanding of their identity within the male-dominated art world, as subject rather than object. According to Beauvoir, women were “separate but equal […] the very thing that Jim Crow did to black Americans. Egalitarian segregation served only to introduce the most extreme forms of discrimination.”[1] The Guerrilla Girls’ advertisements attend to both of these prejudices articulated by de Beauvoir on sexism and racism. Using mass-produced posters, the Guerrilla Girls posted statistics of galleries, art magazines and educational departments that denied hiring or exhibiting women and blacks. These anonymous artists combined wit with data, informing the public of discrimination after the Civil Rights and Woman’s Rights movements. One poster states: “What’s fashionable, prestigious and tax-deductible? Discriminating against women and non-white artists” (1987). The Guerrilla Girls utilized and critiqued other male contemporaries manipulating a Warhol-esque style in format, even at times superimposing Velvet Underground images. The exhibition wall, showing their posters operates on a meta-level, provokes the viewer to bring the exhibition at hand under the same scrutiny.

Barbara Kruger Untitled (I Shop Therefore I Am) 1983

Barbara Kruger
Untitled (I Shop Therefore I Am)
1983

Another key artist in Urban Theater is Barbara Kruger, who engages economic concerns as well as women’s issues. Her I Shop Therefore I am (1987) is a cheeky play on Descartes’ Cogito ergo sum. As a former chief designer for the fashion magazine Maidemoiselle (where she inherited her graphic design talents), she learned the forms of advertising and propaganda, which were specifically marketed towards women. In the black and white image of a female hand holding what seems to be a superimposed maxim on a credit card, Kruger uncovers the power of media to socially construct gender identity, as critic Arthur Danto relates, “upon something frivolous in being one whose essence is shopping.”[2] Her poignant critique of America’s nihilistic consumerism exposes cultural practices that not only constructed women’s sense of identity, but conversely effectuated women’s oppression.

Sherrie Levine La Fortune (after Man Ray: 3), 1990 Walker Art Center

Sherrie Levine
La Fortune (after Man Ray: 3)
1990
Walker Art Center

At first glance, Sherrie Levine’s After Man Ray #3 La Fortune (1990) appears to be a nondescript pool table isolated in an exhibition wing. However, a closer look reveals that there are neither cue sticks nor pocket holes. Taking a memorable staple of the men’s billiard room, Levine suggests that the sculpture’s structure is metaphorical of men and women’s relationship to each other, particularly in the art world. Women are the curved legs, supporting the table on which men play in order to sink their balls into the corresponding holes, ahem, pockets. Since there are no pockets in this billiard table, Levine insinuates this paradigm is “an impossible game” due to her intentional yet “inoperable construction.” What originally might be mistaken in the gallery as a pastime apparatus is rather totemic of Urban Theater in its male-female thesis during the 1980s.

Cindy Sherman, Untitled Film Still #65 1980 Cindy Sherman American, born 1954 Gelatin silver print 40 x 30 inches

Cindy Sherman,
Untitled Film Still #65
1980
Gelatin silver print
40 x 30 inches

Cindy Sherman, on the other hand, plays upon the viewer’s gaze or participation in her images, as both the subject and director of her photographs (Untitled Film Stills, 1977). She is not interested in coiffing and primping to conform to certain stereotypes, nor does she provide the viewer a contextual narrative through which to interpret her images. In this case, as Michael Freid suggests, the film stills are “anti-theatrical.”[3] She wryly inverts the gaze back on the viewer and questions his/her assumptions and projections on her images, critiquing voyeurism, the male gaze and aesthetic judgments. In this way, the modality of her images resemble the economy of the icon. The images ask us how we are looking at her and seek to correct our vision by catechizing our gaze.

Jean-Michel Basquiat  Six Crimee acrylic, crayon, masonite 178 x 366 cm The Museum of Contemporary Arts, Los Angeles

Jean-Michel Basquiat
Six Crimee
acrylic, crayon, masonite
178 x 366 cm
The Museum of Contemporary Arts, Los Angeles

Urban Theater takes into consideration the economic favorability of ‘80s as both ideal for the marketability of art, while reminding us that consumerist demands can be a detriment to its creation. Art collectors and dealers alike desired paintings as financial investments in a booming market. Enter Jean-Michel Basquiat. The “radiant child” had humble beginnings through street painting activism, signed as SAMO© (same old sh*t), a graffiti informed by a political critique of oppressive market systems. We might be reminded both of Cy Twombly in his mixture of drawing and writing combined with painting and Jean Debuffet’s primitive art brut. Yet his subject is far darker than Twombly’s childlike scribbles in lllium. Basquiat’s pastiche penetrates the horrors of the outsider and the injustices in human history. His Six Crimee (1982) in this exhibition depicts six black heads with halos floating above them on a background of vibrant malachite green, a color often used by Quattrocento artists like Cimabue in portraying saints. Basquiat gives us a vision of black martyrs, who have perished at the cost of systemic brokenness—a system, W.E.B. DuBois wrote, that was not designed to protect blacks in the first place.

Jeff Koons Buster Keaton,  1988 polychromed wood 66 x 48 x 27 in.

Jeff Koons
Buster Keaton,
1988
polychromed wood
66 x 48 x 27 in.

Quite paradoxically, the theater of the ‘80s in New York also contained work antithetical to Basquiat’s scathing critiques of bloated economies. Jeff Koons, the high priest of factory-produced mass culture-as-high-art for a consumerist market became very successful. Following the natural progression of art’s evolution after Duchamp’s Fountain urinal (1917) and Warhol’s Campbell Soup Cans (1962), he conflates a bourgeoisie taste for the sentimental and the kitsch, seen in this exhibit as Buster Keaton (1988). In many ways Koons sees himself as the public’s savoir of embracing secretly repressed bad taste. “The imperative” he states, “is to be yourself and don’t pretend to be someone else whom you believe superior to yourself. Your tastes are all right as they are […] bad taste is as good as taste gets if it is yours.”[4] One can’t help noticing that Koons’ critiques about taste and class are ironically what have made him one of the world’s wealthiest living artists. And yet there is something annoyingly democratic about its intellectual accessibility and intentional self-deprecation of artistic elitism. One does not have to be educated in art to comprehend his subject matter; in fact, one might momentarily mistake being in a souvenir shop instead of a museum.

Auping curated the images in Urban Theater as moving parts to a story, creating a photographic tableau in the museum. But how much do these activism-charged pieces evolve in context of a museum?

The museum’s sterile, peaceful, and tidy interior decontextualize these artifacts from their dynamic involvement with their environment—a dangerous yet thrilling 1980s New York City. The gritty and edgy components of these art works lack their initial subversive and inflammatory qualities. Isn’t housing within the museum the ‘art of the streets’ with its egalitarian ‘art for everyone’s sake’ an ironic contradiction? Their rigors of unmasking are downplayed, as spectacle divorced from theater? Reconstituting the works within the museum is a different kind of theater belonging to both the curator and the visitor, contingent on individual experience.

The concept of the cinematic tableau helps in reuniting spectacle and theater together in this exhibit. In conjunction with the Urban Theater, Auping organized the Lone Star Film Festival to host a paneled conversation in-house with Julian Schnabel, screening all three of his films, Basquiat, Before Night Falls, and The Diving Bell and the Butterfly at the Modern Museum. As a painter and filmmaker, Schnabel is a common thread synthesizing the Urban Theater era, painting alongside Basquiat and Warhol, as well as filming their stories. The interview with Schnabel was lively and disarmingly direct, considering the trio of his vivid films. Each of his protagonists are marginalized or overcoming a significant cultural stereotype as an exilic: racially distinct, homosexual, or handicapped. It became quickly apparent in the conversation that the components of textural complexity and poetic sensibility were critical in Schnabel’s visual art and cinematic compositions. He spoke of his influence from Tarkovsky where “film is an accumulation of moments like paintings.” The difficulty of navigating the exhibition’s decontextualized artworks from the city of New York is mitigated by screening Schnabel’s Before Night Falls within the museum’s theater after the interview. Together, artist/director, curator and audience collectively encountered a movie through the medium and the stage for which it was intended. Thus, Schnabel’s film contributes an art form to the exhibition that is not stripped from its original context and reimagines the medium of art making for a larger audience.

New York City provided the ideal urban landscape for artists to experiment, to engage in a kind of civic theater— where the world was the stage. Unfortunately, many artists had their exits prematurely in this period due to accidental drug overdose and AIDS, among other things. Warhol, Basquiat and Haring are among the talented acts that faded too soon.

 

[1] DeBeauvoir, Simone. The Second Sex, 1949. p.12.

[2] Danto, Arthur. Unnatural Wonders: Essays from the Gap Between Art and Life, 2007. pp.64

[3] Freid, Michael. Why Photography Matters as Art Like Never Before, 2008.

[4] Danto, 291.

 

 

*Featured Image: Keith Haring’s Red (1982-1984), part of the the exhibit Urban Theater: New York Art in the 1980s, on display at the Modern Art Museum of Fort Worth. The work is goauche and ink on paper, 106 3/4 inches by 274 inches. Photo: Courtesy: Gladstone Gallery, New York, and Brussels Haring Foundation.

Georgia O’Keeffe: One View

The gray landscape shivered around us as we hurried toward the warmth of the Indianapolis Museum of Art (IMA) entrance. The large glass panels of the lobby windows kept the dreary day close at hand as we purchased tickets for the “Georgia O’Keeffe and the Southwestern Still Life” exhibit and rode quietly up the escalator.

But the warm colors of the exhibit walls and the openness of the sparse display quickly welcomed my husband and me into the sunny Southwest where O’Keeffe found her deepest inspiration. She was one of many artists who fled the crowded cities East of the Mississippi and made their way to the wide open spaces of New Mexico.

Abiquiu, New Mexico

Abiquiu, New Mexico

Ironically, when the artists arrived, many of them huddled together in colonies, seeking and finding for themselves the artistic communities their previous homes had afforded. While O’Keeffe herself chose a more solitary existence, eventually living alone full-time in New Mexico after her husband, the photographer Alfred Stieglitz, died, her world became very small in that great open West. Most of her paintings were of the landscapes she saw from her windows and the objects she collected from the landscape surrounding her home.

While the art world seemed to demand more and bigger of O’Keeffe—bigger portfolios, more exhibits, bigger audiences, more exposure, a bigger name for herself—she took the opportunity for more inspiration and bigger vistas to quiet the voracious appetites of others and feed her own imagination. She didn’t need the big name and the big audience. She wanted only the view, the door, the bone, the feather, the flower.

Arnold Newman, Georgia O’Keeffe, Ghost Ranch, New Mexico

Arnold Newman, Georgia O’Keeffe, Ghost Ranch, New Mexico

“She became a celebrity in her own time. Her artwork was selling for unheard of prices when she was still a relatively young woman. And being married to Alfred Steiglitz in New York, they were a couple that people recognized on the street. They were literally celebrities in their own time,” explains Debbie Brient, director of museum advancement at Georgia O’Keeffe Museum. “Yet she chose to leave one of the greatest cities in the world and a lifestyle of celebrity and come to one of the most remote areas of the country. And I think even today if someone said they were moving to Abiquiu, New Mexico, most people wouldn’t know where that is. And when they found out they would say, ‘Why?’”

The answer becomes clear when you look at O’Keeffe’s work in the exhibit currently on display at the IMA. Her paintings often depict just one object at a time. Her style was to simplify, enlarge, magnify, and remove from the surroundings. “I decided if I could paint that flower in huge scale, you could not ignore its beauty,” she said of her famous Jimson Weed composition. But the result seems quite the opposite. Her paintings are surprisingly small, and her compositions often reveal just how complex, minute, and interconnected things are to themselves, to each other, and to the places where they are found.

Could she have painted this way had she stayed in New York City? No doubt. But the allure of the Southwest beckoned her. O’Keeffe first visited New Mexico in 1916 on her way to Texas. On a return visit in 1929, she became convinced it was a place she wanted to explore and paint. In 1934, O’Keeffe first visited Ghost Ranch, a dude ranch north of Abiquiu, New Mexico, that she later purchased. Here is where she found “a new inspiration for her work,” IMA exhibit material explains.

And in the process of moving to this new place, she found what had been missing from her experience as an artist.

“She was fully capable of painting a beautiful portrait of someone that was very realistic. She won prizes for still life that she painted. She could do that but she felt empty when she did it, because she was looking for a way to make her art express what she felt. Not just what she was seeing, but what she felt,” Brient said in a recent interview.

“When you learn about O’Keeffe, so many of her most famous works are landscapes looking out her bedroom window, or from her terrace. She, like many artists, would paint the same scene or object over and over again. And so it’s interesting to see how she progressed until she got it to a point where she left that subject, because she felt she had finally captured it the way she wanted to.”

One such series, in which she painted the same door of her Abiquiu house from various perspectives and in varied light, is part of the IMA exhibit, as is her iconic Yellow Cactus Flower; Jimson Weed, which is part of the IMA’s permanent collection; and Mule’s Skull with Pink Poinsettia, which combines the artist’s favorite still life themes of flowers and animal skulls.

Georgia O’Keeffe (1887–1986), Yellow Cactus, 1929 Oil on canvas, 30 x 42 in. Dallas Museum of Art, Texas Patsy Lucy Griffith Collection, Bequest of Patsy Lucy Griffith. 1998.217. (O’Keeffe 675) © Copyright 2014 Georgia O’Keeffe Museum. Image courtesy International Arts®

Georgia O’Keeffe (1887–1986), Yellow Cactus, 1929
Oil on canvas, 30 x 42 in.
Dallas Museum of Art, Texas
Patsy Lucy Griffith Collection, Bequest of Patsy Lucy Griffith. 1998.217. (O’Keeffe 675)
© Copyright 2014 Georgia O’Keeffe Museum.
Image courtesy International Arts®

Several other artists that were part of the Southwest Modern movement, including Gustave Baumann, Marsden Hartley, Raymond Jonson, and Victor Higgins also are part of the IMA exhibit which seeks to capture “art’s capacity to document a particular time and place.” Several of the artists’ pieces depicting similar subjects are displayed side by side, revealing similarities and differences of works that attempted to document the same time and same place.

I had encountered O’Keeffe before this exhibit. I had stood before Jimson Weed and marveled at its size and simplicity. I had seen a landscape or two, and I had known of O’Keeffe’s penchant for bones. I had even mocked—lightly, mind you—her straightforward naming conventions, like Red Poppy or Grey Hills.

But it wasn’t until I experienced for myself the extent of the repetition and revision of painting the same few objects over and over again—the bones, the flowers, the mountains, the doors, not just by O’Keeffe, but the entire movement of the American Southwest artists in the early twentieth century—that I understood the collective effect of a long career and close collaboration in not only documenting, but defining a place and time. O’Keeffe’s Southwest grew with her, if only in the minds of those who experienced it through her work.

Just as the Southwest found its way into O’Keeffe’s life and art, so O’Keeffe never left the Southwest again. Not permanently. She died in Santa Fe in 1986. But like the artifacts she collected and captured, her work lives on to tell the story of the place she loved.

From the Roster: Joyce Yu-Jean Lee

Every Tuesday afternoon, The Curator is showcasing an individual artist recognized for their unique voice, ideas and process. Once a month, a featured artist will be selected by Rebecca Locke, a New York City-based artist and curator, who develops collaborative and artist-led projects.

Curator’s Introduction:

Joyce Yu-Jean Lee’s work is full of surprises. It is both sublime, and mesmerizing. Were her work static it would constitute a focal point, a centerpiece, yet her moving and changing images beckon the viewer, imploring them to stay, to reflect, to think. Lee’s subject matter is the here and now, the world of our collective experience explored through her performance and video-based artworks which in part contemplate globalization, society, mass media, commercialism and labor inequality.

With the large-scale On the Brink, Lee projects a typhoon-like storm of matter she calls the “residue of everyday life”—cars, branded beer bottles, cell phones and material objects—onto a suspended custom-built circular screen. Through the movement of these seemingly valuable goods thrown through the air—weightless as Dorothy’s house in Kansas—the artist symbolizes the fragility of life and the instability of all in which humanity puts trust.

In the video and performance-based work Made In China the artist depicts both nameless laborers on a production line and the retailer, or ‘peddler’, of material goods. It is a work that references the plight of low-paid laborers, specifically Chinese factory workers producing high-end goods for Apple. With every transaction of the artist’s merchandise, consumers are confronted with visual imagery from the production line, contrary to our daily experience.

Made In China, 2012 (Video projection and installation based performance, duration and dimensions variable)

For Uneasy Peace: Mr. Technology is Your Friend, the artist sourced recent political, economic and news headlines from printed newspapers and journals, and projected juxtaposing cuttings of headlines on large, suspended black weather balloons. The words and phrases, animated and jostling for space, impose themselves into the viewer’s physical environment, and like weather—only in this instance weather made from alphanumeric characters—stimulate and determine the atmosphere.

Uneasy Peace: Mr. Technology is Your Friend, 2014 (Video projection onto black weather balloons)

Likewise, Water Wisdom: Miracle Workers, is based on printed text, borrowed here from Lifestyle magazines. Her projection, a composite of words, echoes the magazine’s tone in ‘projecting’ a perception of beauty. But here, these words are read from banks of sand, characteristic of the artist’s practice in drawing attention to fragility and vulnerability.

Water Wisdom: Miracle Workers, 2014 (Video projection onto sand on floor)

Two exhibitions of Lee’s work open in January 2015: A solo exhibition at Creative Paradox in Annapolis, Maryland, opening  January 17th from 7-9pm and on view until Feb 22nd; and TechNoBody, a group exhibition at Pelham Art Center in Pelham, New York, opening Friday, January 23rd from 6-8pm, on view until March 21st.

Artist Bio:

Joyce Yu-Jean Lee is an artist who works in video installation, photography and performance. She has a M.F.A. from the Maryland Institute College of Art (MICA) and a B.A. from the University of Pennsylvania. Before art school, she worked as the Programming & Art Director for International Arts Movement in New York, NY. She has shown at Connersmith Contemporary and Hamiltonian Gallery in D.C.; Arlington Arts Center, VA; Westchester Arts, White Plains, and has an upcoming exhibition at Pelham Art Center, NY which opens on January 23, 2015. Joyce teaches at Fashion Institute of Technology and New Jersey City University. She serves as a trustee for The Contemporary Museum in Baltimore, and Christians in the Visual Arts (CIVA), and is the recipient of a 2013 Franklin Furnace Fund Grant.

First Light, 2012 (Single-channel video projected onto floor, approximately 4' x 6', 6:49 min looped)
Artist Statement:

The search for illumination—be it physical, intellectual, or spiritual—is a universal pursuit. In her search, Joyce Yu-Jean Lee creates video installations, photographs, and performances that examine how various societies have historically depicted concepts of enlightenment. She projects life-size video animations onto walls, floors, and into corners, transcribing pictorial space into three-dimensions. Currently, she is experimenting with various projection surfaces: mounds of piled sand on the floor, large inflated weather balloons, and a custom circular screen to project video in the round. Joyce integrates these materials with their architectural environment to produce an immersive viewing experience. Curious about how the act of seeing is transformed by technology, her video work slows down viewers causing them to contemplate quiet moments they might otherwise miss.

Joyce also makes digital photographs of illuminated spaces: cast light, shadows, and various light phenomena—both natural and artificial. These formal studies capture fleeting, visually arresting moments of physical light. Her performances are designed and choreographed around how technology mediates consumer behavior and worldviews. Often taking form as public research projects, this work sets up specific scenarios within which to interact and dialogue with live participants. These video installation-based performances function as visual ethnography—reconsidering traditional narratives in contemporary hybrid contexts.

First Light, 2012

First Light, 2012

Room to See; Shan Shui Sights, 2012

Room to See; Shan Shui Sights, 2012

Circle of Light, 2012

Circle of Light, 2012

 

More of Joyce Yu-Jean Lee’s work can be seen here:

www.joyceyujeanlee.com

From the Roster: Beñat Iglesias Lopez

Every Tuesday afternoon we’re featuring the work of an artist to support him/her in cultivating a new audience, to give vision into his/her often unseen studio practice, and to build a diverse roster which participants in the contemporary arts conversation may reference. This week’s artist ‘From the Roster’ is Beñat Iglesias Lopez.

Artist Bio

Benat Iglesias, a native of Spain, lives and works in New York. He approaches art through a variety of mediums, such as sculpture, painting, printmaking and photography. His artwork explores the nature of human relationships, the essence of self in society in our modern world. His focus is on creating artworks that allow the viewer to question our tendency toward jumping to conclusions, or our desire to categorize everything into definable boxes. Iglesias’s artworks are visually engaging and provocative. Through the intellectual and emotional connections viewers form with compelling works of art, he hopes to encourage a better, deeper understanding and appreciation of one’s own life and complex identity.

In 2013 Iglesias’s monumental sculpture The Bathers, was chosen to be displayed at the Riverside Park in NYC, where it is currently on display. He has been the recipient of many awards and prizes, including 1st Prize, Self-Portrait Cover Competition by American Artist Magazine, Grand Prize at ACOPAL(America China Artist League) 2nd Annual Competition, The Ann & Brunno Luchessi Grant and the prestigious Xavier Gonzalez and Ethel Edwards Travel Grant. Mr. Iglesias was chosen as one of the 11 Artist to watch in 2011 by American Artist Magazine. His work has been exhibited at prestigious fine art institutions nationally and internationally, including the Metropolitan Museum of Art in Tokyo, The World Art Museum in Beijing, Shanghai Art Museum, The Butler Institute of American Art Museum and the National Academy Museum of New York among others.

Iglesias: “The main focus of my work for the last 12 years has been the exploration of the human figure, both physical and psychological. By using the human figure I explore the nature of human relationships, the essence of self in society in our modern world. I approach this exploration through drawing, painting, printmaking and sculpture.

 

Time to Evolve Paper Lithograph 22 x 30 inches (each portrait) 2014

Time to Evolve
Paper Lithograph
22 x 30 inches (each portrait)
2014

Time to Evolve Paper Lithograph 22 x 30 inches (each portrait) 2014

Time to Evolve
Paper Lithograph
22 x 30 inches (each portrait)
2014

Artist Statement from the “HEAD SERIES”

The “HEAD SERIES” (images below), an ongoing project, is a series of life size busts made of pigmented and painted plaster. These sculptures are portraits of people I know. Although I always start my work from direct observation, at a certain point the sculpture takes on a life of its own. As I work further with the piece, in its next iteration, I increasingly abstract the portrait with additional elements. For example, in some of the sculptures I have incorporated costume elements such as hats or helmets. These I find very interesting for two reasons: one, these elements can both conceal and reveal the features of my portraits, and secondly, these elements can have strong connotations, which I want the viewer to question. By decontextualizing these symbols I want to make the obvious questionable and provoke the viewer into reexamining their initial interpretations.

My focus is on creating sculptures that allow the viewer to question our tendency to  jump to conclusions, or our desire to categorize everything into definable boxes. Ironically, from my point of view, I have brought no specific meaning to each of these pieces. They are visually engaging and provocative but their exact meaning is unresolved and requires further thought. In this way I strive to prompt the viewer an emotional response that will lead to a dialogue between the sculpture and the viewer. I want my sculptures to engage people in a thinking process, wondering and questioning what at first seemed “obvious”. It is a process deliberately directed to be open to each individual’s interpretation.

I feel it is not my responsibility to tell stories through my work but to present the necessary elements so people can build their own.

 

Head Series Polychrome Plaster Life-size busts, size varies Depending on Installation 2011-Now

Head Series
Polychrome Plaster
Life-size busts, size varies Depending on Installation
2011-Now

 "Head Series" Polychrome Plaster Life-size busts, size varies Depending on Installation. 2014

Head Series
Polychrome Plaster
Life-size busts, size varies Depending on Installation.
2014

Excerpts from a recent interview with Line Magazine: 

What is your medium of choice and why?

I enjoy painting, drawing, sculpting, printmaking and photography, but I do not have one specific medium that speaks to me more than the others. I like video installations too. So far that is something out of my league, but I hope to get to it someday. Different mediums offer a wider range of possibilities to express ideas, and some specific ideas may be better suited to one specific medium. I often feel that the ideas are what dictate the medium to be used. They all compliment each other, so I believe it’s good not to get intimidated by the fact that it may be unknown territory and to enjoy the exploration and possibilities each medium offers.

Portrait of an Artist  Charcoal on Paper 51 x 65 inches (each portrait) 2014

Portrait of an Artist
Charcoal on Paper
51 x 65 inches (each portrait)
2014

Portrait of an Artist Charcoal on Paper 51 x 65 inches (each portrait) 2014

Portrait of an Artist
Charcoal on Paper
51 x 65 inches (each portrait)
2014

What or who is your inspiration?

My everyday life experiences are my source of inspiration. Everything around me affects my work one way or another. I react to what I see and in a conscious or unconscious way. I filter what I feel is important and use it in my work. Every place I have lived has been very important for my development as an artist and as a person. But overall, New York probably has been most influential in my artistic career. The amount of artwork you are exposed to in this city is incredible. When I moved to New York, the city offered me a perfect set up where I could focus without having any other distraction, and basically what I did was spend time at the League, museums and galleries. In this city I also met Fumiko, who makes my life more and more exciting every single day, so I guess there are a few things I should be grateful for to New York.

What keeps motivating you to make art?

Life in general is my motivation. Walking into a gallery and seeing a good show brings me a lot of joy and excitement;  it makes me want to go back to my studio and work non-stop. At the same time, walking into a gallery and seeing a show that I dislike gives me a similar feeling. It may not bring me joy but it excites me and makes me want to go back to my studio and work, hoping to be able to offer something to the art world more worthwhile.

Igelsias’ Paintings:

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What life lessons has being an artist taught you?

That money does not open the door to happiness, but it opens the door to a nice studio space.

If money was not an issue, what is your dream project?

Money will always be an issue, no question about it. My Dream Project is to have a happy life close to the ones I love and be able to bring something good into the lives of others through my work.

More of Benat Iglesias Lopez’s work can be seen at his website. We are happy to say that Pat Tingchen Li has curated Mr. Iglesias’ work in an upcoming show in China in May of 2015. We’ll share details of that show with you as it is available.

From the Roster: Justin K. Sorensen

Every Tuesday afternoon we’re featuring the work of an artist to support him/her in cultivating a new audience, to give vision into his/her often unseen studio practice, and to build a diverse roster which participants in the contemporary arts conversation may reference. This week’s artist ‘From the Roster’ is Justin Sorensen.

Artist Bio: Justin Sorensen is an artist whose work moves between performance, sculpture, printmaking, drawing, and installation. Originally from northwestern Pennsylvania, Sorensen received his BFA from Kutztown University in Kutztown, PA before moving on to do graduate work at Bucknell University in Lewisburg, PA. He received his MFA from the Rhode Island School of Design. His work has been included in numerous exhibitions throughout the United States, most notably at David Krut Projects in New York, NY, and the Granoff Center at Brown University in Providence, RI. Additionally, his work was featured in the exhibition Global Vision at Kyoto Seika University in Iwakura, Kyoto, Japan. He is currently based in northeastern Iowa, where he is serving as a Visiting Instructor in the Department of Visual and Performing Arts at Luther College. He will be relocating to Williston, North Dakota in January to develop the Art Program at Williston State College and to serve the surrounding community.

I Went In Bitterness, 2011  mixed media on paper  50 in. x 224 ¼ in.  Moby-Dick is drawn on a sheet of paper measuring over 18 feet long. The  drawing is then removed from the wall and rolled up, never to be seen  again.

I Went In Bitterness, 2011
mixed media on paper
50 in. x 224 ¼ in.
Moby-Dick is drawn on a sheet of paper measuring over 18 feet long. The
drawing is then removed from the wall and rolled up, never to be seen
again.

Artist Statement:

“I have the impression that I may be inspecting a large area only eventually to exclude it from conversation.”  – Ludwig Wittgenstein, Culture and Value

In 1977 NASA launched Voyager 1, a spacecraft intended to give scientists up-close looks at Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus, and Neptune. After completing its primary mission, it traveled an additional 12 billion miles beyond the orbit of Pluto. On September 12, 2013, it was officially reported that Voyager 1 had left the solar system and entered into Interstellar Space. This is the area in a galaxy that is between the stars. Despite this accomplishment, it is estimated that it would take approximately 40,000 years before Voyager 1 would reach another planetary system. It is expected to be inoperable by 2025.

 

Winter Light, 2014 light dimensions variable  What began as a quiet attempt to sign my name among the stars,  instead became an unacknowledged gesture, lost in the middle of a  silent February landscape.

Winter Light, 2014
light
dimensions variable
What began as a quiet attempt to sign my name among the stars,
instead became an unacknowledged gesture, lost in the middle of a
silent February landscape.

Standing in the wake of Voyager 1, I have often found myself asking what it means to participate in a story that I did not write. For I can’t help but consider the implications of my practice as it moves along the scope of an infinite backdrop. Knowing that a spaceship has surpassed limits I thought could never be reached, to draw the stars is to come to an understanding of my own limitations, and to make myself aware of the potential inconsequence of my work. For me, this has begun to establish a posture of humility rather than one of cynicism. Measuring the meaning of my gestures now requires focusing on the point where my own personal narrative does not fall into insignificance but becomes a matter of secondary importance.

Strawberry Fields, 2012 - present  strawberries, zinc  2 ½ in. x 24 in. x 36 in. each  Over 800 strawberries are aligned into columns and rows on the  matrices of two etching plates. As the strawberries sit on the plates the  acid etches an impression, thus activating the matrices. Fresh  strawberries are used for each iteration of the sculpture.

Strawberry Fields, 2012 – present
strawberries, zinc
2 ½ in. x 24 in. x 36 in. each
Over 800 strawberries are aligned into columns and rows on the
matrices of two etching plates. As the strawberries sit on the plates the
acid etches an impression, thus activating the matrices. Fresh
strawberries are used for each iteration of the sculpture.

 

The landscape plays a prominent role in my studio practice. Primarily, I’m interested in the impression my body leaves on a space. My work is meant to act as an index within the land of my attempt to meaningfully move my body through the natural world. While my work exists in multiple forms, from performance and sculpture to drawing, print, and photography, I’m not interested in creating a readily identifiable style as much as I want to develop a practice of sustainable questions. The landscape holds sediment of countless histories and narratives. As my body navigates the land, I’m seeking to excavate those narratives as well as contribute my own. To that end, my practice is situated within the cross section of a much larger Narrative that I am trying to thoughtfully participate in.

The Transfiguration, 2011  gold leaf on rock dimensions variable  This installation is from a series of work that is exploring the Transfiguration of Christ, using The Transfiguration by Raphael as my source.

The Transfiguration, 2011
 gold leaf on rock
dimensions variable
This installation is from a series of work that is exploring the Transfiguration of Christ, using The Transfiguration by Raphael as my source.

 

The Gospel of Mark, 2013  perfume  dimensions variable  Near the border of upstate New York, I took a gift of 1.7 fl oz of  perfume and distributed it across the surface of a rock until it was  completely expended.

The Gospel of Mark, 2013
perfume
dimensions variable
Near the border of upstate New York, I took a gift of 1.7 fl oz of
perfume and distributed it across the surface of a rock until it was
completely expended.

 

The Foolish Builder, 2012  video and performance  Over the course of a week, I poured water into a box that I had placed into my freezer, allowing it to form into a solid block of ice. I then drove  down to the ocean, and with my back to the Atlantic, buried it in the  sand by pushing it back and forth.

The Foolish Builder, 2012
video and performance
Over the course of a week, I poured water into a box that I had placed
into my freezer, allowing it to form into a solid block of ice. I then drove
down to the ocean, and with my back to the Atlantic, buried it in the
sand by pushing it back and forth.

 

More of Justin Sorensen’s work can be seen at his website.

From the Roster: David Kendall

Every Tuesday afternoon, The Curator is showcasing an individual artist recognized for their unique voice, ideas and process. Once a month, a featured artist will be selected by Rebecca Locke, a New York City-based artist and curator, who develops collaborative and artist-led projects. 

Curator’s introduction: 

Steeped in the tradition of the flâneur—one who walks to discover the city—David Kendall’s practice is defined by process rather than content, style or medium. His photographic series, video art and site-specific art projects are determined by these discoveries. They define his focus and frame a discourse about ‘the city’. The work asks how we engage with urban space, make sense of the city, and it highlights how walking through the city, a place of density of people groups and cultures, allows a glimpse into the lives of others. Kendall encapsulates his rationale through the declarative title Always Let the Road Decide, an ongoing series exploring the developing built environment of Dubai, UAE exploring the movement of migrant workers across a city where walking is discouraged.

Mobile City, 2008 Lambda C-Type print, 41cm x 30.5cm

Mobile City, 2008
Lambda C-Type print, 41cm x 30.5cm

 

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Kendall, traversing the urban environment (urban in this context defined as a densely populated area) draws attention to the hidden or forgotten. The series What is there will be there tomorrow, highlights the long working hours of migrant workers, with limited rights, not welcome in the public eye, who find a moment of rest from the extreme desert heat in the hidden corners and spaces of the city.

What is there will be there tomorrow, 2012 Cyanotype print on watercolor paper

What is there will be there tomorrow, 2012
Cyanotype print on watercolor paper

 

The series Gone but not Forgotten experiments with visibility, perception of the city and it’s people and places. Through Paris 19 / Mobility, Memory and Migration, a collaborative project with OpenVizor’s Abbas Nokhasteh, Moustafa Traoré and Andrés Borda-González, Kendall worked with French citizens of West and North African descent who had been excluded from the narrative history of Paris. The project encouraged participation from local people from this low-income area to generate a new inclusive narrative of Paris, defining stories and space, assembling oral histories and film narratives like ‘Paris 19: Mobility, Memory and Migration.’

Gone but Not Forgotten, 2007 Giclée Pigment print, 42cm x 62cm

Gone but Not Forgotten, 2007
Giclée Pigment print, 42cm x 62cm

 

Gone but Not Forgotten, 2007 Giclée Pigment print, 42cm x 62cm

Gone but Not Forgotten, 2007
Giclée Pigment print, 42cm x 62cm

Through such, the work engaged with issues of assimilation, integration, citizenship and migration in France. Kendall’s work formed the basis of Photography and the Practice of Walking, a symposium hosted by Goldsmith’s Art School and the Center of Urban and Community Research, Goldsmiths, University of London, and University College London’s Learning to Walk panel at the Cities Methodologies Urban Laboratory, and can be listened to here.

 

Photography and the Practice of Walking, 2008 Lambda C-Type print, 2008, 41cm x 30.5cm

Photography and the Practice of Walking, 2008
Lambda C-Type print, 41cm x 30.5cm

 

Artist Bio:

David Kendall lives and works in London, UK. His practice utilizes visual archives, mapping, events and human experiences to inspire and generate his photographic, film and site-specific projects. He is a graduate of LCC, University of the Arts London, and Goldsmiths, University of London, where he studied urban photography, design and sociology. His photographs, spatial research and collaborative projects have featured in exhibitions, festivals and symposia at museums and academic institutions, including the British Library, London, UK; ETNOFilm, Ethnographic Museum of Istria, Rovinj, Croatia; Centro Cultural Manuel Gómez Morín, Santiago de Queretaro, Mexico; and Tate Britain, London, UK. Kendall is a visiting research fellow with the Centre for Urban and Community Research, Goldsmiths, University of London, UK.

Artist Statement:

David Kendall explores how spatial, economic and design initiatives, as well as participatory practices, can combine to encourage social and spatial interconnections or reveal dissonance in cities. His photographic, film and site-specific works are generated through the practice of walking, experiential learning and reflection. Therefore, ‘temporality’ is an important structural component in practice development. In investigating the dichotomy of the seen and the unseen he aims to question notions of ocular transparency in geographical environments. Furthermore, Kendall is attracted to thresholds between private and public spaces, inside and outside cities.

His individual and collaborative projects combine photography with sensory techniques such as sound, touch and smell to ‘map’ urban and architectural environments. These works consider how collective memories form and influence contemporary visual and spatial realities and pictorial archives, and utilize audio-visual participatory processes and architectural spaces to trigger collective or public memory, thus activating new discourse about migration, spatial division, planning processes, social conflict and cohesion in world cities.

More of David Kendall’s work can be seen here: www.david-kendall.co.uk

From the Roster: Jeremy Grant

Every Tuesday afternoon we’re featuring the work of an visual artist  to support their cultivation of an audience, to give sight into their often unseen studio practice, and to build a diverse roster of artists from which you may reference. This Tuesday our feature covers mixed-media, assemblage artist Jeremy Grant. In learning about Grant’s conceptual framework, it became increasingly apparent that questions of “what ought to be” and what “ought not to be” consistently collide in his object-making, and do is in excellent form.

When the Bud Relents Into Flower 14" x 81" Collage and resin

When the Bud Relents Into Flower
14″ x 81″
Collage and resin

Jeremy Grant’s Bio: Jeremy Grant is an emerging artist and award-winning graphic designer. His found-object assemblages have been exhibited in two-person and juried shows regionally in Colorado. Jeremy is married to an author, has two beautiful babies and loves Jesus, bourbon and robots.

Jeremy at work in the studio.

Statement about the recent series LIFE>>>through>>>DEATH: Sacrifice, difficulty and even death often precede the blossoming of new, more richly varied life. The poet Hopkins says “See how Spring opens with disabling cold,” and the Christian scriptures offer an analogy of a grain of wheat that “falls into the earth and dies, but if it dies, it bears much fruit.” In this ambitious new body of work, I am embodying these ideas using an eclectic mix of collage, resin and found objects which I have destroyed, broken up and re-assembled into more rich and varied groupings. A timeline element exists in each of these pieces suggesting the journey of birth to death. Organic, blossoming elements speak to the idea of overcoming adversity, of strength found through suffering and of life after death.

Jeremy_Grant_art_Screen Shot 2014-11-04 at 1.12.45 PM

“See How Spring Opens With Disabling Cold” 28″ x 40″ found objects, salvaged wood, collage and resin

From Jeremy: “In 2005, I began to collect junk. While others were content to let bottle caps, rusty washers and old keys decay in gutters, I wasn’t. Something in these odd, cast-off bits of junk intrigued me. Building on a foundation of 15 years of art making and education, I began to assemble wall-hanging sculptures, shadow boxes and free-standing sculptures from the junk I had collected.

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Objects carry associations. People viewing my art will often recognize the objects I am using and tell me the associations they have with those pieces. “I remember having one of those toys as a child,” or “I use those bolts everyday in my job.”  Those associations are important to me, and I create art as much to tell a story as to convey an idea.

As I continue to create, I am following the theme of redemption. Redemption being that act of finding or revealing the full worth of something or someone. I believe that meaning, beauty and worth are often found in unexpected places, and so I am looking in unexpected places.”

Images from the Ordinary Saints Series

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More of Jeremy’s work can be seen here.

If You’re an Artist, Wayne White Understands

I used to watch Netflix documentaries on my laptop while getting ready for work. One particular morning, without pretense or expectation, I clicked on the documentary Beauty is Embarrassing, and then, about twenty minutes into the film, I had one of those moments. A moment when a truth connects with you so deeply that time seems to stop. A slow-motion epiphany isn’t a good thing when getting ready for work. When I came home that day and the next morning and the next evening after that, I watched the movie again and again, trying to soak up its wisdom—learning about working hard, believing in yourself, artistic inspiration, and being brave.

The road an artist travels is almost always the “road less traveled.” It is exhilarating to be an explorer, to chart new territory. No matter how independent or audacious a traveler you may be, however, sometimes it’s nice to have simple tools, like a map and a compass. The subject of Beauty is Embarrassing, lifelong artist Wayne White, is farther down the road than most and can tell you how he got there. He has been creating art for decades, but is just being noticed by the fine art world. His start came with the avant-garde children’s show Pee-wee’s Playhouse, where he flexed all his artistic muscles, building sets and puppets, and providing voices for multiple characters. The show became a cult sensation across the country, for adults and children alike. (The show’s creators knew the show was big when they heard of college students filling bars at 7am to watch episodes together.)

White is an artist because he has to be. It’s a compulsion. He certainly didn’t do it for success or accolades, because those were a long time coming. For those with similar creative compulsions, Wayne’s wisdom can meet you on that road. It doesn’t have to be as lonely as we make it out to be. These are the lessons that met me.

1. “Art is a 24/7 lifestyle.”
"It never stops"

“It never stops”

Key word: lifestyle. Art is not a job. (Well, maybe you make money at it as your profession, in which case, we’re all jealous.) No one wants to work 24/7, but people want to live in wonder and possibility all day everyday and that is what you’ve signed up for as an artist.

"Fried Chicken"

“Fried Chicken” comes from series where White pours paint onto a canvas and then describes what it looks like after drying.

I worry that I have no big stories, no resolutions, and no takeaways. But I make myself write anyway. I write about finding a stray strand of hair glued by condensation to the outer rim of my drinking glass. I write about sitting on an upholstered stool at Chipotle, watching passersby on Sixth Avenue. I write about my first personal essay getting jammed in the work printer for my boss to later find.

You must open your mind to the wonder around every corner—that must drive you. The whole reason you’re an artist is you want to share your point of view with an audience. Make sure that view port stays open all the time, that your whole lens on life becomes that view port. You can’t pursue depth and live a shallow life. Real life happens in the real world, and real art happens in the real world. In some ways, creativity is an escape from reality, but in other ways it’s meant to engage it at the highest level. Andy Warhol had similar advice: “You need to let the little things that would ordinarily bore you suddenly thrill you.” If you can’t find art in the quotidian, where else are you going to find it?

2. “A lot of art is ditch digging.”
"Impossible"

“Impossible”

Towards the beginning of the film, White is sitting in his dimly lit art studio, back facing the camera. He steadily and painstakingly moves his brush across the canvas and says this line. “A lot of art is ditch digging.” Remember that activity or work you resented because you saw it as tedious and time-consuming, but then you saw it with new artist eyes and it became shiny and new? That shiny and new thing will become the new tedious and time-consuming thing. It’s just how the cycle works. Such is life and such is the creative process. The time when a project becomes tedious and time-consuming is the worst time to give up on it. You’ve already got skin in the game.

"Dunno"

“Dunno”

Only in the ditch-digging phase of writing do I begin to see the broader implications of my everyday observations. The awareness of a strand of hair has more to do with the fear of losing my hair. The trick is enjoying and embracing the tedium as a pursuit in and of itself. At this point on the artistic road it is easy to lose track of the finish line. In this moment you might be tempted to ditch this project for a new one. More likely, however, you’ll be tempted to change the “direction” of your piece substantially. This is a trap door that many people fall through. Drastically changing the direction or thesis of your project midway through so that it is basically unrecognizable from your original intent is the same thing as ditching your project. Don’t do that. Unless you really, really have to.

3. “Hoozy Thinky Iz?”
"Hoozy Thinky Iz?"

“Hoozy Thinky Iz?”

White painted this old school cartoon saying across the canvas of one of his word paintings. It’s the imposter syndrome, the voice that lives inside the head of every creative that says over and over “what right do you have to be here?” It’s the creeping suspicion that all of your peers actually paid attention in school and have deeper thoughts and smarter reasons. It’s the feeling that you’re the only one without a hardcore purpose and mission behind your work. It’s the feeling that you’re a fraud and everybody knows it. You’re not fooling anybody.

These are my own insecurities. At times I feel like a pseudo-everything: pseudo-friend, pseudo-designer, pseudo-writer. Nothing is as humbling as moving to New York City upon graduating from college, where Ivy League degrees are treated like passport stamps. One is requisite; two are preferable.

One antidote is simply to know that all other artists, including Wayne White, suffer from this. It doesn’t make one’s mind a fun place to live, but it helps create some good art. To run at a fast pace, you either must be running away from something or towards something, or both. If you let “Hoozy Thinky Iz?” chase you, you’ll run faster, but you’ll run out of breath really fast and might wind up on a different road entirely (see lesson 2). At the end of the film Wayne seems tired and ready to end his dysfunctional relationship with the voice of doubt. “The ‘Hoozy Thinky Iz?’ phantom is always in my head,” he says. “Even though I’m looking around going, ‘Who’s even saying that to you anymore, Wayne?’”

4. “Beauty is Embarrassing.”
"Beauty is Embarrassing"

“Beauty is Embarrassing”

This is the heart of the documentary. Creating the work is only half the battle. Believing in it, being naked and vulnerable enough to share it is the other half. We are embarrassed in the presence of true beauty and embarrassed to think we are capable of producing true beauty ourselves. An artist’s life will always live within this tension.

White is embarrassed to share what he does for a living. He fears calling himself an artist sounds both self-aggrandizing and downright silly. His fear is far harsher than anyone’s reaction. Eleanor Roosevelt famously said that no one can make you feel inferior without your consent; and no one can make you feel embarrassed without your consent. Even so, allowing others to view and critique your work will always involve embarrassment. My personal essay getting jammed in the printer at work was terrible. I did not want anyone to read what I had written, especially my boss. And yet, this exemplifies a complicated relationship with writing because, of course, I had also written because I wanted everyone to read. Art is always personal, and sharing it will always feel like you are sharing an unfamiliar part of yourself.

Part of White’s mission is to imbue the art world with a sense of humor, encouraging it to stop taking itself so seriously. He is sure to point out, however, that this mission has come up against a great deal of resistance. “Entertainment is a dirty word in the art world,” he confides. Many critics cannot accept a piece of art as both meaningful and humorous. But humor is serious business to White. If he did not view laughter as important, as something both healing and sacred, it would not be worth it for him to subject himself to the judgments of the art world, to risk embarrassment. Indeed, the embarrassment has a purpose. The viewer can sense that as White has come into his own as an artist, he now understands the importance of pursuing a mission in his work. Running away from “Hoozy Thinky Iz?” is no longer sustainable. Running towards a goal, having a concrete purpose is a stronger and more rewarding driving force. This alone is what makes an artist brave enough to share. It also turns out to be the only map you ever really need.

 

From the Roster: Jay Walker

Every Tuesday afternoon we’re featuring the work of an artist  to support them in cultivating a new audience, to give vision into their oft unseen studio practice, and to build a diverse roster which participants in the contemporary arts conversation may reference. This Tuesday our featured artist is Jay Walker, with whom I was able to chat. Our conversation follows.

Jay Walker’s Bio: Jay Walker is a Philadelphia-based multi-disciplinary artist creating tape installations, mixed media painting/drawings, and carved sculptures. He has a BFA from Texas A&M-Corpus Christi and a MFA from the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts. Walker regularly exhibits in both group exhibits and solo exhibits.  He has been Solo exhibits at the Abingtion Art Center (Abington, PA), James Oliver Gallery (Philadelphia), Gordon College (Wenham, MA) and the Crane Hall (Philadelphia). He has also been in group exhibits at Pentimenti Gallery (Philadelphia), DCCA (Wilmington, DE), Space 38|39 (New York, NY) and Baden-Wuerttemberg Arts & Cultural Center (Heidelberg, Germany). Walker also regularly curates exhibits and happenings.

Theotokos-XXIV

Theotokos-XXIV

 

Meaghan Ritchey: Tell me about the process of devoting yourself and your time to making art? How has this decision played itself out in the studio over the years? Have your desires and practices changed?

Jay Walker: Creating things is imperative for me. I can go a few days without doing it, but after that, I become uncomfortable with myself. Because of this urge, I continue to make art, but I am not very disciplined in it. I hear of artists that have mechanical like days of certain hours devoted to their studios; I am never going to be that person, even though I regularly try to be.

My college mentor, Bruno Andrade, who passed away last year, use to call me a “spurty painter” because he would find me painting in the studio for 12 hours at a time for 5 days straight, but then I wouldn’t come in for a week. He wanted me to be in there everyday for a set amount of hours. I just wanted to paint all of the time, and so when I would work, I’d forsake everything and work until my body gave out, my family and friends needing to see me.

I’m like one of those guys on Deadliest Catch: they go to work for a month but then they are off for two. It appeals to me—immersing myself, taking it as far as I can, and right before it destroys me, pulling back to rest. Feast and famine. Because of this I keep myself away from entanglements that need me regularly. I have a wife that understands this about me. It is something that I am loving about my recent installations. The galleries normally give me a limited amount of time to accomplish this giant project, so if I don’t completely focus, it won’t get done, and when it is done, I rest. It’s important to know my own rhythm and not resent myself for it.

MR: How did peer critique and conceptual instruction during your MFA catalyze your movement from painting to installations and so forth?

JW: My time at the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts was so strange. I remember it like I remember the first grade. I had no idea what was going on, and because of that, I don’t think I really understood what I was doing. At the same time, it was a mind expanding experience. I showed up to PAFA thinking I was going to impress everyone with my drawing abilities. It was like showing up to the Olympics and trying to impress the other athletes with how muscular you are. They were just like, “so what? What are you going to do with that?” So in my second year, I latched on to a concept of creating artwork all about a janitor, Frank, that worked on my floor. I started by drawing him, and before I knew it, I was creating paintings, an eleven foot statue, a video, and framing a photograph of him and giving it to everyone I knew. I explored obsession in portraiture and discovered that I didn’t like being confined to a medium. I wanted to create whatever I wanted to and didn’t want to be beholden to what I was doing the week before. 

Once that freedom was established, I began exploring counterintuitive conceptions in my work. I was obsessed with portraiture and the figure, so I asked myself what happens if I remove the person, well then I just have clothes, so I did a series of clothing paintings and drawings. Then I was using tape to make sure the work’s lines were tight and clean, and then I realized I liked how the tape looked on the paper, so I began drawing with tape. I only liked to paint portraits of “everymen” and everyday clothing, so I explored a cloak and tunic that I saw showing up in religious iconography. My work had been mostly desaturated and plain,then it became technicolor and full of pattern. I was focused on my work being archival, so what if I worked in a way that the tape become a throwaway ball of tape after the exhibit? I am in the middle of transition right now in my studio—with the tape everything is clean flat line, so I am now painting with colorful wood dye that is looser than watercolor, which is a real mess. I love looking at the opposite approach and following where that rabbit trail will take me.  

Here are examples of this progression:  


Peer critique is an interesting relationship.It only can happen with certain people, someone who I have developed that relationship with over time. I need their fresh eyes telling me what they see which allows me to separate myself from the work just enough to see what needs to happen next. I need to figure out the work, but doing that alone can be stifling. If someone starts telling me what I need to do, I stop listening, which considering my nature is humorously hypocritical. Out side of that, criticism is something to either be laughed off or absorbed, and the former should be the case most of the time. I’m on a path that requires things to seem ridiculous at a point. If everything is reasonable and understandable to all people all of the time, I am not going anywhere. Test everything, hold on to what is good, reject what is bad.

From the Jacket Series

 

MR: What are major difficulties (personal, professional or conceptual) you’ve overcome in doing this work?

JW: The biggest obstacle is a fear of my own stubbornness. Am I really supposed to be doing this or am I just not letting it go? Of course, this voice is louder when I am not getting attention, but it changes when I am having some success, then it just calls me a phony. And then there is the lack of money, but we all know that story. Poor starving artist. Then you make money and suddenly you aren’t legitimate. But I regularly remind myself, if I wanted to make money, I could’ve in a different career (I have a high view of my abilities), but I chose the other path and an old dead poet told me it would be worth it.

At this point, I should point out that I married an amazing woman, who pushes me even when I want to give up and is comfortable with a spartan life when it comes to that. If you are going to be an artist, marry well or not at all. When it comes to everything else, I have learned that I have to be patient with myself. The artist life is a war of attrition and the one still standing at sixty has a chance of victory. The one who runs headlong into battle and doesn’t understand why the “Art World” does not raise it’s white flag immediately is not going to have a good time of it. Maybe the work I am making at the moment isn’t that good, but maybe it will lead to something important? Explorers tend to have to go through some rough terrain to get somewhere meaningful. So I just keep creating and know that questioning the worthiness of the work is a waste of time.

Installations

 

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MR: Do you think you’ve had guides on your walk as an artist?

JW: I try to let everyone be my guide. In other words, what can I learn from observing every person I encounter, artist or not? In the past, I have had mentors, but at the moment, not really. Not to be morbid, but a lot of them died last year, Bruno Andrade in Texas, Sidney Goodman at PAFA, and my best friend David Sacks. The only one out there is Mark Anderson, who is the chairperson of the art department at Baylor, but we don’t get to see each other much these days. Bruno taught me that I had to work very hard. Sidney taught me that pretension is crap and being honest with who you are is the only means of creation. Mark taught me not to believe the hype. And to define what David taught me would be ridiculous. I initially went to him to learn how to function business-wise as an artist, but that was just the tip of the iceberg.

Wood

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More of Jay’s work can be seen at his website.

From the Roster: Stephanie Imbeau

Every Tuesday afternoon, we are showcasing an individual artist recognized for his or her unique voice, ideas and process. Once a month, a featured artist will be selected by Rebecca Locke, a New York City-based artist and curator, who develops collaborative and artist-led projects.

Village, 2007

Village, 2007

 

Stephanie Imbeau

Curator’s introduction:

Our universal human need for home, for safety, weaves through Brooklyn-based Stephanie Imbeau’s large-scale installations and intimately-scaled sculptures.

Shelter, a large-scale installation commissioned by the British TV network Channel Four, exemplifies her practice. Five stories high, the work filled an entire courtyard in Central London, took two months to assemble off-site, then three days to install. Made completely from found, broken, or discarded umbrellas, she gave these useless objects a new lease of life. Despite their condition, damaged and busted, the umbrellas were strengthened and re-purposed, becoming part of this new, dynamic work of art. Lit from within at night and vivid in color, it was a work that could not be ignored, a temporary landmark, and an addition to London’s cityscape.

 

The recent series cover/uncover likewise toys with ideas of strength and vulnerability. The ‘shelters’ in this instance are ceramic houses, small tabletop sculptures symbolizing home, created from carefully draped forms; these shapes, whilst solid, look as though they are made from soft blankets, delicate and comforting. Through this contrast, the artist explores vulnerability, and our need for shelter and home.

Untitled (Covered/Uncover 9), 2013

Untitled (Covered/Uncover 9), 2013

Imbeau’s work is currently featured in the group exhibition Homeland [IN]Security: Vanishing Dreams at Dorsky Gallery, through November 16, in Long Island City, Queens.

Artist Bio: Stephanie Imbeau’s work articulates her interest in the search for community, shelter and home by exploring the familiar imagery of houses, umbrellas and boats using materials relating to shelter and domesticity. Working in Brooklyn, NY, Stephanie exhibits internationally. In 2007 she earned her Master of Fine Arts from Newcastle University, UK.

 

Artist Statement: Working in various media such as installation, sculpture and drawing, Imbeau’s practice explores community, isolation and built environments that contextualize every-day experience, often celebrating overlooked items or materials, both domestic and industrial. By using domestic materials the artist points to the importance of beauty and the significance of daily life. Much of her work consists of large composites of smaller parts, as a metaphorical reference to individuals within a larger community. Using imagery such as houses, roofs, boats, and other protective structures, she engages ideas of comfort and shelter, emphasizing the fragility of our individual state and our need for support, both physical and emotional. An approach which is both playful and explorative creates a balance of seriousness and levity, through art that is equally contemplative and celebratory. Maintaining a degree of lightheartedness and viewing the world with a sense of child-like wonder, her work affords a respite from the stresses and anxieties of life.

www.stephanieimbeau.com

The House Shows Project

Andrew Hendrixson is a visual artist whose work has been shown in galleries from New York City to Gainesville, Florida, Cincinnati, Ohio to Lubbock, Texas. Since receiving his MFA from the University of Florida, he has engaged the art world as a critic, a lecturer, and a professor. He regularly pursues opportunities to commune with other artists, a recent example being his 8-month residency in Miami with renowned artist, Enrique Martinez Celaya. Currently, as he continues these conversations with and about art in his studio and his classroom, he has added another layer to the exchange by setting up art shows in homes across the country. In the interview that follows, he discusses his art and his hopes for his most recent and ongoing project, The House Shows.

 

Hendrixson_02

“Don’t Sleep” (Quiet Rainbow) | oil on canvas | 36” x36”

 

Elizabeth: Before discussing The House Shows, can you speak about your art more generally?

Andrew: I love things that are beautiful, but the art that I gravitate toward has something to offer about how to be in the world. I need more than just distraction. I almost always feel let down by what I see in contemporary art. At times, I’ve felt like I’m in the wrong discipline. Other times I’ve wondered if I expect too much of the arts, but I don’t think I do. What I need is to know that I’m not the only person in the world feeling clunky and alone. My art comes directly out of my own thoughts and questions. It’s visual thinking, rather than visual asserting.

E: You frequently have iterations of certain images in your paintings. How do these images surface for you, and what are you doing with them on the canvas?

A: I see these images as metaphors I’m latching onto to understand how to be in the world. I’m using the resonance of these images, what we already know about them, to reach an understanding that isn’t possible if we just recount our own personal experiences. I’m often taking an incredibly simple form and suggesting that there is an entire body of thought that yields this form. Metaphor addresses the things for which we don’t have language but recognize nonetheless. I don’t use metaphor as a way of being aloof or elusive or creating mystique. It’s not a trick. Rather, it’s for my own clarity and the hope of a wider, more communal understanding. It’s always at the service of empathy.

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E: And your pursuit of how to be in the world, how to be empathetic, and how to create art that widens our communal understanding is connected to your House Shows Project. What does a house show looks like?

A: The hosts invite people into their homes where we’ve installed my art on their walls. People mill around for a few minutes, and then we gather in one room to talk. Folks pile in, sometimes sitting cross-legged on the floor or on the arms of chairs. My wife opens us with a reading of William Stafford’s A Ritual to Read to Each Other. Then I talk about why art matters and the ways I hope my art and this project might redefine the role of art in people’s lives.

E: Why that poem of Stafford’s?

A: Because it is the aspiration of the house shows. A “pattern that others made” is prevailing in the world, and we are “following the wrong god home.” The poem demands a lot of us. This project is my best attempt to respond to the admonition to remain awake and invite others to do the same, because “the darkness around us is deep.”

. Wasteland | hand sewn fabric, faux fur, and oil on canvas | 69” x 48”

“Wasteland” | hand sewn fabric, faux fur, and oil on canvas | 69” x 48”

E: What prompted The House Shows project?

A: The idea has been building for years out of accumulated frustrations with what I found to be problematic in the existing structures of the art world. My family of origin does not believe the visual arts are for them. I don’t think they are alone in this belief. Often paintings only serve to hold a space on a wall. We assume art has nothing to say to our lives. Art doesn’t have any real presence for us, and that’s a problem. If thoughtfulness is for everyone, how do we actually make concrete examples of this fact? We often allow perceived powers to establish what is or isn’t valuable and who is or isn’t interesting.

I’ve walked into a fine arts gallery in Chelsea where all the workers are wearing Bottega suits, and no one lifts their heads to look at me. I’ve walked into a public library where I see a painting placed high above the bookshelves alongside posters or flyers. At the gallery, I feel I’m not important enough to be there, and at the public library there’s little to distinguish the art from the flyer advertising an apartment for rent. At both ends of the spectrum, the art is either inhospitable or in an inhospitable space. So where do we go to have an encounter that matters with a work of art? Where can we go where it’s presented in a way that we know is for us—where it isn’t antagonistic toward us? There arent a lot of options that exist for art. We have either local craft festivals or high-end galleries—very little in between. But when we make a new option, suddenly that option exists. That’s part of what I hope comes from this project.

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E: You often speak of the role tension plays in the process of creating art. While a cozy evening in someone’s living room talking about what you love sounds inviting, what tensions are there for you?

A: I cannot assume the guests will have any previous understanding of or experience with the arts. Certain vernacular or art history references might be unfamiliar to them. I have to actually say what I mean and not hide behind the assumption of shared understanding. I also have to figure out how to let the work do its thing and not feel like I have to unpack it verbally. Anything I say about a particular painting will be less than what the painting is saying, hence the need for the painting. But I can at least give context, sharing what informed the making of the painting. The work will still be distinct from what I say.

E: How has the engagement been with viewers?

A: People have been earnest and receptive. They quickly recognize that the evening’s discussions are going to be about what matters most to them–things they might not often have the opportunity to talk about. Though we’re strangers, we have real human moments and intimate conversations together. We skip over all that get-to-know-you stuff and go to the heart of human experience immediately. I think people are relieved that it’s so confrontational so quickly.

"Sixteen Years" (detail)

“Sixteen Years” (detail)

E: That’s a real distinction. If they walk into a gallery and look at, say, one of your axe paintings, no one is going to tell them, “This is what matters most to the artist. You’re engaging in an honest conversation.”

A: Because so much of contemporary art isn’t about what matters most. We’re so jaded, and probably beneath it all, we’re so hurt that we rarely even try to have these conversations anymore.

E: So what matters most? What are the questions that are at the heart of these conversations?

A: They’re questions of being—the persistent and remaining questions. How should we be in the world? Where are we doing that well and where we are we not? What should or shouldn’t we give our time to?

It’s important to know other people have the same persistent questions we have. This creates the possibility of empathy for one another. If I’m just giving you cynicism and wit in my art, or even just proficiency with a brush, we never have the opportunity to talk about anything that actually matters. Anything we do talk about will be adjacent to our lives. So much of contemporary art is on the periphery of our experience. We already know what happens on the other side of carelessness and apathy. But what’s less known is compassion, empathy, non-passivity.

study for "Hope and the King of Anything" (detail)

study for “Hope and the King of Anything” (detail)

 

E: If I could trust that the art I see in a gallery is asking those questions, my entire experience there would change. If I can believe a painting is asking about questions of being, then I know how to begin to engage it.

A: The House Shows have only affirmed my desire to make work that is rooted in my own questions rather than in visual whimsy. People are responding to this and recognizing the intention of the work. These shows also make me have to be increasingly more genuine in what I say I think and believe. I cannot hide behind my insecurities like I would be able to in the gallery. The house shows are constantly confrontational for me.

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E: How has it been adjusting to a different kind of space for your art? You have to accept that a painting might hang on a scuffed wall or next to a light switch. Is that compromising the work of art? Is anything lost when the lighting isn’t perfect or when it’s hanging close to the quilt grandma made?

A: The austerity of the gallery is lost. I do love the perfect track lighting, the perfect halo around the painting, and the perfect shadows between the paintings. In a gallery, everything is so fixed to be lovely. But, what is that? Those aren’t the lives we live. Our lives and homes and thoughts are not that tidy. When the painting is three inches from a light switch, I can’t hide behind perfect track lighting and perfectly light grey walls. It makes the art have to be good, and hopefully really good, because now it must contend with the light switch and grandma’s quilt. More to the point, and even if I begrudge this, the art actually BELONGS between the light switch and grandma’s quilt because that’s the space in which we’re living. The manicured tidiness of the gallery has nothing to do with the lives we have. But art in the living room…

E: Currently, what are you working on in the studio?

A: I’m exploring the walls of Jericho in some studies, drawings and on a few canvases. Scripture is full of these victories of obedience. God tells his people to walk around a wall seven times, and it falls. He tells them to do this other thing, and it works. Take up your mat and walk—it works. I don’t always see those kinds of results in life. So I’m poking at Jericho as an idea. I would love to walk around the wall seven times and watch it fall. I could then think, “That’s great! I’m obedient, and it works.” But what if it doesn’t work? What if the walls never fall? Will I still keep walking? At worst it’s long-suffering, and at best it’s hope—if I’m active and not passive, if I keep participating, if I show up and walk around seven times today maybe they will fall eventually.

E: It’s interesting, because there is long-suffering in scripture: wilderness wandering, the exile, instances where people never saw the fruit of their obedience. But you’re mining these shorter stories that supply convenient images, which is often how we absorb them. The longer stories of exile or wandering don’t have those clear “pow!” moments with quick results. You’re drawing attention to those longer stories without mentioning them by taking to task the shorter narratives that are so easy to tell and cling to and recall with an image.

A: Thus far, those shorter stories don’t pan out in the world in which I live. I can’t get my head around those kinds of results. Does my understanding of them need to change? Or do I need to change? Maybe I need to not look for the walls to fall down. Maybe results don’t even matter. Wendell Berry says we don’t have the right to ask questions about results. We just do it because it’s right.

 

More of Hendrixson’s work as well as information about upcoming house shows in Manhattan, Brooklyn, Cincinnati, Nashville, and Chicago can be found here.

 

 

Art for Everyone

On a recent Sunday afternoon, I walked through the dimly lit galleries at the Indianapolis Museum of Art on a docent-led tour with two friends, the docent’s wheelchair-bound mother, and an ASL interpreter even though none among us was deaf. We stopped at a dozen or so pieces, mostly paintings, depicting various Christian saints, and one by one the docent explained the historical context, the artist’s technique, and the symbolic attributes of the composition. We looked at Tiffany stained glass, Romanesque frescoes, Tuscan altarpieces, and various triptychs that once had graced the European cathedrals of centuries past.

Renaissance_gallery_-_Indianapolis_Museum_of_Art_-_DSC00716

Indianapolis Museum of Art

Having been through these same galleries before on my own—and having taken similar tours in the past where some of these exact paintings had been featured—I had become very familiar with the artwork. So, too, with the stories behind several of the pieces. I knew the Angel of the Resurrection Tiffany window had been commissioned by the widow of President Benjamin Harrison. I remembered the painstaking process of removing the frescoes from the Spanish cathedral and shipping them across the Atlantic. I recognized the familiar haloes over the heads of the saints.

I learned a few new things, too. On another tour, I heard a different story of the budding staff held by Joseph in Francisco Rizi’s The Dream of Joseph, and I didn’t recall the symbol of the cross in the halo over Jesus’ head before. But of course, it was right there. I also hadn’t heard of the lurid interest of religious artists in the stories of St. Sebastian, who was stripped down and tied to a post before being riddled with arrows. According to the docent, Renaissance artists particularly liked to depict St. Sebastian because it gave them opportunity to practice painting the naked male form.

For years now, I’ve accepted as common knowledge that early churches were filled with art as a means of biblical literacy among non-reading congregants, among other noble purposes. The tour of the saints also confirmed my theory that church history as well has been carefully preserved in paintings, stained glass, sculpture, and more. But the stories depicted in pigment and stone are not just an illustration of words, and it’s not just the illiterate who learn and worship in the presence of public religious art.

As I walked through the galleries, my heart told me this was my art now. These were my stories to hear and learn and retell. This was my religious history, my Christian worldview, being depicted on canvas or stucco or glass. I didn’t feel that way the first few times I saw these paintings. Their symbolic depictions and dramatic colors unnerved me, distanced me, even, on my early encounters. But time, exposure, knowledge: these helped bring art to life.

But what about those for whom exposure to art, much less religious art, isn’t readily available, or those whose negligible or nonexistent interest in art prevents them from seeking out opportunities to view it? And beyond the history of a single religion, what happens when a city, a nation, or a society loses the stories art tells because its masterpieces are not made public, but instead are tucked away, reserved for only the elite or the interested?

A few weeks earlier, my husband and I were driving home on a different route than usual in a part of town we rarely frequent. Our small, Midwestern city used to be a railway hub; the section with the old roundhouse and track switches is nearly deserted now except for a local trash collection company and a small ice cream factory.

As we turned off the main drag and wove through the aging industrial section, I noticed a billboard that seemed out of place. Is that a Mary Cassatt painting? I wondered. I didn’t have time to snap a photo with my iPhone, but I did notice in the corner a simple URL: ArtEverywhereUS.org. I tucked it away in my mind, hoping to look it up later.

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Art Everywhere billboard featuring the work of Charles Sheeler

When I did finally type the URL into my Chrome browser, I discovered that my city was part of a national campaign to display some of America’s greatest art in public spaces normally reserved for advertising: billboards, bus shelters, subway posters, dioramas in airports, videos in health clubs, trailers in movie theaters and more. Fifty-eight paintings were chosen from five leading art museums in the country and were featured in more than 50,000 digital and static displays. The paintings depicted significant moments in American history and culture and were displayed in locations where Americans would pass by them often in the course of everyday life.

“Throughout the entire month of August, cherished American artworks will be seen by millions of people every day when they are commuting to work, taking the kids to school, hailing a taxi, shopping in a mall, catching a bus or pursuing other routine activities,” the Art Everywhere promotional material said.

Preserving culture through art starts with national art campaigns like this one or with required art appreciation and art history classes taught in public schools, but it’s only really accomplished when the stories told through various media are made available and accessible to people in the course of their everyday lives. Art in churches worked because people went to church regularly. Art in churches would still work for those who go. But placing all types of art in all the other places people go in the course of their regular lives allows people not only to view but to become acquainted with the context, the technique, and the attributes of the artists and their stories. Their art becomes our art, and the stories seem a little more familiar every time we see them.

I quickly fell in love with the Art Everywhere US project, especially with our own copy of Mary Cassatt’s The Boating Party right in the middle of one of the most run-down parts of the city. I couldn’t wait to tell others. A few days after my husband and I first saw the billboard, I was driving around with a friend and asked her if she had seen it. She hadn’t, so we drove by.

Mary Cassatt (American, 1844 - 1926 ), The Boating Party, 1893/1894, oil on canvas, Chester Dale Collection

Mary Cassatt (American, 1844-1926) “The Boating Party”1893/1894,                           oil on canvas, Chester Dale Collection

That very Sunday afternoon driving home from the saints tour at the art museum, I asked the friends I had gone with—an art teacher and her artist daughter—if they had seen the billboard. They hadn’t either. I was surprised. Apparently the campaign had not been well publicized in our area. So with the saints and their haloes still fresh in our minds, we drove to the other side of town, and this time parked and snapped photos.

A few days later in her art class, my friend used The Boating Party as a sample for a writing assignment. One of her students said, “I know that painting—it’s over by Winski’s.” Even if she knew nothing of Mary Cassatt or The National Gallery, she was right.

Winogrand: Pre-selfie Street Photographer

“If you didn’t take the picture, you weren’t there,” Garry Winogrand once said—although perhaps he didn’t intend for his words to be quite so prescriptive. Since 1990, the number of photos taken per year has increased by about 600 percent—in part because of the technological advances of the camera (the disposable camera in the late 1980s, the digital camera in the mid-1990s, and the camera phone in the early 2000s) and in part because we’ve adopted Winogrand’s sentiment as our gospel.

On the average day, over 55 million photos are posted on Instagram and 350 million are posted on Facebook. There are subcategories of “selfies”—the bathroom selfie, the post-workout selfie, and the funeral selfie—and a widespread compulsion to photograph what one is eating. We take a lot of pictures—obsessed with remembering, anxious to be seen, the curators of the galleries of our own lives. If we don’t photograph the meal, will it taste as good? If we don’t Instagram the sunset, did we actually experience it? If we don’t take the picture, are we there?

Winogrand lived by his words, shooting 26,000 rolls of film over the course of his life (2500 of which were left undeveloped when he died). This summer, the Metropolitan Museum of Art has been hosting a retrospective of Winogrand’s work, curated by the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art and the National Gallery of Art. The exhibit is divided into three parts, “Down from the Bronx,” photographs Winogrand took of New York between 1950 and 1971; “A Student of America,” photographs he took across America as part of a Guggenheim fellowship; and “Boom and Bust,” photographs he took of Texas and Los Angeles from 1971 until his death from gall bladder cancer in 1984. The exhibit features just over 175 images, 50 of them posthumously printed and never before seen. It is now entering its final week at the Met, and if you can make it there before it closes (September 21), it is well worth your time.

Born in the Bronx, Winogrand started off as a magazine freelancer (for Sports IllustratedCollier’sRed Book, and occasionally Life), but quickly found the kind of work magazines wanted limiting. (Magazines wanted the shot of the touchdown; Winogrand wanted to shoot the tired football player hunched over on the bench in the rain.) So, he turned to the streets—and became one of the most prolific photographers of the 20th century.

Garry Winogrand (American, 1928–1984) New York Aquarium, Coney Island, New York, 1967 Gelatin silver print;  The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York,  (GW.CCP.037) http://www.metmuseum.org/Collections/search-the-collections/645683

Garry Winogrand (American, 1928–1984)
New York Aquarium, Coney Island, New York, 1967
Gelatin silver print;
The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, (GW.CCP.037)
http://www.metmuseum.org/Collections/search-the-collections/645683

He rarely left his house without his camera, and his son remembers consciously walking behind him instead of in front of him whenever they went out, so as to not disrupt any potential shot. He was constantly clicking. “I photograph,” Winogrand said, “to see what the world looks like in photographs.” His work is decidedly modern: he entered the art scene in post-World War II America when what constituted art was being redefined and reimagined—Warhol’s pop art, Pollock’s abstract expressionism, and the rise of the New York School of photography (Saul Leiter, Diane Arbus, and Robert Frank, among others)—and his work was twice showcased at the Museum of Modern Art during his lifetime.

Winogrand photographed life as it happened, as it is—with no agenda to frame things in a certain way or to get a particular message across. Writes Holland Cotter in the New York Times review of the retrospective: “Photographs don’t change anything, [Winogrand] said, and shouldn’t try. They’re not about morality. They’re about recording what’s going by.” The effects of this posture toward art left me thinking several times during the exhibit, “Hey, I could’ve taken that.” (A snapshot of a sign at the Central Park Zoo comes to mind.) At times, Winogrand’s photography feels haphazard, like he was just flinging his camera around, snapping without looking.

But others of his photos are beautiful and gripping. He loved photographing women, and several of the featured works show a vibrancy to womanhood that’s captivating—a socialite smiling and dancing at Harlem’s El Morocco, a woman tossing her head back in laughter as she eats an ice cream cone. A shot of a toddler standing in his Albuquerque driveway is strangely enthralling; a photo of a biracial couple at the Central Park Zoo makes one wonder if he was providing some sort of commentary on race in America or merely capturing a moment (His thoughts on what photography should be suggests the latter). My favorite photo in the exhibition is of a hand feeding an elephant’s trunk.

I went to the Winogrand exhibit twice this summer and lingered in it for quite some time both visits. I’ve been trying to pinpoint why exactly I enjoyed it so much, particularly because other friends found it underwhelming. I think it captured my attention because it offers a glimpse into a past America—the hope and prosperity of the post-World War II years and the restlessness and riots of the 1960s and 1970s—an America I’ve read about, an America I’ve watched Mad Men episodes about, but an America I’ve rarely seen presented so candidly.

Garry Winogrand (American, 1928–1984) New York World's Fair, 1964 Gelatin silver print;  The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York,  (GW.SFMOMA.001) http://www.metmuseum.org/Collections/search-the-collections/645660

Garry Winogrand (American, 1928–1984)
New York World’s Fair, 1964
Gelatin silver print;
The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, (GW.SFMOMA.001)
http://www.metmuseum.org/Collections/search-the-collections/645660

Winogrand photographed this American life—or that American life, rather—well-dressed businessmen and women walking down the street, swimmers at Coney Island, John F. Kennedy at the Democratic National Convention, a bespectacled man at a Nixon rally, a stark naked man running through Central Park on Easter Sunday, travelers waiting at the airport, Vietnam protestors, fairgoers at the Texas State Fair, a young Drew Barrymore at the Academy Awards.

“You could say that I am a student of photography,” he once said, “and I am; but really I’m a student of America.”

That is what I find compelling about his work—his desire to capture a society, a country, and a people. And that is what I think so many of us are missing as we eagerly snap away on our iPhones. Instead of using photography as a means of seeing others and the world, we use it simply as a means for being seen, a digital keeping up with the Joneses.

“I feel like the world is a place I bought a ticket to,” Winogrand once said—and that’s the spirit. The next time I pull my phone out of my bag to capture a moment, I’ll pause and ask myself if it’s an exercise in narcissism or an exercise in wonder.

 

Objects from the exhibition can be seen here.

Andrew Wyeth Painted Me Home

Cover image: “Last Light”, watercolor on paper, 1998 @Greenville County Museum of Art, ©Andrew Wyeth

When I moved out to Colorado from South Carolina, I was embarrassed by my Southern origins. My voice still raised at the wrong inflections, still drew out vowels into two or three syllables. I wanted the sophistication and sleekness of the city, not the cracked feet of my grandmother’s kitchen table surrounded by patterns that died in the 1970s. I wanted a change of scenery. I traded a field of red clay for a vista of cascading mountains.

And then, as I began to be away for longer periods of time, home became this idealized notion. Home was a cool summer evening in the country, with fireflies flitting by that we would catch in Mason jars, as my mother brought out fresh sweet tea with a smile. Then, I would go home, and the humidity would suffocate, the bugs would bite and there was no sweet tea to be found, with all the sounds of nature drowned out by arguing. We didn’t even live in the country anymore; the trees barely hid the encroaching neighborhoods behind us.

 

mason jars and fireflies

A few years ago, on a trip home, my father begged me to go to the local art museum to see an exhibit by his favorite artist. There’s a tradition of amateur painters in my family, one that I was unkindly left out of. My father was taught to paint by my great-aunt. The houses of my family have always been lined by my father’s oil colors, mostly of nature, scenes of places he’s been and seen. I always found it odd that my father was such a talented painter, aside from being an engineer and businessman. I always cherished this secret artistic side of him; it made him much more sensitive to the “aliveness” of the world around him. I think it was that sort of view of the world that he wanted to pass on to me.

I chuckled at the idea of my town having an impressive museum, but his favorite artist was on display, so I trudged along, cursing the humidity as we drove amidst open fields. This was the first time I experienced Andrew Wyeth. I quietly maneuvered among his temperas and watercolors, with my father explaining certain techniques. Wyeth’s concept of home dispelled the idealism and communicated a reality I had forgotten. I wanted to cry right in the middle of the small gallery. My father looked sympathetically at me like he understood and knew that I had grasped the meaning of it.

To this day, he can’t really verbalize how he feels about Andrew Wyeth’s paintings, just that “they feel like home to me.”

The stark contrast of the yellowed land and green growth, light and dark, in Wyeth’s paintings mirrored the dry fields of my childhood, my grandfather’s hands, the decrepit auction house on the side of the road, and the bushes bursting with blackberries behind the train tracks, reminding me that my roots were rugged and dry and tough. But they were real, and that was what mattered. Attachment to reality, tradition, history, the people and places, staying and not running away, seeing the beauty in the ordinary—all these notions fluttered from Wyeth’s paintings into my head, like the lone feather floating amidst a barren field in one of his watercolors. I needed to reconsider home.

What is home and why is an Andrew Wyeth painting the closest I’ve ever gotten to understanding it?

Philosopher James Tuiedo wrote that getting to a philosophical understanding of home requires us to rethink our understanding of safety, fragmentation, and transcendence. At the core of one’s understanding of home is the understanding of identity and self-perception. In our concept of home, we “materialize and territorialize” who we are.

Home is a place where we make dynamic and continuous connections between the past and the present, always reevaluating who we are in light of it. Tuiedo writes:

“Caught in a chiasmic relation of immanence and transcendence, we are assimilated to a dynamic interplay of familiarity and difference, as if we were weaving together threads of nostalgic security and transformative growth.

Ultimately, we understand home through our creative preservation of it.

This sort of creative preservation of home seems to be what Wyeth was getting at. Richard Meryman writes in his biography of Andrew Wyeth that his

“‘truth’ is the essence of objects and people, everlastingly elusive, teasing him forward. He says, ‘I want to get down to the real substance of life itself.’ The route to his goal is realism, because ‘the object is the art, not what I make of it.’

The land itself is the art; the home itself is the art. Perhaps home is the opening of eyes to the present value, rather than what I may construct it to be: the relationships of family members, though sometimes tainted with arguments, yet always abounding in love, and the land that doesn’t ask for much but gives a lot.

How do you understand the land? How do you understand where you live? In Wyeth’s paintings ­­­­­home becomes art. I think this is at the heart of the American Pastoral movement. Not the bucolic, edenic sort of pastoralism that mirrors that of a Thomas Kinkade painting, but a kind that wrestles with the beauty and bone of the land, its hardness and harvest. My problem is not accepting the idyllic beauty of some corners of my home; it’s accepting the yellowed, withering field behind my grandparents’ house that sporadically produced undersized apples and over-ripe berries as a form with value and beauty. It’s accepting the unsavory parts of the cultural heritage I come from. Perhaps that why Wyeth’s paintings stood out to me. The landscapes he painted were dry, hardened, and bare, unyielding from their depiction of a difficult culture, and yet flowing with grace and elegance.

"Winter Fields," 1942. Tempera on canvas, 17 1/4 × 41 in. (43.8 × 104.1 cm).  Whitney Museum of American Art, © Andrew Wyeth

“Winter Fields,” 1942. Tempera on canvas, 17 1/4 × 41 in. (43.8 × 104.1 cm).
Whitney Museum of American Art,
© Andrew Wyeth

My problem is not accepting the idyllic beauty of some corners of my home; it’s accepting the yellowed, withering field behind my grandparents’ house that sporadically produced undersized apples and over-ripe berries as a form with value and beauty.

Is home merely an escape from fragmentation? Tuiedo suggests that if this is our sensation of home, we will continually be disoriented by the changing circumstances of life that embed themselves within our concept of home. If safety is the key concern, can one feel at home when the circumstances are uncertain? If wholeness is the goal, what shall we do when the cradle of we what consider home is broken?

But what happens when one sentimentalizes home? Tuiedo suggests that we may find homeless in the warmth of the hearth and more in the fire within it, the seed of transformation and change. When you try to escape the wildness of home, you lose the true understanding of what it is. Andrew Wyeth was not a sentimental man. In his biography Andrew Wyeth: A Secret Life, Meryman recounts Wyeth’s disdain toward a painter who painted the sea in fluffy pastels. The sea was supposed to be wild and hard, not comforting. He did not have many attachments to people, as his wife Betsy pointed out, but had deep attachments to the land.

We may find home less in the warmth of the hearth and more in the fire within it, the seed of transformation and change.

Andrew Wyeth painted the hardness of the people and landscape of Cushing, Maine. Christina Olsen, who is the poised woman dragging herself across the ground in Wyeth’s Christina’s World, was a woman of intense pride, who would sooner leave the house as a soiled, stinking mess than bow to weakness.

In Walden, Thoreau urges us to seek out the unfamiliar in the home we have grown accustomed to, to find wonder within it, to embrace the wild as a means of disorienting our complacency in our home. Embracing the arguing and the messy relationships, as well as the hardened land, might bring a new level of transcendence that was missed before. As a family friend, Elizabeth Sargent, remembers about Wyeth,

“Andy was always so interested, gulping in all of life. His mind was open and receiving everything, every impression. You could see his imagination in his eyes – far away. With Andy you feel the earth is always new.

Perhaps we can come to see home as a place of continuous newness, a place that simultaneously subverts and redeems itself.

But, ultimately, I found in Wyeth’s paintings, what is home if it is not some sort of love? There is a love for the ordinary, and the love of roots, rugged as they may be, that draws one towards home. It is this sort of love that American pastoralism and Wyeth are trying to communicate, and it is neither a pretty nor an ephemeral love. As Wyeth himself says, “I think one’s art goes as far and as deep as one’s love goes. I see no reason for painting but that. If I have anything to offer, it is my emotional contact with the place where I live and the people I do.”

Wyeth’s art stems from a love of home and a love of the commonplace:

“The hardest thing for a young person is to see romance in the surroundings of the commonplace. We cease to see the quality of an electric stove against a window. If you believe in it, have a love for it, this specific thing will become a universal. Of course, the mundane has got to have a life, but it all depends on how strong your imagination is.

Wyeth’s painting is a mixture of paradoxes: hardness and love, harsh realities and comforting landscapes. It is, as Pete Candler puts it, “the human longing for home and the melancholy alienation of human existence.” But, Candler also points out, Wyeth understood the deepest level of reality: “reality is itself magical.” A world created as good that deserves a response.

This, with Wyeth’s help, is what I have come to see home as: a place of deep metaphor and goodness. If I truly love my home, I will not just love the beautiful, easy parts of it, the parts that overwhelm with grace. I will also love the toughness of it, the parts that are not what we might consider beautiful, and yet are real. Sentimentality is not my struggle with home; I can quite easily do that in my head when I am away. It is about returning and staying and embracing all that comes along with a place. In a sense, I am always returning home, both physically and metaphorically, always trying to creatively preserve it within my memory and writing.

If I truly love my home, I will not just love the beautiful, easy parts of it, the parts that overwhelm with grace.

I perched on the faded front porch, staring at the tattered auction sign across the street, in a place I had avoided for the past six years but found myself happy to be back in. Crunching one of the sweet pickles my grandmother made, I let the juice trickle its salty path down my hand to wrist to forearm before wiping it off. The sounds of a sputtering lawn mower, spring bird, and buzzing gnat serenaded the muggy, warm air. Grandfather bent under the hood of his old Chevy, while my father busied himself with the engine; mother and grandmother made lunch inside. I couldn’t help but feel like a child again, spending a summer day at their house, playing hide and seek at the railroad tracks, picking blackberries that would stain my mouth dark red. This was home. I think maybe this was what Wyeth was trying to get at the whole time.

From the Roster: Nicole Marie Mueller

Every Tuesday afternoon we’re featuring the work of an artist in our community to support them in cultivating a new audience, to give voice to their oft-unknown studio practice, and to build a diverse roster which participants in the contemporary arts conversation might reference.

 

 

"Visual Diary #17" Mixed media, collage on wood panel, 6x6, 2011

“Visual Diary #17”
Mixed media, collage on wood panel, 6×6, 2011

 

Nicole Marie Mueller’s Bio

Nicole Mueller was born in Waukesha, WI, grew up in Alpharetta, GA, and now lives in Baltimore, MD. She graduated with a BFA in Painting and a Concentration in Illustration from the Maryland Institute College of Art in December 2011. In addition to making paintings, collages, and experimental animations, she loves positivity, conversation, and traveling. She is also a co-founder of Blue Lined Designs, a mural painting team based in Baltimore, MD.

Nicole Mueller talking about her practice (filmed during her time in residence with Creative Paradox)

 

Artist Statement

“Through painting, collage, and stop-motion animation, I am investigating ideas of change and transformation, and pursuing a balance between chaos and control. Specifically in my recent works on paper and animated paintings, I’ve been exploring the idea of ‘movement’ within a piece, and repetition vs. uniqueness.”

A preview of works on paper:

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Each piece starts with a stain, scribble, or drawing, sometimes inspired by outside places or observations, others arbitrarily made.

"Visual Diary #3" Mixed media collage on paper 6.5 x 5 2011

“Visual Diary #3”
Mixed media collage on paper
6.5 x 5
2011

As these experiments continue to evolve in an attempt to bring incongrous marks and materials together in harmony, a visual vocabulary of shapes, squiggles, and colors emerges. These abstract universes are colorful and explosive, both cohesive and complex.

"Metamorphosis" Acrylic, spray paint, house paint on canvas 72x52

“Metamorphosis”
Acrylic, spray paint, house paint on canvas
72 x 52

Scale has become increasingly important to my work, along with the idea of sequence. Small, immediate collages lead into larger paintings, and sometimes even larger wall paintings or experimental animations. Each platform offers a new opportunity for playing with mark, material, and scale, and in translating a language into different formats.

What The Dog Saw, Mixed media, stop motion animation, 2011

More of Nicole’s work can be seen at her website. You can read about her practice at her studio blog.

From the Roster: Casey Reed Johnson

Every Tuesday afternoon we’re featuring the work of an artist in our community to support them in cultivating a new audience, to give voice to their oft-unknown studio practice, and to build a diverse roster which participants in the contemporary arts conversation might reference.

 

"Blood & Bone" Maple, copper wire, rubber, paint

“Blood & Bone”
Maple, copper wire, rubber, paint

Casey Reed Johnson

Bio: Casey Reed Johnson was born and raised in a rural suburb just outside Baltimore, MD. In 2009, he received his BFA from Maryland Institute College of Art. Since then, he has helped start and now leads a non-profit called Creative Paradox, where he works as both an artist and Creative Catalyst to other artists in the community. Casey’s life and work is inspired by the integration and juxtaposition of the physical and the unseen. His commitment to craft through traditional and contemporary methods display the work of his hands, as a reminder of the physicality of our humanity, in a dissociated digital age. His recent work explores the idea of interior and exterior spaces as a way to encourage the viewer to look deeper past the surface of things. Many of his pieces experiment with the way elements such as light, sound, and electrical current interact with physical forms. These forms exude a bodily and architectural reference while alluding to and integrating the cosmic, the soul, and the unseen. His sculptures create interactive and dynamic environments, which transcend the physical nature of the object. Casey’s work is grounded in humanity while embracing the wonder of the soul.

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On Casey’s work with Creative Paradox

Casey is also the Director-in-Residence of Creative Paradox in Annapolis, MD,  which:

has an investment to see artists creating a more beautiful world and engaging in the culture around them. We believe that artists are “culture makers” who, when invested in, can impact a dehumanized world, turning it toward a world that is full of hope and fully human.

"Ascension" 125lb oak beam (Documentation of a live performance)

“Ascension” 125lb oak beam (Documentation of a live performance)

"White Oak" 8ft 125lb oak beam (Documentation from a live performance)

“White Oak”
8ft 125lb oak beam (Documentation from a live performance)

Under Casey & Amy’s leadership Creative Paradox does this by facilitating:
  • A competitive five month artist-in-residence program which focuses on the spiritual, artistic, and community development of artists
  • Creative Co-Op for artists and entrepeneurs, running a working gallery, offering events in the form of: exhibitions, cocerts, poetry readings, etc.
  • A ‘Young Artist Workshops’ which introduce students to basic techniques with various art materials to create drawings, paintings, and sculptures.
Creative Paradox Gallery

Creative Paradox Gallery

More of Johnson’s Work from the Chair and Crown series

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Additional images of Casey Johnson’s work can be seen by visiting his website. 

 

 

From the Roster: Gary A. Bibb

Every Tuesday afternoon we’re featuring the work of an artist in our community to support them in cultivating a new audience, to give voice to their oft-unknown studio practice, and to build a diverse roster which participants in the contemporary arts conversation might reference.

 

  "Wound-up Wire"  found object construction  17.5" x 11.5" x 2.75"   (wood, fiber-coated wire, paper, cloth,   rusted industrial staple and water-based paint)


“Wound-up Wire”
found object construction
17.5″ x 11.5″ x 2.75″
(wood, fiber-coated wire, paper, cloth,
rusted industrial staple and water-based paint)

 

Gary A. Bibb

Gary A. Bibb was born in Wichita, Kansas and studied architecture at Kansas State University but discovered art to be more compelling. He received his BFA in Visual Art from Emporia State University – Emporia, KS. Most of his artistic career has been lived in Colorado and Southern California. He has exhibited both nationally and internationally. Furthermore, his art is represented in private and corporate collections along with being archived in the following museums and institutions:

Longview Museum of Fine Art – Longview, TX; Museum of Modern Art – NY, NY; Los Angeles County Museum of Art – LA, CA; Museu  Brasileiro da Escultura – Sao Paulo, Brazil; Museum of Modern Art: UK – Machylleth, Wales; The Shimamoto Art Lab – Nishinomiya, Japan; The  International Museum of Collage, Assemblage and Construction /  Fluxmuseum – Santa Fe, NM; University of California, Santa Barbara, The Hoffberg Archive Santa Barbara, CA; Ohio State University-Columbus, OH; The National Institute of Art – Buenos Aires, Argentina; Long Island University – Brookville, NY; The Black Mountain College  Museum – Asheville, NC; Anne Arundel Community College, Fine Art Archive – Arnold, MD; The A. S. Popov Museum (Communication Art Collection) – St. Petersburg, Russia; University of Pannonia, Sziveri Janos Institute – Veszprem, Hungary; Cambrian College – Sudbury, Ontario, Canada; David Geffen School of Medicine (UCLA) – Los Angeles, CA

The occasion for us highlighting Gary A. Bibb’s work is his recent exhibition at Point Gallery, Denver CO. Point Gallery are presenting an 18 piece survey exhibition of found-object artworks called ‘The Redemption of Rubbish: Found Object Constructions and Installations’.

Point Gallery

Point Gallery, Denver CO

Bibb, on his exhibition:

Utilizing found-object materials in the construction of Fine Art has long been regarded as visually and metaphorically viable. For nearly a century, artists have collected non-art objects with the intent of incorporating them within their compositions. The results have repeatedly proven that the creative process of selection, signification and organization can elevate even the most humble scraps of human detritus into beautiful, majestic forms.

"Black Sand Six"  found object temporary construction - installation  7" x 4.25" x 7.625" ©2011 Gary A. Bibb  (commercial velvet jewelry case, black sand, roofing tar fragment, industrial paper w/ tar)

“Black Sand Six”
found object temporary construction – installation
7″ x 4.25″ x 7.625″ ©2011 Gary A. Bibb
(commercial velvet jewelry case, black sand, roofing tar fragment, industrial paper w/ tar)

While foraging back-alleys and industrial sites for unusual pieces of paper, I discovered an affinity for the found-objects most commonly regarded as trash. There was something significant, authentic and genuine about the discarded rubbish. Although rejected and deemed valueless, it appeared the found-objects were attempting to resist the ravages of time and maintain a sense of dignity. A metaphor was forming. These scraps of paper, cardboard, wood and metal were beginning to symbolize the concept of intrinsic value and the noble character of perseverance. I came to realize that through artistic intervention, discarded items could be transformed into expressions of renewed purpose, hope and beauty.

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The utilization of found-objects to express an aesthetic ideology remains integral to my artistic intent. Incorporating collected items, along with various media and techniques, expands my visual vocabulary and adds an objective dimension to my art. Therefore, the ideas expressed are not merely limited to the realm of ethereal thought [concepts] but also enter into the viewer’s tangible reality.

"Black Rope"  found object construction  30" x 18" x 3.25"  (wood, rope, fabric, paper, wire and water-based paint)

“Black Rope”
found object construction
30″ x 18″ x 3.25″
(wood, rope, fabric, paper, wire and water-based paint)

More of Gary A. Bibb’s work can be seen by visiting his website. Gary’s work is also currently on display in the  international exhibit: “Mash Up: Collages in Mixed Media” curated by Stephen Lamia, Ph.D. (Dowling College) at the Islip Art Museum in East Islip, New York (Long Island).

 

From The Roster : Pat Bellan-Gillen

Every Tuesday afternoon we’re featuring the work of an artist in our community to support them in cultivating a new audience, to give voice to their oft-unknown studio practice, and to build a diverse roster which participants in the contemporary arts & faith conversation might reference.

 

Pat Bellan-Billan

This profile was composed by Amy Neftzger, whose bio can be found by clicking her name above. 

Pat Bellan-Gillan is the Dorothy L. Stubnitz Professor of Art at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh. She received her M.F.A. in printmaking but also holds a B.S. in Art education as well as a B.F. A. in printmaking. She’s done numerous solo and group exhibitions throughout the United States, as well as overseas in places such as Italy and Japan. Her passion for her students and her craft are both obvious, and, despite the view that some individuals hold about the value of art in our culture being on the decline, Pat is very optimistic about the future of art and the role it can take in shaping society. She cites the growth of community art initiatives, such as the types of projects engaged in by the Conflict Kitchen in Pittsburgh, as examples for her optimism.

Her artistic efforts are filled with rich imagery and symbolism cradled in a bed of realism. Each piece is like a fragment of a story that carries yet another story or message within itself. Her compositions evoke strong impressions though engaging the viewer with elements of the bizarre married into pieces of reality. This work naturally draws the viewer into interpretation, often causing a person to imagine the rest of the story that took place before or after the scene on display. This is not passive art. The images are a beautiful combination of realism and fairy tale and might even be considered the visual equivalent of the literary genre magical realism. It’s whimsical, yet political. It’s realistic, yet fantastic. It’s difficult to classify, other than to say that it’s engaging.

 

Bellan-Gillen, on the concepts for her work

Years ago I watched a documentary about evolutionary theory and Christian Science. A paleontologist was asked if he would be upset if his children were taught bible stories as Christian Science. His answer surprised and moved me…“Yes, because these are beautiful stories and when they are taught as fact, as science, they lose their power.”Although I had been working with stories and symbols for a while, I began to look at a broader range of stories, from classics to comic books and revisiting Joseph Campbell. I started using imagery from tales from different time periods—fragments of stories that overlapped, that told the same tale in a different time, in a different culture or a different medium. I completed a number of drawings and paintings with the partial title of “Beautiful Stories.”

Two examples are:

Beautiful Stories/Rocky J. Squirrel as Ratatoskr, (2010)

Ratatoskr is a squirrel in a Nordic myth whose job is to run up and down a tree to annoy the giants (or snakes) at the top and bottom of the tree and keep them from going to war. In my favorite cartoon, it is the job of Rocky J. Squirrel and Bullwinkel J. Moose to thwart the cold war villains, Boris Badenov and Natasha Nogoodnik (Natasha Fatale).

Beautiful Stories/Alice as Lots Wife, (2011)

Both Alice in Wonderland and the biblical story of Lot’s Wife refer to obedience. Our interpretation of Lot’s Wife always disturbed me. She looked back in love—why was she turned to salt? Salt is vital. Was that not a reward? There is some thought that Lewis Carroll wrote Alice in Wonderland as a reaction to the easy black and white morality of children’s literature in Victorian England.

My current work is less specific. I don’t start with a set narrative. The foliage that serves as a setting for action was inspired by etchings of Carl Wilhelm Kolbe and his contemporaries as well as fairy art and Disney animation. The oversized foliage is drawn to evoke thoughts of “Never Never Land,” “the cabbage patch,” Thumbelina, and other fairy tales. The bunnies and animals are used to enhance the feeling of fantasy. It is my hope that the television set has as many different interpretations as there are viewers. In my mind, it can be read many ways such as nostalgia, the vehicle for disseminating our contemporary stories, the vehicle for witnessing news and politics.

 

"Bower/Tsunami" Colored pencil, acrylic, silver point ground on birch panel 96”X 150” 2012

“Bower/Tsunami”
Colored pencil, acrylic, silver point ground on birch panel
96”X 150”
2012

"Saint Francis/Sea Changes" Acrylic, silver point ground, graphite, colored pencil on birch 96 X 164 inches, 2011

“Saint Francis/Sea Changes”
Acrylic, silver point ground, graphite, colored pencil on birch
96 X 164 inches, 2011

"Loudspeakers/Undertow" Acrylic, silverpoint ground, collage on birch panel 110”X 120” 2012

“Loudspeakers/Undertow”
Acrylic, silverpoint ground, collage on birch panel
110”X 120”
2012

"Clearing 2/Iconoclast" Colored pencil, acrylic, silver point ground on birch panel 57”X 55” 2013

“Clearing 2/Iconoclast”
Colored pencil, acrylic, silver point ground on birch panel
57”X 55”
2013

"Beautiful Wounds/Doubt 2" Acrylic, oil, graphite on birch 30”X 30”

“Beautiful Wounds/Doubt 2”
Acrylic, oil, graphite on birch
30”X 30”

"Bouquet 2" Digital print with hand cut paper 32”X 42” 2013

“Bouquet 2”
Digital print with hand cut paper
32”X 42”
2013

 

Symbols that work for her

I often describe my work as a mixture of imagery that is found through study and research with imagery that is felt and intuitive. Certain symbols are chosen for their specific meaning or association: the monkey, evolution; the stag, Christ. Some are chosen because they have many assigned and conflicting associated meanings, ven within one cultural or religious group. I often use the image of the grinning Jack o’Lantern because it is a symbol that is associated with a pagan celebration, Halloween that in turn is associated with a Christian holiday, All Saints Day. Like the snowman, the carved pumpkin is an example of our need to make things in our image. The bear, (Bouquet 2) has dozens of meanings, from Mother Earth, to Mother Russia to the UCLA Bruins. It represents tranquility, power, peace, fierceness and duality. It can be good or bad. I like this quote Arturo Scwharz wrote in an essay about Mimmo Paladino:

The poetic quality of the work depends on the fact that its creator is motivated by forces and drives of which he is unaware. A great artist is an unwitting alchemist. He explores the memory of an archetypal world without realizing it. The motifs of archetypal symbolism emerge in his work independently of his will. It is not the artist who creates the symbol, quite the contrary, it is the symbol that imposes itself on the artist

Imagery such as the vintage 1960’s television, the sawfish, the bunnies and the snowman imposed themselves on me.

Some symbols are recurring, but this is not necessarily intentional. Although looking over my history of work, I realize that I do work in series, but I never set out to do so—I actually loathe the thought of planning a series. I guess work begets work because ideas for other pieces flow from working. While I am working on one piece ideas appear for others.

After years of studying cultural, dream, mythological and religious symbols, I am beginning to believe that the most important signs are the images that appear and keep pressing on one’s mind with no explanation—unexpected but oddly recognizable visions that flash across the brain when words and phrases like doubt, reality TV, turn to salt or separation of church and state are heard, or the nascent compositions that appear while revisiting the pages of vintage Mad Magazine or hearing the memorable Da-Da-DaDa-DaDa theme song from the Rocky and Bullwinkel Show.   Honoring these puzzling visages maps the direction that I have begun to follow. This new body of work combines ideas and imagery generated through study and research with ideas and imagery that are felt, intuitive and enigmatic.

 

The lines between realism and fantasy

My work is intended to blur the lines between fantasy and realism, as well as create some tension between the two. I am inserting part of the statement that I wrote for my upcoming show, Necessary Fictions here:

Joan Didion titles a collection of essays, We Tell Ourselves Stories in Order to Live, and in The Gates of the Forest, Elie Wiesel writes, “God made Man because He loves stories.” In his book, The Story Telling Animal, Jonathan Gottschall draws on neuroscience, psychology and evolutionary biology to explain how storytelling has evolved to ensure our survival and how stories make us human.

Images from our collective stories—our necessary fictions—lurk in my brain. Personal narrative mixes with fairytales. Historical events intertwine with the imagined, and the veil of nostalgia blurs the border between fact and fiction. Archetypal imagery dances in the temporal lobe with cartoon characters and recent news flashes picked from the Internet join the sagas of black and white television. The work in this exhibition uses these bits and pieces of visual history, the “the true and the false” of memory to suggest a narrative and remix our stories. These disorderly notions are exploited and employed in an attempt to engage the viewer’s associative responses and to jar the forgotten memories and stories that lay quietly below the surface.

Also, because I do draw and paint with realistic modeling and form, I think the use of a monochrome or limited color scheme takes the image a step away from pure realism. The use of the “not quite real”palette accepts overlay and a variety of rendering styles in one composition more readily than a full realistic color rendering. Because I am trying to reference the feeling of fairytales and fantasy in the current work, I use the monochrome to reflect old time illustrations, etchings and lithographs (I also have a strong background in printmaking, particularly lithography).

 

Stories as a source of inspiration

A few of my favorite stories are Alice in Wonderland, Pinocchio and the Wizard of Oz. I love Alice and the related works and poems because the words are wonderful and the imagery that can be conjured up is so rich. Through the fantasy, Lewis Carroll is able to tell a tale appealing (maybe a bit scary) to a child and also take a stab at Victorian culture.

Pinocchio is a great adventure, the hero’s quest, a morality play and a creation story rolled into one…and what an iconic image Carlo Collodi gave us. The Wizard of Oz is also a great adventure, the hero’s quest and a religious story. I also like that the hero is a girl.

You can see more of Pat’s work on her website.

She also had a recent exhibit at the Tinney Contemporary Gallery in Nashville. 

 

From the Roster: Mark Sprinkle

Every Tuesday afternoon we’re featuring the work of an artist in our community to support them in cultivating a new audience, to give voice to their oft-unknown studio practice, and to build a diverse roster which participants in the contemporary arts conversation might reference.

Mark Sprinkle is a Virginia-based artist, craftsman, writer, and cultural historian, whose interdisciplinary work is focused on the question, “How do works of art help us see and be ourselves more fully?” Raised in Texas, he is a Phi Beta Kappa graduate of Georgetown University, and earned MA and PhD degrees in American studies from the College of William and Mary; there he studied the sociology of culture and focused on how artworks embody complex relationships in domestic settings. Since 1996 he has been an independent painter and frame-maker, also regularly writing and speaking on the role of creative practices in cultural mediation and renewal, especially in the area of science and Christian faith. He was Senior Web Editor and Senior Fellow of Arts and Humanities for The BioLogos Foundation, and is now convener for makeRVA, the IAM-affiliated arts community in Richmond, VA. You can learn more about Mark’s work as a writer and artist at his website.

 

Sprinkle, on his work:

The occasion for talking about my work here at The Curator is the recent opening of a retrospective show at the Billy Graham Center Museum at Wheaton College, which will be on display until the end of October, 2014. Through the Eyes of a Shepherd: Seeing the Incarnation through Animal Imagery brings together over two-dozen of my “narrative” paintings—fable-like works that use animals to invite the viewer into specific scenes, most of which are also part of a larger story (contemporary shepherding and local agriculture in Virginia) that I’ve been exploring since about 1999.

From the introduction to the show: 

In nearly every global culture, folk-tales, songs, and visual artworks have used animals to offer sometimes-subtle, sometimes-forthright critiques of human character and relationships. Depending on familiar types (clever foxes, prideful roosters, foolish sheep, and stubborn goats) in complex moral situations, these stories offer just enough imaginative distance to allow a wide variety of hearers and viewers to find themselves in the narrative, and to recognize patterns (good and bad) in their own interactions with others. Of course, the Bible and historic Christian art, too, are filled with images of animals as stand-ins for humanity, giving us renewed ways to recognize God as creator, provider, and redeemer, and to see ourselves as the Lord’s diverse and often wandering flok.

 

"Well-Worn" 2007 24x30 oil

“Well-Worn”
2007
24×30
oil on canvas

"Either-Or"   2006  24x36,  oil on canvas

“Either-Or”
2006
24×36,
oil on canvas

"Spurious"  2007  24x30 oil on canvas

“Spurious”
2007
24×30
oil on canvas

The more than two dozen works in this show speak to the development of a couple of central commitments in my studio practice that may have more bearing on thinking “Christianly” about art than does that explicit connection to traditional forms of Christian story-telling: first, that even familiar images and metaphors, traditionally rendered, continue to carry rich, complex meaning; and, second, that art can be deeply powerful when it both emerges from and is then re-integrated into the ordinary, physical rhythms of life—not least those of our living spaces.

All too familiar

While I have a deep appreciation for and have been an advocate for abstract, installation, and experimental art, I have always been drawn to more traditional media, forms of representation, and even subjects in my own visual and symbolic processing. Beginning with some early work in which the rural landscape of my youth was juxtaposed with the gritty and violent urban setting of Washington DC in the late 1980s, the landscapes I have painted have been specific places I have lived or travelled through–transformed by a long human presence, but still beautiful. I spent a lot of time looking at and walking on various kinds of agricultural and wild terrain as a child in Texas, each space telling a story about the way working the land shapes it: think about linear row-crops, patchwork fields, barns, implement sheds, and farm houses—whether occupied or (just as often these days) abandoned.

Each of those stories was deeply overlaid with my own memory, family history, and identity. The way images of landscape connect us to such personal and cultural histories was part of my academic research (think of Thomas Cole’s paintings of the Holy Land as much as his images of the Hudson River Valley), but also my own experience: the small watercolor “postcards” I would paint for friends from the beach, or, later, for family to record our travels to Italy and give as gifts to friends who visited the same locales. Landscape paintings like these were representations of the fields and forests and farms and towns and mountains I saw in Europe, in Texas, in Virginia, in Colorado, but even more than that, they were representations of seeing them with people I love. Relationships were inscribed in the art, embodied via images of the spaces and scenes we saw together.

"Wellhead-San Felice" 2011 16x12 oil on canvas

“Wellhead-San Felice”
2011
16×12
oil on panel

"Round Silo and Koshia Weed"  2005  20x20 Oil on canvas

“Round Silo and Koshia Weed”
2005
20×20
Oil on canvas

"Yellow Shack--Montefalco"  2007  24x30 oil on canvas

“Yellow Shack–Montefalco”
2007
24×30
oil on canvas

 

"Un-Cured" 2007  30x30 oil on canvas

“Un-Cured”
2007
30×30
oil on canvas

Likewise, the animals I paint have for the most part been those that present themselves to me where I have lived and worked: I have painted dogs, sheep, goats, and chickens—creatures about as far from avant-garde and “edgy” as you can get, and which have so many familiar associations (especially in Christian culture), that we run the risk of not actually seeing them, at all.

Yet these have their own stories to tell, too—often through what I have come to call “found parables.” Beginning with getting to know “the duck that thought it was a chicken” on my grandfather’s farm near Corpus Christi, the decidedly unnatural commingling of creatures that occurs at the household agricultural scale almost inescapably presents us with scenes that speak of likeness and difference, boundaries and transgressions, the caged and the free. The even more complicated and near-ritual activities of state fairs and livestock shows also confront visitors with strange images that beg for engagement and interpretation, if we’ll take just a few minutes to look and pay attention, seeing past what we think we already know. In fact, the centerpiece series of this exhibition is the working out of the idea that paying close, anti-nostalgic attention to the dynamics of shepherds and sheep in the globalized present can shed a different light on even the tried and true (or “trite, if true”) Biblical imagery of lambs and flocks and shepherds.

"Before the Shearers" 2005  24x32 oil on canvas

“Before the Shearers”
2005
24×32
oil on canvas

"Spring Folly" 2007  30x30 oil on canvas

“Spring Folly”
2007
30×30
oil on canvas

Indeed, just giving them their due (both the sheep and the paintings) may be the real challenge for art-savvy contemporary viewers, especially, when met with such “traditional” imagery and subjects: we are so used to a constant stream of new images and products, of the latest recombination of materials and techniques into novel visions, of being presented with things that break new ground in their level of spectacle or subtlety or ironic detachment, that we don’t actually take the time to look at and get to know the slow, ordinary, and mundane world that most of us actually live in, much less see the physical or spiritual richness in what we take to be too-familiar or passé. Daniel Seidel has called upon the church to withhold judgment of challenging contemporary art until we have taken the time to receive it on its own terms and look for intimations of truth via an aesthetics of common grace; it is just as important that we approach work that appears unsophisticated, simple, or even superficial with the same attitude of humility and openness until we know what it is trying to tell us.

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Not just the what but the where

A second emphasis of my studio practice that actually gets lost in this installation at the Billy Graham Center Museum has to do with my commitment to ordinary spaces as well as ordinary subjects—my belief that an ethic of hospitality is central to the way all artists (but especially Christian artists) can find the deepest connections and community for themselves and their work. In short, I think the intimate space of the household is an incredibly rich (and demanding) place for artists to target our creative work, because the task of creating art that people will live with on an ongoing basis requires us to bring our whole human interpersonal, social selves to our art-making as well as our technical craft and creative vision. More than that, it requires an implicit willingness to make our art a “place of meeting” between all our stories and those of others.

I am most interested, then, in how my own work can enter into that space of negotiation as a gift, still always being “my work,” but also becoming something more than I could have imagined or fully intended, and helping those who interact with it regularly tell their own stories more deeply and personally. I do not want my work to be so idiosyncratic that it is about me exclusively. Especially when they are experienced over and over again in intimate rooms, ordinary subjects, landscapes included, can and do serve as touch-points for whole suites of memories, especially when integrated into the daily practice of life. Therefore, I want to create works that can bear and reward sustained attention, but that are also explicit and approachable enough to offer themselves and the stories they imply to and through daily practice, even literally in passing—helping frame identity from the background of domestic space.

There is much more to say about how that actually happens (the phenomenology of how art becomes a means for others to extend hospitality and openness when it is integrated into the physical space of their house or apartment was one focus of my dissertation), and about the importance of the “objectness” of artworks in an increasingly digital age, but the critical piece for me is that pursuing the possibility of local (even hyper-local) integration and impact may well mean trading a wider public for a deeper one, and that, as a painter and believer, I have found that to be a worthwhile bargain.

Since Duchamp certainly, but perhaps even more pervasively in an age and culture that so loves irony and seems to make it the measure of seriousness as a “creative,” the question in many art contexts—especially for the uninitiated—is “How do I know I can trust that this work is true, that this artist is not just pulling my leg, or manipulating me for gain or spectacle?” We can be fooled by surfaces, either into thinking there is more there than there really is, or in thinking there is less there than there really is. Both intention and reception matter, and an ongoing dialogue between artists and community is a prerequisite for such trust to develop, as well as being a remarkably fertile, if currently underexplored territory.

Therefore, despite the wonderful exposure for my paintings and thinking about art that the Wheaton show (and this profile!) affords, I am still focused on the possibility of art facilitating ongoing local relationships, not primarily transmitting or communicating my message or brand to the widest possible audience. When the show is done, many of the pieces will go back to the household collections where they live (e-mail me if you’d like one to go home with you, as well), and I will continue to paint small-scale works and mostly connect with people and sell works at weekend house shows. But I will also continue to fiercely advocate among younger (and older) artist friends, whether near or far: dare to be ordinary; dare to be local; dare to be small.

 

"Citizen"  2008  30x40 oil on canvas

“Citizen”
2008
30×40
oil on canvas

 

From the Roster: Jesse Lee Wilson

Every Tuesday afternoon we’re featuring the work of an artist in our community to support them in cultivating a new audience, to give voice to their oft-unknown studio practice, and to build a diverse roster which participants in the contemporary arts & faith conversation might reference.

I had the pleasure of interviewing Jesse Lee Wilson for the magazine. Our conversation follows below.

“Primary Nomad” reflective vinyl, red vinyl, tent 2014

“Primary Nomad”
reflective vinyl, red vinyl, tent
2014

BIO

Jesse Lee Wilson is an artist who lives and works in New York City. His practice grows out of the intersection of social engagement with design, architecture, and contemporary art. Working primarily in processes that blur the line between painting and sculpture, graphic design or photography, he seeks to use the representation of an object as a device to investigate what is most essential in the object’s identity. Graphic symbols and illustrative images play key roles in his investigations. Wilson’s work primarily employs materials utilized in industrial and construction applications, which he puts to work in ways that subvert their pedestrian nature and allow for flux within a given composition, in homage to the ways a material life may be re-invented.

After several years traveling as competitive snowboarder Wilson shifted to pursuing a degree in art and design from Alfred University. He went on to earn an M.F.A. from the University California Santa Barbara, focusing his efforts on working closely with the Museum of Contemporary Art Santa Barbara to create a long-term exhibit for children investigating graphics and visual communication. After relocating to New York he worked for the artist Jeff Koons as a special projects developer researching new materials and process to be employed in the artist’s work.

Wilson also initiated a pilot project, the New Path Art Program in collaboration with System Architects and All Angels Homeless Shelter. Many of the New Path projects engage artists who were homeless or in transitional housing, exploring opportunities for their expression of identity and personal narrative as a vehicle to engender dignity and empowerment through a creative practice.

Currently Wilson directs The CHILL Foundation in New York City. This foundation is a social justice initiative of the company Burton Snowboards and has a mission to provide opportunities to at-risk and underserved youth to build self-esteem and life skills through board sports. As an artist Wilson sees these board-sports as a type of drawing activity where the breadth and diversity of lines created represent possibility in the lives of the youth they work with.

 

“Movement Membrane” 2013 pvc sheeting, fan

“Movement Membrane”
2013
pvc sheeting, fan

 

Meaghan: Tell me about the process of devoting yourself and your time to making art? How has this decision played itself out in the studio over the years? Have your desires and practices changed?

Jesse: From an early age, I became interested in the idea of personal language and expression. I wondered what it looked like for a person to have an authentic, successful language to communicate their thoughts to the world, even if they weren’t adept to standardized learning. In that way, art, for me, felt like a successful medium. As a kid, it’s amazing when you find a new way of speaking.

Then, of course, I enrolled in art school—my experience of it started off very narrow—I thought I wanted to focus on one specific practice (ceramics). Over the course of my time there, I became very open to trying lots of media. My appreciation of this new diversity was filtered through the work I made.

Those foundations gave way to a very broad wanderlust, a way of looking at the world through art.

“Drawing” pvc, vinyl tape 2007

“Drawing”
pvc, vinyl tape
2007

How has this taken form over the years?

In my work it’s very apparent that I’m a child of the 80s: the language of advertising, movies and media was very graphical in nature then. I couple that influence with my understanding of architecture, how we are oriented in spaces, the world around us—that consistently plays into everything I do.

As I mentioned I was originally interested in ceramics, but I discovered that I was enamored with the history and practice of painting. Painting creates a static image that arrests you in a particular time and place, and while I was attracted to that, I kept making things that wanted to come out, engage space and imply movement. Now I’m making sort of kinetic images, things with dimensionality that require as much engineering as they do poetry.

How did peer critique and conceptual instruction during your MFA catalyze your movement from painting to installations and so forth?

My undergrad was heavy on craft and technique; we were engaging the hand, organic materials—the emphasis was on tactility. I decided that I wanted to do my MFA in California and that’s where the specifics of my practice really started to emerge. I took my background in working with tactile materials and coupled it with design, architecture, entertainment and imagined spaces.

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Can you remark on a couple of specific pieces that are a reflection of that integration?

I worked on an early inflatable project called “Oasis,” which was essentially a huge, elongated, inflated tent situated on the steps of the Santa Barbara Art Museum. It was meant to usher you into what became a lounge/retreat space. It was the creation of a temporarily built space, but it was also a sort of painterly intervention on the steps of the art museum itself.

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What have been major difficulties (personal, professional or conceptual) you’ve overcome in doing this work?

The major issue at the center of most of my art-making struggles—which has been constantly reenergizing but has required reinvention—is figuring out where I most belong. Around the time of the end of graduate school, I realized that while I wanted to engage the contemporary art scene, I was very restless and resistant to entering into the gallery scene or art market. I felt myself constantly trying to figure out what my career trajectory would be. I wasn’t drawn to where the critical mass of activity in the contemporary art scene was assembling, so I continued to make things for a long time, not knowing where they would end up in the world. Recently that’s changed, but it took me a long time to understand where my place in the art world was. That was difficult for me.

“Stripe” 2007 pvc sheeting, fan


“Stripe”
2007
pvc sheeting, fan

Because your work is so place-oriented and so particularized in its setting, translating ideas and concepts into objects without knowing where they’re going to be, would be very hard. In order for your work to come to pass, there are a number of factors that have to be in place before you can even start. I can imagine NYC presents a whole other set of difficulties because it’s so market driven and space is such a commodity.

Grad school is this free space where you’re afforded limitless room for experimentation..the West Coast is prized for its wide-open spaces. My first question when I came to NYC was: where do I pick up? My first answer was to condense types of intensities, sort of miniaturize the work I was doing, and translate it in a dramatic way. I wanted to make things that were very saturated; something that could exist in a gallery but that had the vast feel of the large outdoor work. This was influenced by texts I read like Poetics of Space by Gaston Bachelard. He talks about miniaturing the world—I wanted to know if I could pull that off.

“Asphalt of Innisfree” 2011 plastic, foam, pipe


“Asphalt of Innisfree”
2011
plastic, foam, pipe

 

"Who's Woods?" 2011  foam, formica, plywood, electronics

“Who’s Woods?”
2011
foam, formica, plywood, electronics

 

How do your spiritual practices inform your work?

I ask myself why there is a visual language in my work. Someone once described my work as harsh, sharp, and almost dangerous, with turned up contrast, and I wondered what that said about me. I’m someone that does have a hunger for a natural stasis, a space that’s uninterrupted, but I’m using this language that’s incredibly man-made.

“Beginning” 2013 canvas, pvc, reflective vinyl 68”/96”


“Beginning”
2013
canvas, pvc, reflective vinyl
68”/96”

When I was growing up I wanted to be a Formula One race car driver. I wanted speed. I find myself meditating on statements Ayrton Senna made (which I heard in the recently-released documentary about his life) about about driving the loop. The circuit became a tunnel; he had to react instinctually. I indentify with him. I think about imperatives and speed when I’m in the studio. In the same way, if you look at The Lord’s Prayer; it’s full of imperatives “Thy kingdom come” & “Thy will be done.” There’s a real sense of urgency about these things. I think I can relate to Senna’s impulses which are ultimately bridled by my faith. I try to bring all of that into my work.

“Middle” 2013 canvas, pvc, reflective vinyl 68”/57”

“Middle”
2013
canvas, pvc, reflective vinyl
68”/57”

How would you compare the satisfaction of making a successful work of art to, perhaps, the satisfaction Senna felt when he won?

Our souls are looking for both awe and joy. I think both of those sentiments are at the heart of a victory. The artist experiences a similar feeling when a piece is done. In some of the best work I’ve made, I was completely alone, but I still felt like someone, something was participating in it with me—in the awe and joy. That drives you; it leaves you wanting more.

I think fear is a part of the conversation, too, though. A friend called me this morning—it’s so clear to me that her identity and soul is that of an artist—but she has the hardest time accepting that because she doesn’t think she has the skill or talent. She has a fear of being who she was created to be.

She read this book called The Artisan Soul and had a self-described breakthrough. The book talked about how fear is plaque on our lives. I started to think about momentum, and I thought , plaque only builds up where there is no movement, when there is a lack of pace. She talked about stuff that was looming on the horizon but that she was moving away from it. Wherever you’re coming from with regard to your faith, you’re running towards God or away from God, but you can’t deny that God is at the center of that activity. That’s sort of how my practice feels.

“Tunnel” 2013 pvc sheeting, fan


“Tunnel”
2013
pvc sheeting, fan

Do you think you’ve had guides on your walk as an artist?

Most of my guides have been outside of the realm of the fine arts. One of my guides was architect Samuel Mockbee. He said, in a spirit of boldness, that architecture needed to engage people’s lives. I’m constantly pursuing a place where truth, if it is real, has to be put into practice. Mockbee’s belief was that architecture has to be both beautiful and serve a physical need. As an artist, I make things that are fantastic in nature and not clear in their function, but I’m drawing off of a proof, the testing of something. All of my work is tactile, you want to feel it, test it, know that its true. That leads me.

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More of Wilson’s work can be seen here.