Visual Art

Graffiti Church

For good or ill—and surely the equation leans toward the latter—St. Louis is a region with more than her share of abandoned spaces. These emptied locations have arrived (and overstayed their welcome) for reasons familiar to other midwestern cities.

Entire industries disappeared, moving overseas or to more tax-lenient states around the US, leaving behind factories, warehouses and rail yards. White flight caused a profound, mid-century suburban shift in housing patterns, the St. Louis urban core altered for decades to come. With all those folks on the move, linchpin neighborhood services and amenities often followed; left behind were empty schools and bars, repair shops and restaurants, confectionaries and churches.

In a city with a deep, Catholic tradition, multiple Catholic parishes have shuttered, whether the actual church, or support structures, such as their affiliated schools, convents and rectories. A smattering of Lutheran, Baptist and other Christian churches have also been left behind in St. Louis, some humble, others gaudy, all suggesting a different, departed civic landscape.

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Individuals looking for a different way to experience the past have long explored these empty spaces. Recently, some friends and I visited a North City landmark, Bethlehem Lutheran Church. It once housed up to 1,400 congregants, in a building dating back to 1895. Designed by the architect Louis Wessbecher, the church had all the features typical of a grand building from that era, including beautiful, stained glass windows on nearly every side and a belltower visible for miles. Access was as simple as the step-through of a window, the church’s security long disregarded.

With the congregation shrinking, the building’s last church services were held a quarter-century back. The elements weren’t kind to Bethlehem Lutheran in the prevailing years, nor were all people. While weather caused the lion’s share of the damage, the ruination of the church was also accompanied by human touches, often in the form of spray paint. Present recently were huge pieces and quickie tags from members of various local graffiti crews (LD, OFB), along with independents. Some were subtle, like Moth’s “This is boring” phrase, jotted on the back of a weathered pew. Others were sizable, like the Ed Box tag dominating the mezzanine level’s front face. Bethlehem even featured the marks of local stencil artist Eye, who works in official, sanctioned roles around town; in this environment, a piano bore his unmistakable touch.

Michael R. Allen, the principal of Preservation Research Office, is a go-to source for St. Louisans looking for the background and context of the city’s rich architectural history. Traveling nationally for his work, he’s seen countless houses of worship in decay. Many bear the marks of graffiti writers, their messages ranging from the profound to the profane.

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Asked about the role of graffiti in these settings, Allen penned back: “Graffiti has been part of architectural history since the days of the Roman catacombs and earlier. The presence of graffiti is not insidious in itself, but a reminder of the passage of uses of buildings and coherence of place-based communities. No church building still tied to a living need or use would attract graffiti.

“Graffiti disturbs us because it forces us to confront our own neglect of the beautiful spaces of our ancestors,” he added. “Somehow, maybe with good reason, we failed to safeguard their temples. Yet the graffiti strangely gives these spaces a contemporary cultural life beyond simple destruction.”

From the Roster: Alison Stigora

Alison Stigora, a Philadelphia based artist, explores creation through visceral materials, site-specific fabrications, and drawing. She experiments with diverse media such as wood, natural and found materials, resin, glass, and works on paper. Stigora holds her MFA from the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts and has exhibited widely throughout the northeast, including numerous shows in Philadelphia, PA as well as New York City, Chicago, Baltimore, Pittsburgh, and Germany. In 2012 she was a Fellow with the Center for Emerging Visual Artists, and received an Independence Foundation Fellowship in the Arts. She has worked collaboratively with Kun Yang Lin Dancers, a contemporary dance group, to create environments and objects for dance, which culminated in a performance, Beyond the Bones, at The Painted Bride Art Center in Philadelphia. Stigora daily works and creates in her studio, a stone barn built in 1821. When not in her studio or teaching, she enjoys spending time outdoors, exploring new places, and playing with fire.

More of Stigora’s work can be found at her site.

 

Stigora, on her work:

My working process can be summarized with this sequence: Look. Listen. Respond. Repeat. Like any good conversation, it is not static- there is room for the rhythm to grow and change. Scale and space are themes I constantly think about. In creating physical and metaphorical spaces for viewers, my goal is to heighten awareness of the human body in relation to the space it inhabits. Whether in relationship to architecture, landscape, or other people, the way we exist in the world matters.

This concern can be seen in my installation “Crossing Jordan,” where architecture, material, and form came together to create a large-scale experience for viewers to physically and emotionally navigate. When I was given the location (a 5,500 square foot space), I did not know what I was going to make. I visited the site multiple times, created drawings and photographs, and observed how the space was used. Eventually I centered on the idea of a river of burnt wood, pouring from the second story balcony into the heart of the space.

 

Crossing Jordan

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Challenge: I only had 10 days to construct the project on site. I created many drawings and prototypes, and met with a team of artists who assisted me during the 10-day install. There was much preparation to gather and orchestrate the transportation of massive amounts of organic matter to an urban location.

During installation, emerging problems were solved and courses redirected. The process of creating such a large-scale work with a team was highly energizing! One of the most significant things was having conversations with viewers, and watching their physical responses.  After one month, the entire piece was dismantled, and the materials salvaged for re-use. This process of creation, destruction, and recreation is central to my work as an installation artist.

Another recent project was in collaboration with Kun Yang Lin Dancers, a contemporary dance company. I created a series of sculptures that were suspended above the dancers. In the process, I attended many rehearsals and made drawings based on the movements of the dancer’s bodies. These lines were then translated into sculptures, and suspended. In turn, the dancer’s movements shifted in relationship to the pieces hanging above them. The work was a call and response, with dancers creating an environment for the sculptures, and vice versa.

 

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Stigora, on current work:

Transparency Project

Transparency is a quality of the material and also a way of being. I have recently been exploring sculpture with transparent materials such as resin, paper, and glass. These pieces have brought discoveries about interior/exterior relationships in sculpture, and opened dialogue about interior/exterior relationships between human beings and how we choose varying degrees of transparency with one another. I am very interested in how transparent or translucent sculptures can create a context for communication between viewers.

Transparency, by definition, indicates that light can pass through a material. Relationally, transparency implies openness, communication, and accountability. The Latin root refers to “showing oneself”, or making known one’s true self.

I am paying attention to contexts where the degree of transparency between people affects the growth and outcome of the entire community. In these contexts, I am looking for ways to invite dialogue about the implications of transparency in contemporary society.

 

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2100°

(Glass installation)

Working with glass involves melting it down and forming something new. These individual pyramids were created through blowing glass into a wooden mold. When it meets the surface of the wood, the glass is at a temperature around 2100° Fahrenheit.  As the mold is reused multiple times, heat from the glass burns the wood until the charred surface texture begins to subtly appear on the glass itself.

2100° is the state of being moldable, malleable, formable. When working with a fragile material, loss is part of the process of creation.

Sometimes the things that most draw you to something can also keep you away.

 

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There are some things you can see, and some things you can’t. Forces beyond our control sometimes shake life up and we become more aware of intangible things. In the wake of the storm, we try fitting together flotsam and jetsam remnants like puzzle pieces.

Destruction and creation often live side by side. The process of destroying and recreating is what allows a sculpture to develop. Despite an early fear of fire, the creative process led me to overcome fears and use fire and burnt wood in my sculpture and drawings. Each piece of wood is methodically charred by hand, creating a velvety rich, black surface.

Creative work begins with a visceral response to physical material. Everyday materials become beautiful through the making.

Physical movements from the natural world inspire forms, such as the force of wind, the gravity of flowing water, or the spin of a whirling dervish.

Sculpture is drawing in space. I let the lines lead me; then I lead them.

 

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This summer Stigora will attend the summersession (for which she received a full-tuition scholarship) at Pilchuck Glass School in Stanwood, WA (about an hour north of Seattle) to continue learning/experimenting with glass as a sculptural material. Her current work in the studio includes doing resin experiments, and other manipulation of multiple transparent/translucent materials.

 

Saccharine Perspiration Blues

Some friends who used to live in Brooklyn drove in last week and we all thought it would be fun to see what we could see in the penumbras emanating from Corporate Art these days. Kara Walker, a big-time artist known primarily for skewering the U.S.’s dismal history of race relations, fortunately fit the bill: a huge opening in the hulking Domino Sugar Factory on the banks of the East River. It was the kind of installation you knew would get raves in the press even before it opened.

Domino Sugar Factory

A big art installation in Williamsburg posits a kind of dilemma: can the work be judged on its merits apart from the accompanying hullabaloo of twentysomethings in rompers and Ray-Bans? Not to mention the gobs of money that surely tumbled down various craws to make it happen? I don’t know the answer to these questions, except to say, these events are not good for my soul.

There is a sideshow element in these things, something perverse and weird. You turn up to see the spectacle just as much as you do to see the statues. I wasn’t disappointed: the line, by the time we got there, extended far down Kent Avenue, almost to the Williamsburg Bridge. See them there, these iPhone-burdened laborers of Instagram, these servants of the feed, snapping up shots to give their digital lives a shot of New York cool. Feel the hangdog air, the knowing sheepishness—being seen, my generation pleads through every online artifact they share, is just as important as seeing. Maybe more so.

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So it is fitting that the work, too, is about being seen—a canny choice on the part of Creative Time, a New York-based non-profit that specializes in big public art displays, because we can all relate. The installation bills itself as “an Homage to the unpaid and overworked Artisans who have refined our Sweet tastes from the cane fields to the Kitchens of the New World on the Occasion of the demolition of the Domino Sugar Refining Plant.” In other words: to see those who remained unseen for so many years—the black faces upon which the gears of commerce turned.

Like much of Kara’s work, the racial elephant in the room is brought squarely center: no chance of diverting eyes here, no glossing over. In this case, literally: a giant mammy sphinx dominates a large portion of the space, dusted in lily-white sugar. Sugar, the sweetest of commodities, was for centuries dependent on a bitter system of black labor. The contrast of the stereotypically black features coated in refined whiteness exhibits Ms. Walker’s heightened sensitivity to the many cruel ironies of history.

Unfortunately, the overall effect is reminiscent of  “some corporate idol you might find outside a hotel in Singapore,” in the words of critic William O’Leary. Even if this garishness is part of Ms. Walker’s point—the vicious banality of sanctioned greed built on a foundation of white supremacy—I am not sure it is particularly successful beyond that of a stencil of Ronald McDonald with an AK-47 swapped into his hands. Is this revelatory to anyone anymore?

Curiously, despite a brave attempt with the giant sugar-sphinx, it is the space itself that ends up being the main attraction. The walls drip with the collected decades of sugary detritus from molasses production and refinement. The effect is oddly beautiful—the inimitable abstract brushes of rust and oxidation and sea air painting the walls ocher and brown and tan in huge gradients and slashes. Ultimately Ms. Walker’s sphinx diminishes when placed against these geologic forces.

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For all its larger-than-life bravado, Ms. Walker’s installation is best viewed at an intimate scale. Tucked among the steel beams and supporting braces, the artist has placed four or five-foot high statues of plantation boys in various poses of molasses production. These small sculptures of harvesting boys were to me strangely moving, even creepy, in their forlorn positions tucked away at random in the space. Cast from sugar and matching the mottled factory walls in hue, these sculptures seemed plaintive and almost weeping as they melted, their trails of deep brown and taupe running in little melancholy channels across the floor. Like the walls of the factory, they seemed to perspire, as though the space itself was alive to its own history, remembering still down through the long years its dark saga of suffering and sweetness. Sweating ghostly children reflexively working invisible sugar fields and leaking out dark blood onto the floor of the factory that once refined the fruit—well, the fructose anyway—of their labors. I have to admit there is something lovely and aching about that image.

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Anyway, the whole kit and kaboodle will disappear into the maw of capitalism and inexorable market forces this summer once the wrecking crews come bulldozing in. The insatiable appetite for millionaire housing will soon consume it whole—from highest I-beam to lowest brace bar—and spit out luxury condos. Take the chance to see the inside of this incredible industrial building before it is gone forever. There is not a lot of seeing to be done here otherwise. Although the people watching promises to be pretty good. You can rest assured they’ll be watching you back.

Meanwhile, the molasses children will continue to melt until they are no more.

From the Roster: Janna Dyk

Will We Talk or Shall We Just Gaze is a recent series of text-based photography and sculpture by Janna Dyk. In addition to my reflections on Janna’s work, some of the the commentary on the images below was written by Sophia Alexandrov, Janna’s colleague at Hunter College.

Janna Dyk’s Bio:

Born in Los Angeles and raised in the Pacific Northwest, Janna Dyk’s present base in New York has proved fruitful to her work in interdisciplinary collaboration, photography, sound, installation, writing, and drawing.  Currently pursuing a Master in Fine Arts at Hunter College, she is a graduate of Asbury University, has studied at the School of Visual Arts in New York City, and completed an artist residency in Beijing, China, with Art International Residency Projects.  She is the former Center Coordinator at the New York Center for Art & Media Studies (NYCAMS), and was the Collaborative Visual Arts Curator for the 2012 Chelsea Music Festival, which included, among other shows, curating OPEN CAGE: NEW YORK, a 75-person performance at Eyebeam Center for Art + Technology, [ON SILENCE], a group exhibition at NYCAMS, and Silence, an interdisciplinary collaborative performance at the Rubin Museum of Art.  She has exhibited her work internationally.

Janna Dyk’s full body of work can be seen at her website and Tumblr pages.

Dyk’s work has taken a variety of forms over the last few years, but the unification of  her various modes and the ideas she’s commenting on have never been more apparent. Starting out with drawings, then moving into photography of drawn and assembled sculptures, and then re-photography of those photos, which might eventually become mixed-media photographic sculptures, etc., her process of splicing ideas and objects together naturally plays into her reading of how conversation (relatedness itself), particularly web-based communication, can be fragmented, removed, and reassembled in unusual ways.
"She Did What She Could" 2014 Digital C-Print 18x24”

“She Did What She Could”
2014
Digital C-Print
18×24”

In recent work, words are strung together that particularize dichotomies pervasive in contemporary conversation like : “we are better via Gmail” and “why don’t you screenshot that and I’ll look at it later”, simultaneously embracing and condemning our new modes.

"We Are Better via Gmail"  2013

“We Are Better via Gmail”
2013
graphite and thread on archival paper

 

“why don’t you screenshot that and I’ll look at it later”
2013
graphite & thread on archival paper

Walking into a recent installation of Dyk’s work, Alexandrov remarked that: “photographs, works on paper, art books, and a wall projection appear as splashes of color floating ethereally in a white cube. The different levels of seeing that are experienced upon entering the space are echoed in the works themselves.”

“Dyk explores the complexities of the contemporary human experience through layering and distortion of relationships among objects, text, and image. Neither the relationships among the exhibited works nor a definitive message are made obvious to the viewer. This confusion is purposeful; Dyk challenges her audience with ambiguity, and her works encourage investigation. Unidentified pronouns appear in text throughout many of Dyk’s works, and raise difficult, thought provoking questions of “knowingness” versus “unknowingness”, “meaning” versus “non-meaning”.

While Dyk’s work is bound up in its relevance to timely conversations, it, at times, is also a less layered interaction between lasting, non-ephemera and traditional techniques as seen in her book stitching.

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“untitled”
2013
book with graphite, pencil, & embroidery

Dyk’s work can be read as seemingly devotional, each memo and assemblage a deliberate act of speaking or remaining silent which, for a viewer, is very compelling. One is left wondering what she’s thinking in the studio, what she’s felt,  and what questions she is posing to us when we encounter work.

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“I Am Only Seeing”
2014
embroidery thread on paper
8×10

Janna Dyk’s other work can be seen at her website and Tumblr pages.

 

 

From the Roster: Lindsay Kolk

Today we’re featuring the work of Lindsay Kolk who I first met years ago when we were colleagues at International Arts Movement. I’ve enjoyed watching Lindsay’s delicate, persistent hand change over time—her construction always markedly her own, but so influenced by her setting and the availability of found materials. We hope that you are refreshed and put at ease by her meditative approach.

 

Lindsay Kolk’s Bio
Compelled by anxious fingers, Lindsay Kolk has always loved making things. She lives and works in Queens, NYC with her husband and daughter. Although city living is not her ideal, she continues to find little pockets of beauty and peace in such a frantic place.

 

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From Lindsay: Much has happened this year, but perhaps the most transformative event was becoming a mother. No one was able to prepare me for the impact a child would have on my life, my daily rhythms, or my time. Even as I write I know that at any moment I will be needed. Historically, I sought refuge in the meditative state derived from focused problem solving, isolation, and from repetition of process, gesture, and material; as evident in:

 

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and  “Vestiges

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These days, time is a precious luxury, as are privacy, space, and quiet. I cannot afford to risk the neglect of my family for the sake of repetition. Instead of spending hours, I must gather fragments of time to work and to think. Although sleep deprivation has given me little emotional margin, I have found strength to delve into the personal. My recent “Nests” are created from the hair of family members, namely the women who have given me strength to be a mother.

 

I have not abandoned my concern for delicacy and fragility but, for now, I set aside the solace found in focus, isolation, and repetition so that I may be present in that which life has to offer.

 

More info:
instagram: lindsaykolkstudio

From the Roster: Wayne Brezinka

If, as we say, it is good to celebrate and talk about art (both pop & fine), it makes sense that we’d use this platform to showcase original works by contemporary artists. As such, we’ve started profiling an artist from our community whose whose recent work grabbed our attention, captured our affections. In any case,  their work, story of becoming artist, or studio practice fascinated us.

This Tuesday’s artist is Wayne Brezinka. Below you’ll see a recent conversation between he and Meaghan, videos of Wayne at work, and images of the pieces he reflects on during the chat. If you have something to show the editorial staff and the rest of The Curator readership, too, please email us: editor@curatormagazine.com.

Wayne’s Bio

As an illustrator and contributing artist, Brezinka has been commissioned by The New York Times, Neiman Marcus, The Johnny Cash family, The Washington Post and the Chicago Tribune. Wayne has also illustrated for many ads, posters, music packaging, consumer packaging, and is always looking for new venues for his work. His illustrations have appeared in Communication Arts, Print Magazine and most recently, the Society of Illustrators’ 52 in New York. Through a unique combination of vintage and found ephemera, collage and mixed media, Brezinka creates and sculpts these items into unique images and works art. Wayne lives with his wife and three children in Nashville, Tennessee.

Meaghan: Wayne, it was great meeting you at the Laity Lodge this March. I appreciated our conversation then and I’m grateful that we’re able to chat about your work now.

Wayne: As am I. Thank you! This will be fun.

M: Can you tell me a little bit about your journey to this point? How you decided to be a full-time artist?

W: My journey began as early as kindergarten, I’d say. I always loved to color, create, cut paper and work with my hands. If I got in trouble with the teacher, it wasn’t a total wash because I found it more satisfying to stay inside and make things than to play outside at recess. I’ve always found it easier to look into a group of people from the outside if I was creating rather than be in the center of what was going on. My father was an alcoholic, so there was a lot of chaos in my home (I’m grateful to say that my father and I have since reconciled). I used art as an escape to find peace, not even knowing as a child that that’s what I was doing. As I got older, I decided to pursue graphic and commercial art eventually earning a degree in design. Whether I was designing t-shirts, working for an ad agency, or as an art director for a record label designing album covers, I always found interesting tactile pieces of paper or metal and worked those into my pieces. Six years ago, a friend who is a professional illustrator challenged me to be a full-time illustrator and fine artist. I accepted the challenge, started marketing to agencies, galleries, and art directors and it went from there. I remember early on when the LA Times called me one evening and they wanted to commission me for something, and then Neiman Marcus called to commission me for something. And so it worked and grew and continues to grow.

M: How did you first get into designing album artwork?

W: I loved music as a teenager and I wanted to design album covers. I thought, what better place to live than Nashville? I had visited a few times but I didn’t know anyone, but I was ready, so I hopped in my car, drove down from MN and started fresh. [I moved in with this guy who was in a Christian rock band called Whitecross (I don’t know if this rings a bell); he was their bass player.] So after 3.5 yrs making collateral pieces at an ad agency (my first job here), when I became great friends with a creative director at EMI/CMG records through our church, I was very happy. I told myself that I wasn’t going to make something happen that wasn’t supposed to happen. We formed a genuine friendship and she offered me a job. Before interviewing I made one condition: I told her she could only hire me if I was the best candidate. I got the job and I was there for four and a half years. It started with me designing packaging for cassette tapes then CDs; it was the greatest time, a dream come true.

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Then, unfortunately, I was fired. We had a new house and a baby on the way, so I immediately transitioned into freelance and it skyrocketed. And that’s how I’ve been afforded the space to do special commissions and to make the work I want to make.

M: Tell us about your how you balance the demands of fatherhood, marriage, and all that life fills itself up with and an intense studio practice in which you make elaborate, highly-detailed, time-consuming pieces.

W: I’ve got three kids, so I have to balance home/studio time. I work from 8:30-6. And when I’m in the studio, I have to prioritize what I have to spend the most time on. If it’s an intricate, large figurative piece, I’ll even tell myself that I can spend an hour on an arm or an hour on a leg. Breaking things down that way helps me keep things going, and finding a natural rhythm and not forcing myself in the process helps too. Often times a mood or a feeling about things happening at home will interfere with the process, so I have to give myself grace to sort that out as I work. I ask for peace with the process and gently let things happen, try not force the work. I find that when I pressure myself to create an amazing piece, I’m usually less successful. That’s a process I’ve learned over the years, though; it’s taken time.

I’m in recovery. Working through my addiction has helped me to understand surrender, letting the work be what it will be. I can beat the shit out of myself better than anybody else, so I have to be gentle. I find that I’m of greater service to others and to the sorts of art I can make for them if there is kindness and peace throughout the process, not the self-thrashing that I’m capable of.

M: Many of the folks that I’m friends with and artists that I speak to talk about making work as a therapeutic process, or almost a compulsion, a necessity in their lives. For some, it’s become a devotional act. Thank you for helping us to understand your intuition and motivation in the studio. On the practical side, do you get an idea for a figure or scene that you want to make, and then gather materials? How does the process work?

W: It’s all fluid and then things happen that anchor an idea to the right materials. For instance, I’ve wanted to make a piece about Job for a long time. I imagine Job was a very old man: frail, thin— you can see his ribs— hunched over. So this weekend while my quickly-deteriorating father-in-law was visiting, my wife suggested that I ask him to be my model.

I’m wrestling with the idea of doing Job nude sitting on a pile of trash. As I was photographing my father-in-law posing, I thought, this is the pose! I responded to his gestures, stance — his freedom of expression allowed me to settle on something that I thought would work. Now I have to gather materials. The streets on my walk to the studio every morning are filled with trash, and so one day soon, I’ll start picking it up. As the sketch of the piece solidifies, I think more and more about materials. What can I pack into the collage that’s full of symbolism? I might use pages from a an old family photo album or pages from a Bible from mid-19th century.

M: There’s something about the narrative of the Job story that lends itself well to collage..not necessarily better than painting, but differently. Because you’re layering the piece with objects, you’re able to pack hidden meaning into a piece without it being gimmicky or obvious. From what you’ve told me, you find figures or scenes that have a narrative, stories you can tear apart and then piece back together item by item. Over the course of your career, what have been some standout stories?

W: I just completed a dream piece at the beginning of 2014 for a new publication in Nashville. It’s based on my story of sexual abuse as a kid, and my recovery from an addiction. I had been medicating my pain. In order for me to move on, as an artist, friend and father, I had to grieve that pain. I went through lots of therapy and small groups, but I had never visually resurrected any of those memories or dealt with them in the studio. And so I began the very difficult sketching process: there is a man in his underwear tucked in the back of this image, lurking behind a boy. I was nervous about what people would think — can I show this? Is it erotic, hypersexual? A few trusted friends said it HAD to be in there, that it was too much a part of the story to leave out.

Making this scene was another very therapeutic act of healing; it helped me grieve that part of my story. Objectifying it, looking at the image from the outside, building the wolves and such, helped me to talk about it in a new way. And the piece has taken on its own life now. Unfortunately the statistics of abuse are really high, and it’s brought important convos out of the woodwork. Its meant a lot of people who share the experience and it’s been healing for me and for viewers, so the depiction of that story is a standout for me.

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M: Thank you for being willing to share that, Wayne. You also work with historical figures whose stories are known by the public. Can you tell us a little bit about the Lincoln piece?

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W: Lincoln fascinates me. In 2012 there was a LOT of press on him because of the anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation. I wanted to know if I could make his face. And a friend said what if you used photographs from the Civil War? So he and I traveled to the Annual Civil War Antique Fair to buy fairly affordable paperworks from the period that were later worked into the construction. In 2013, I had an opening at Taylor University, including this piece and others. Liking how the piece was received, I pitched it to Lincoln museums and monuments. Many of them were very responsive and interested and so kind, so that grew my confidence. So I pressed on until eventually the Ford Theater wrote back and said they wanted to display it! It’s hanging there now in an area that gets a ton of foot traffic. The piece is available for purchase, so it’s great that so many eyes are on it each day.

M: If you had no limitations, what would you make? Could you work in the same way without them? Most artists thrive with boundaries, but I like to get an idea of what people’s dreams are apart from the things that restrain them.

W: If I had all the money I ever needed, if my needs were met, would I still feel incentivized to create? I think so, yes. I’d just want to keep making new work, offering life to others and to the world. I’d like to make a way for people to sit quietly and look at work and think about themselves and what they’re seeing. That’s why I want to make the Job image. Think of all the introspection that could lead to. As an artist you either give the viewer a reason to dismiss the work quickly, or you engage them, you get them to ask questions and to answer questions for themselves. I like to push it. I think I’d want to make more work to help people want more for their lives.

 

For more information about Wayne’s art, please visit his website, Twitter or Facebook pages.

From the Roster: Gina Hurry

It is good to celebrate, and hold conversation around, art (both pop & fine). And it makes sense to showcase original works by contemporary artists to do this. As such, we’ve started profiling a recent exhibition or series found in our community — or just an artist whose recent work slakes or invigorates the heart.

This Tuesday’s artist is Gina Hurry. You’ll find commentary, personal reflection, and other verbal foliage on her work in the following post. If you have something to show the editorial staff and the rest of The Curator readership, too, please email us: editor@curatormagazine.com.

 

'The New Heavens'

‘The New Heavens’

 

About Gina, gleaned from her website and other sources:

“…. [T]here is more to good and beautiful than safe and simple … I have seen colors of deep grief, death and darkness — fear, loss, deep groaning and loneliness. And I have also seen and breathed in colors I cannot describe because of their transcendence filled with kindness, beauty, and hope … I believe that beauty is meant to be a gift.” –Gina Hurry

 

'Good Gift I'

‘Good Gift I’

 

'Renewal'

‘Renewal’

 

“Along with other Jewish and Christian artists who hew at the meat and bones beneath the surface of Bible narrative, Hurry is a visual prophet for our time. Her blog writings reveal a deep longing for intimacy with God and sorrow over lack of unity in the church and world. She believes in fighting through the ‘ugly stages’ and enlisting beauty as an ally. The process of beauty overcomes chaos and destruction and is at least partially an antidote to the sickness of the world and a reminder of another place.” —Marisa Martin, WRN

 

'Dancing Among The Ruins'

‘Dancing Among The Ruins’

 

'Year of Jubilee'

‘Year of Jubilee’

 

Gina Hurry helps head a wonderful arts collective in the Birmingham area, InSpero — a movement of human hearts toward the re-envisioning, and reclamation, of city space through art, its practices and disciplines (its results, as well), and through the creative/creationary nature inherent in community-forming that gets flushed out because of it all. She believes, in her work with InSpero and as an artist, “beauty is meant to be a gift.” The city of Birmingham, AL, has a bustling arts community, which Gina aids, nurtures, and connects and re-connects to itself.

More of Gina Hurry’s work can be discovered through her website, ginahurry.com, and through her Facebook page, Gina Hurry Art.

 

 

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From the Roster: Reid Strelow

 Committed to a celebration of and conversation around art (pop & fine), we think it makes sense to showcase original works by contemporary artists. As such we’ve started profiling a recent exhibition or series by an artist in our community every Tuesday. At the bottom of this post you’ll find a video of Reid discussing his practice.
 
Sylvan: Work by Reid Strelow was curated by Allison Peller and John Silvis is now on display at the First Things Editorial Offices in NYC.

 

 
 
Allison Peller (curator) on The Sylvan Ideal:

Reid Strelow’s work consists of carefully crafted pieces that shift between sculptures and drawings. His most recent work of hanging wood sculptures carved with a chainsaw and dyed with black ink, are highly influenced by his return to Minnesota after living in Brooklyn for over five years. While the genesis of this new series, currently on view at First Things, is primarily autobiographical, the end results encompass the universal struggle of establishing an ideology that is not constantly threatened by reality.

The title of the series, Sylvan, stands as a sly hint to the viewer of the autobiographical nature of the work, while simultaneously marking the complexity of ideas the sculptures encompass. Coming from the Latin Silvanus, who was a woodland deity, sylvan means “of the woods,” or denotes “one who lives in the woods.” Strelow’s recent move back to Minnesota found him living in such an environment. Here his studio moved outside, allowing him the space needed to make larger works and experiment with using a chainsaw as a mark-making tool. But any romantic notions of creating art in wide-open spaces while surrounded by nature were quickly grounded in reality after the first onslaught of brutal cold and snow that are synonymous with winter.

The jagged and blackened wood stands as a monument to this death of an ideal. Resembling charred wood, it appears as though the sculptures have emerged from a refiner’s fire, with any remaining superfluous components having been ruthlessly carved away to leave only the essential elements. The idyllic no longer remains, but in its stead is something stronger that will endure the unavoidable elements of both weather and life.

 

While the title is a clever allusion to Strelow’s personal history, by naming the series Sylvan, he purposefully links the works to a wider concept of mythology. Vastly different than the idealized fairy tales we are familiar with today, mythology is brimming with flawed individuals who despite their strengths, virtues, or beauty rarely achieve their ‘happy endings.’ With this in mind, and his own failed vision of making work in the woods, Strelow is striving to reveal how each of us are living out our own personal mythologies, and contending with our own lost or misguided aspirations.

 

Despite the seemingly desperate nature of the work, there is a sense of hopeful expectation as the viewer studies the geometric shapes and carvings of the individual pieces more closely. Specifically, the long vertical pieces have complimentary concave and convex elements allowing them to visually interlock. This crucial relationship counteracts the misery that can accompany harsh reality. It hints at the creation of a new form or being, and reminds us that when things collapse we can find truth in flaws.

 

Just as the title of the series grounds the work in literary and ideological complexities, the carefully chosen materials that Strelow uses sets up another layer of significance. The sculptures assert a strong physical presence while embracing the materiality of the wood. Knots and variations in the wood grain are visible and the roughly carved surface resulted in a splintered façade. Meanwhile, the planar quality of the works prevents their presence from becoming overwhelming, and opens the door to read the pieces as large drawings or prints. Contributing further to this view is Strelow’s use of Japanese Sumi ink. Traditionally used for printmaking and calligraphy, the dried ink produces a slightly reflective surface that reads as graphite.

 

Conflating the materials and dimensions of drawing and sculpture creates a space that is constantly shifting. This oscillation echoes that of the passage between artist autobiography and universal mythologies. It also mirrors life. As individuals we are continually in the process of adjusting our ideology as we struggle to find something that is grounded in reality. But just as Strelow’s work asserts that hope and new beginnings are always present in the collapse of old aspirations, I believe if we maintain our faith as the bedrock on which we build our ideals, the exposure of flaws will only leads us to the truth.

 


 
Reid Strelow: Artist Portrait from kbest productions on Vimeo.

Artist & Curator Bios

Reid Strelow, a contemporary, Brooklyn-based artist, works as a sculptor and installation artist. Strelow graduated with an MFA from Hunter College, New York in 2012 having received a BA in combined media from Bethel University in St. Paul, MN in 2007. He has exhibited his work in Brooklyn, New York City, and Vienna, Austria.

Allison Peller is an independent curator who lives and works in New York. Peller has curated exhibitions in Minnesota, New York City, and Brooklyn. She is currently earning her MA in Curatorial Practice at the School of Visual Art, New York and graduated in 2008 with a BA in Art History from Bethel University, MN.

John Silvis is a Brooklyn-based artist and curator. He received his MFA from the Academy of Fine Arts, Vienna and has received numerous grants and awards, including a commission for the Essl Museum in Vienna. Silvis’ recent contemporary art research has taken him to Beijing, Berlin and Zurich. Some recent exhibitions include “Crashcourse IV,” Norte Maar, “What I Know,” NYCAMS, New York (2012), “Crashcourse III,” Olson Gallery, Bethel University, MN (2012), and “Goodbye Space Shuttle,” Active Space, Brooklyn (2011). His recent curatorial projects include “New. New York,” Essl Museum, Vienna (2012), “1000 Rainbows,” Lia Chavez, First Things Gallery, New York (2012), and “Life Drawing,” Joshua Cave, First Things Gallery, New York (2013). His forthcoming exhibition “With Love from Brooklyn” will be shown at the FADA Gallery, University of Johannesburg in 2015.

From the Roster: Joshua Cave Makes

 Committed to a celebration of and conversation around art (pop & fine), we think it makes sense that we’d showcase original works by contemporary artists. As such we’ve started profiling a recent exhibition or series by artists in our community. This Tuesday’s artist Joshua Cave, a BX/BKLYN-based  painter, sculptor, and installation artist. You’ll find commentary and personal reflection on his work in the following post.  If you’ve something to show the editorial staff and the rest of the Curator readership, email editor@curatormagazine.com. 

 

Things is Joshua Cave’s most recent series of paintings.

Born Januray 21st, 1986 in Worcester, MA, Joshua Cave was nurtured under the bias optimism of his mother. Through his childhood and adolescence she continued to praise every mark of ink, pencil or paint he made, despite his frustration with nearly all results. Nevertheless, he went on to receive a Bachelor of Fine Arts, and subsequently move to New York City to pursue painting, sculpture and installation.  He continues to work, and live with his wife and landlord’s cat in New York City.

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Cave On Things:  “I have come up with no better title for my current body of paintings than Things. Although a vague and somewhat benign word, I have found that any and all “things” are integral to my pursuit of truth. Interested in the elusive quality of inherent value both in art and humanity, I have been attempting to layer significant and insignificant things as defined by mine and others attractions, in hopes of arriving at a the creation of an alternative thing of inherent value, the painting itself. It seems sincerity is all that separates thing from nothing. I am trying to separate my work from nothing by making it receptive to something.”

 

Crucified Clothes, 2014, Oil and graphite on canvas, 12 x 14 inches

Crucified Clothes, 2014, Oil and graphite on canvas, 12 x 14 inches

A statement about the artist’s practice from a journal entry:

I keep thinking I have stumbled upon some realization that will help me to resolve my current paintings, but each realization applied only confronts me with a new series of possible decisions, and the paintings remain unresolved.  There is no narrative I adhere to, which leaves the work open to a myriad of directions none of which promise an end. I keep asking myself, what am I attempting? And the only answer I can muster at this time is to say that I am pursuing rest without predetermining my process of aesthetic. I want the paintings to mature to a point of rest, but while they grow uncomfortable they never become comfortable. Conflictingly, I am of the belief that comfortable is not a worthy end, and often serves to weaken the work. Nevertheless, I, like many, find comfort in a discernible form of rest— that, to break free from it is to attempt to spend the night on a concrete slab.  I am not comfortable on that slab, and I imagine few are.  Yet, I believe finding comfort there is necessary to communicate with an aspect of our humanity less favored by our culture, but nonetheless true.

 

Cave’s work has been displayed most recently at:
The New York Center for Art & Media Studies
First Things’ Gallery
He is represented by Outlet Gallery.

And we all came in together

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The immersive installation and we all came in together by Rebecca Locke  utilizes new digital media, analogue technologies, video, objects, found images and discovered stories to reflect New Yorkers’ ongoing relationship with the city, exploring celebration as memory, and those memories’ meaning being defined through the interaction of other people. With the artist’s appropriation of microtext printing (more commonly seen as a security feature on twenty-dollar bills), the core component is a microscope-based installation with twelve microtext stories and projections, as the work vies between scale and perspective.

The piece is inspired by memories collected from New Yorkers who have known the city for five decades or more, memories then transformed by the artist into twelve New York City stories. These include travelling from New York for The March on Washington, the spontaneous Time Square celebration on VE day as news travelled across Manhattan that war in Europe was Over, of going AWOL to visit loved ones in Brooklyn, the accolade of an ‘untouchable’, and the story of an old lady forever mistaken for ‘Katherine Hepburn on a bike’. Through these memories, the work explores themes of migration, celebrity, tradition, the communal element of the city, and the city as a place of sanctuary.
 


 

Rebecca was the inaugural artist-in-residence at Redeemer’s Center for Faith & Work in NYC. An article exploring the themes and motivation for the creation of the installation can be found here. An excerpt from that piece:

“In my mind the work was about finding the hidden and unexpected. There is something to the work about scale and perspective, about finding the small and finding the forgotten. The installation was designed to reflect the process that, as the artist, I encountered in making the work—the process of finding something, of finding the stories, and finding the people that told them. With respect to this, the installation also included a ‘blink-and-you-miss-it’ element. Around the gallery space, applied low—below the sight line—the walls were dotted with small color printed microtext stories. It was an element of the installation that once you found it and saw it, it became obvious: you would see it everywhere. The viewers who came to the gallery and discovered the dots were give a mounted blank glass microscope slide and invited take a story from the wall for their blank slide—a small piece of artwork to keep”

Janna Dyk interviewed Rebecca about her entire body of work for SftPwr, a cultural digest of women’s work in the arts. 

“If the mark of a life well lived is a perpetual sense of adventure, then Rebecca lives well. If the mark of a talented artist is a propelling force towards new projects, and interesting forums in which to present such work, then yet again, she fits the bill. An enthusiasm towards life and its potential for renewal characterizes and informs both her life and her work.”

 

Rebecca Locke’s Bio: 

Born in the UK, Rebecca Locke is based in New York City, USA which has proved formative in the development of her installation art, film, photographic, sound and performance-based artwork. She is a graduate of Goldsmiths, University of London, and has studied at the International Center of Photography and the School of Visual Arts in New York City. She is a visiting fellow at the Centre for Urban and Community Research (CUCR), Goldsmiths, University of London and an inaugural member of the Association of Urban Photographers.

The City to Sea Project developed from Rebecca’s practice, specifically her work based on her hometown Bognor Regis, and developed in 2013 in collaboration with Magnum Photos for a workshop series and screened exhibition at Urban Encounters, Tate Britain. Rebecca exhibits internationally and recent exhibitions include the Lab Film Festival, London, Visual Urbanism: Perspectives on Contemporary Research, The British Library, London, the Festival de la Imagen, Manizales, Columbia and the first Bienal de Fotografía, Lima, Peru, which featured the artist’s video and sound series Lugares qui fui.

The artist is currently working on a new film, E pluribus unum, and a self-portrait based series, exploring narrative identity and female role models.

Her work can be seen in full at www.rebeccalocke.com

Wayne Adams is Speaking in Tongues

Wayne Adams is Speaking in Tongues: a curated show of objects and images organized by the unrelenting voice of interpretation, is a two-person collaboration by Brent Everett Dickinson and Wayne Adams.  The exhibition considers both visible and non-visible elements: Adams’s visual artifacts and Dickinson’s invisible but omnipresent voice-based sound piece (which works to organize the viewer’s experience of the visible elements, alternately supporting and unsettling the gallery experience through both responsible and irresponsible interpretive framing). It is the vacillation between supporting and unsettling, coupled with the complex meanings embedded in the work itself, which creates beautiful feedback and failure posing as many questions as answers.  Of course the final, necessary component of this division of labor is the viewer’s own engagement with these complicated transactions, adding meaning to the exhibition by the very presence of their body and mind, displacing and organizing the works as they move through the space.

The title relates to I Corinthians 14 in which the Apostle Paul mandates the necessary context for Godly “tongues”—the inclusion of an inspired interpreter.  The use of this concept provocatively draws a correlation between the coding that goes on in all art work, richly exemplified by Mr. Adams works, and the spiritually-inspired coding represented in the biblical account of speaking in tongues.  Though there are obvious categorical differences between these, in both cases crude materials (i.e. paint in the one case and in the other sound pushed through the larynx of a prophet) are coaxed into sublime communication through the role of interpretation.

 

 

A note from Bruce Herman:

Adams and Dickinson are seasoned subversives. In one sense they are adopting a pose as artist and curator in the current exhibit. (In reality they are both equally exhibiting artists who set out to challenge the expectations and conventions of how we arrive at aesthetic meaning.) And this subversive posture is evident at several levels: first, they challenge the viewer to move out of the hyper-respectful, passive role of serious gallery-goer; second, they offer a voice-over commentary as an aural soundscape that both helps and potentially frustrates the viewer’s expectations, causing us to question our place in the economy of this art; third, they subvert the particular setting of an evangelical Christian college by referencing a charism of the Holy Spirit (speaking in tongues, or glossolalia), conflating it with the process of making art and seeking an interpretation of the sometimes obscure intentions of the artist (just as the unknown “tongue” would have been gibberish without the spiritual interpretation being made available).

In one sense interpretation is what this exhibition is about, even more than it is about a particular artist and his work. What do we expect from the artist? Is the artist the sole arbiter of the meaning in his or her own work? Do artists need a collaborative meaning-maker to assist them in delivering the “goods”, namely artistic significance? Wayne Adams has produced a diverse and dynamic range of different “fine art” objects over the years––much of which operates within a paradigm of artistic meaning shared in the fairly small enclave of contemporary artists and art theorists. Along the way Adams has also produced humorous yet critical art works that challenge us to re-think our expectations of both art and religion and their fraught relationship in our time. It seems to me that Adams and Dickinson are reaching out––beyond the bounds of the art cognoscenti––trying to see if there are other audiences for this kind of artistic questioning.

At a superficial level aspects of Adams’s work might appear disrespectful of evangelical piety––but as you spend time with him and his work it becomes clear that all of his art comes from a place of sincerity and longing––along with jesting––and that his friend and collaborator Brent Everett Dickinson has truly managed to capture the ambiguity and complexity that Adams attempts to evoke in his art. Both artists are earnest in their desire to pose important questions of art and artists in the 21st century, and simply making a pretty object is not, in their world, enough.

What is needed is that artists and art theorists take time to work together to build bridges of trust across the often-troubled waters of our current art culture. We are very pleased therefore to present “Wayne Adams is Speaking in Tongues” to both the Gordon and local art community in hopes that these very bridges are formed as a result.

 

Wayne Adams is a Brooklyn-based artist who received his B.F.A. from Calvin College and M.F.A. from Washington University in St. Louis.  Adams has exhibited throughout the Midwest, New York and Vienna, Austria.  Recent shows include, “Works Off Canvas” Denny Gallery, NY (2013), “The Ballot Show” Denise Bibro, NY (2012) “Control Alt Delete” HKJB, Brooklyn, NY (2011), “Adams | Miracle” STOREFRONT Gallery, Brooklyn, NY(2010).

Brent Everett Dickinson has exhibited his multi-media work throughout the United States, Canada, and Europe.  He earned a MFA in painting from Yale University after graduating with a BFA from the Maryland Institute College of Art.  He has recently produced original experimental sound pieces for the Chelsea Music Festival and the Cornerstone Music Festival and sculptural/sound pieces for the Socrates Sculpture Park in NYC and the Essl Museum in Vienna, Austria. Currently Dickinson is developing experimental drawings with the use of fruit flies and mosquitos, creating mineralized fossils in various meaningful landscapes around the country. He is also producing a video that utilizes a low-tech interface with Google maps to record the “movements” of one of Hitler’s toilets (currently installed in an auto-service station bathroom in New Jersey) around the world. This toilet will eventually be returned to its rightful place in Central New Jersey.

 

Setting the Record Straight

Ai Weiwei’s Straight (2008-2012), a large-scale sculptural work consisting of thousands of pieces of steel rebar, weighs approximately 38 tons. When it was installed at the Art Gallery of Ontario in Toronto, one of the many stops between Tokyo and Brooklyn on the Chinese artist’s major retrospective Ai Weiwei: According to What?, each day of the exhibition an expert was brought in to make sure the gallery floor hadn’t buckled under the immense weight. This is not the only one of Ai’s works to require a little extra curatorial fortitude: To take just two examples, Sunflower Seeds at the Tate Modern in 2010 consisted of millions of hand-painted porcelain sunflower seeds; Forever Bicycles (2011), which we Torontonians got to see as part last year’s annual Scotiabank Nuit Blanche, is a sinuous structure made of 3,144 interconnected bicycles.

What is the point of all this heavy lifting? Ai Weiwei, whose minimalist and Pop Art inspired work has garnered increasing international acclaim over the past few years, is a controversial artist/activist/social-media guru whose work has consistently challenged the political and social status quo in his native China. He has been beaten, jailed and censored by the Chinese authorities, and currently has been barred from leaving the country under any circumstances – in Toronto, since he could not be present at the opening of his AGO retrospective, he gave an interview via Skype. His most famous piece, the appropriately titled photo triptych Dropping a Han Dynasty Urn (1995/2009), established him as a figurehead of defiance by taking on a few centuries worth of Chinese politics, history and culture in one pregnant gesture. The striking Sunflower Seeds gives visual expression to Chairman Mao’s now infamous policy to “let a hundred flowers bloom” in the early days of his regime. More playful, but no less political works plaster symbolic antique vases with Coca-Cola logos and primary colors, signs of Westernization and cultural history in semiotic flux.

Straight, however, is heavier. Ai and his team literally and laboriously twisted back into shape thousand of pieces of steel rebar recovered from schools demolished in the devastating 2008 earthquake in Sichuan province. On the wall overlooking the enormous pile of rebar are the names of over 5,000 children killed during the quake due to poorly constructed school buildings. The Chinese government, dissociating itself from the shoddily built structures, never released a list of casualties – and so the list of the departed has been assembled by the artist, and appears on the wall above the reconstituted steel poles. The same theme animates the haunting Snake Ceiling (2009), a long, serpentine installation made of abandoned backpacks.

Rebar - Ai Weiwei

photo: Edna Winti

One way to interpret Straight is as an act of redemptive restitution, a concrete-and-steel manifestation of what we mean by “setting the record straight.” Art thus becomes, to adopt a phrase from Heidegger, a matter of truth “setting-itself-to-work” — straightening out the broken rebar is a metaphor, and in some sense a participation in, putting the world back together again. To make something straight is to set it right. What comes to mind is all the biblical language about “making straight paths,” from ethical admonitions in Proverbs to Isaiah’s prophetic words about “making straight a highway” for the coming of the Lord — words taken up by John the Baptist. “Lift your drooping hands and strengthen your weak knees, and make straight paths for your feet, so that what is lame may not be put out of joint but rather be healed,” exhorts the anonymous author of Hebrews. In these passages, making things straight is a sign of the in-breaking kingdom of peace, wholeness and justice. The artist himself hints in this direction, linking straightness to the courage to pursue the true and the good — in other words, to backbone: “The tragic reality of today is reflected in the true plight of our spiritual existence. We are spineless and cannot stand straight.”

But as with all art, there is ambiguity — for another way of “straightening” or “smoothing” out the narrative is through spin and sleight-of-hand. The steel bars, bent back into perfect shape, now conceal the fact that anything happened at all. The broken buildings, the rubble and the bodies of the innocent are the incontrovertible evidence demanding a verdict — cleaned up and straightened out, things appear to be “back to normal,” which is precisely what those in power desire. Straight thus causes us to reflect on what has been straightened out and what, if anything, remains tangled.

Not everyone is enamored with Ai’s art. Jed Perl, for example, writes in the New Republic that:

…when Ai hangs an MRI on the wall or places thirty-eight tons
of steel rebar on the floor, he fails to meet, much less to grapple
with, the challenges of art. In this way, he creates his own kind
of political kitsch.

Perhaps the aesthetic simplicity of Straight is a little too, for lack of a better word, straightforward — like much of Ai Weiwei’s infamous work, it is resolutely in-your-face. But of course, when it comes to a terrible tragedy the world has forgotten, this is precisely the point. Those who forget the past, particularly its darkest features — along with those who lose sight of the many realities of suffering and oppression in the present — will struggle to shoulder the burden of the future.

For viewing:
Two documentaries have come out in the past two years detailing Ai’s biography, art and confrontation with the Chinese government:

Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry (2012, dir. Alison Klayman)
Ai Weiwei: The Fake Case (2013, dir. Andreas Johnsen)

photo by: paul bica

Damage Control

 Damage Control: Art and Destruction Since 1950 is on view at the Hirshhorn Museum, Smithsonian Institution in Washington D.C. through May 26, 2014.

Raphael Montañez Ortiz begins by pouring a large circle of white powder from aluminum wrapped canisters on the ground. The white powder is later revealed to be salt. Few members of the audience notice when Ortiz begins, but as it becomes apparent that he is doing something out of the ordinary, a hush falls over the crowd. The audience now becomes part of the piece as Ralph walks in a large circle within this outer ring of bodies and salt around his piano.

The Hirshorn Museum’s current exhibit Damage Control surveys how artists utilize the act of destruction in their art. The most dramatic example occurs on preview night during a one-time reenactment of Ortiz’s Piano destruction concert.

The drawing of a salt circle around Ortiz’s performance space signals the creation of a sacred boundary, and this silent gesture ushers us into a sacred moment. After he finishes pouring the salt circle, Ortiz picks up an axe and begins touching the piano with it, then hacking, prying, picking, and scraping.  The piano is amplified so that we hear every application of the axe blade. In the beginning the sound that bleeds through the amplifiers make sense, but soon the sounds become alien and frightening. This, compounded with our knowledge that the piano itself is destined for utter destruction, as well as the evidence of strings and wood pieces spewing out of the piano, intensify the complex emotions the concert evokes.

Ortiz walked around the piano calmly, methodically applying the axe blade to wood and brass, without any expression. Watching him, my heart was pounding and my eyes teared spontaneously, interior sobbing reverberated soundlessly. Half way through the concert, I looked around and everyone else seemed as mesmerized; their accompanying interior emotions may have been similar. Ortiz remained deliberately unmoved by us.

We viewers are electrified; adrenaline courses through us as we anticipate the imminent final blow of the axe. The piano that is inanimate has gathered all our empathy and we need the screams to end. We can’t flee, for we are at an art museum after all. The concert ends abruptly when Ortiz leaves his axe embedded on the edge of the piano and walks away. The silence comes as a relief. We feel the uncertainty of survivors who have just stepped through the arms of our deliverers. We are left wondering what we just endured and why. Many other pieces in the exhibit document destruction; this live performance exaggerates the pain of being a member of humanity, which intentionally creates in order to destroy. This performance piece further exposes and accuses us of being voyeurs of destruction.

The first time Ortiz destroyed a piano was in 1966, a performance act which reflected the exuberance of power in human hands, cautioning against advances in nuclear technology, warning against the threat of nuclear annihilation and protesting war.

While history tells the story of humans destroying in order to mitigate further destruction (consider animal and human sacrifices from ancient cultures), do these piano destruction concerts serve to appease the voracious bent in humanity towards destruction that the artists in the exhibit reveal? The performance expresses and evokes such an immense amount of pain that the viewer is brought to the edge of trauma, and then awakened to the reality that we are watching performance art. The artist destroys a piano to demonstrate by degree the greater senseless and wasteful destruction already occurring.  He further warns that even the salvific potential of beauty and creativity symbolized by the grand piano is helpless against humanity’s destructive bent.

I wander the exhibit wondering if there is any damage control, as art pieces demonstrating destruction span sixty years of art. The art works demonstrate various approaches to destruction by artists, which include: destruction to express angst, destruction as protest, destruction in order to create, destruction for the pleasure of it, and destruction as creation.

While the concert offers little in the way of hope, the video installation by Dara Friedman entitled Total documents the destruction of a room and replays the scene in reverse suggesting a possible restoration. Instead of a woman trashing a room, the video shows her throwing a chair, which gently glides into a corner, and then throwing a pile of bed linens, which fly through the air draping over a bed perfectly. Her conception of reversal appears starkly inadequate and childish in an exhibit that opens with footage of nuclear demonstrations. We want Friedman’s vision of restoration, but we want more than a reversal of circumstances — we want healing and new direction as well.

And this is where art brilliantly demonstrates the potential for healing and new direction. As curator Russell Ferguson notes, this video demonstrates the power of the artist to reconstruct. Similarly, Juan Muñoz’s Derailment (a derailed train whose cars are perfectly stacked upright) portrays hope for human cultivation despite our pleasure in and tendency towards destruction.  Inside the cars, Muñoz builds a miniature city of trees and buildings. Muñoz leaves open ended the answer to the question of whether this derailment is an accident due to natural disaster or human error, or an incident of human destructive intent.  His work reminds us that while we cannot determine our fate as much as we would like, we do have control over a lot. In our efforts to reconstruct life and culture, as symbolized by the miniature city within the train cars, we are finally able to accomplish more than damage control.

Image Credit: Raphael Montañez Ortiz performing his “Piano Destruction Concert” on the Plaza of the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, October 25, 2013. Photo: Drew Doucette

Art Museums vs. Art Fair

Art used to be part of my life.

When I was single, I often visited museums and galleries, special exhibits and art festivals. Recently, though, I married for the first time at age 42 and became a step-mother to three sons. I realized I hadn’t been to a museum or an art gallery since the wedding. In fact, I hadn’t been since we were engaged.

“Would you be interested—or at least willing—to go to the art museum with me on Saturday?” I asked my husband during a particularly rough week. When he agreed, I was relieved. I knew I needed the presence of art in my life. My husband knew it, too. The next day he told me that an arts and crafts fair that I had been to and enjoyed in the past  was also going on in a nearby town on that Saturday.

The only problem was that we didn’t have time to do both.  Would my craving for art be best satisfied at a museum or a fair?

“All of culture . . . is a struggle over how we should imagine our lives,” writes essayist Scott Russell Sanders in “Letter to a Reader.” Would choosing the museum over the fair be the equivalent of saying that Monet imagines life better than the woman who designs jewelry or the soap maker whose offerings at last year’s fair kept me clean for months? I was torn.

I face this dilemma between “high culture” and “low culture” (or pop culture) regularly: should I read Thomas Hardy or my friends’ latest blog posts? Should I eat at the chef-owned R Bistro or the Pita Pit? Should I go to the symphony or listen to the folk singer at a nearby coffee shop?

In a February 2013 Guardian article titled, “High culture versus pop culture: which is best for engaging students?” Andrew Jones, head of religious studies and sociology at a community school in Hertfordshire, discusses the effects of introducing both types of culture to students in educational environments.

While exposure to high culture might help students “develop an appreciation of the finer things in life, such as poetry and classical music,” Jones also says that popular culture feels more relevant to his students, makes the subjects “alive.” Often, he combines both: “My colleagues and I have planned lessons on heaven and hell that mixed clips from Tom and Jerry with Gustave Doré‘s illustrations of Dante’s Divine Comedy. Furthermore, lessons on suffering include the literature from Elie Wiesel and the paintings of Francisco Goya.”

Maybe I should have tried harder to squeeze in both the museum and the fair? Or is choosing between them, beyond a mere scheduling conflict, really being honest about the nature of art?

In his 2013 commencement speech for New York’s School of Visual Arts, cultural critic and prolific author, Greil Marcus, refuted the notion that high and low art should really be separated.

I’ve always believed that the divisions between high art and low art, between high culture, which really ought to be called “sanctified culture,” and what’s sometimes called popular culture, but really ought to be called “everyday culture” — the culture of anyone’s everyday life, the music I listen to, the movies you see, the advertisements that infuriate us and that sometimes we find so thrilling, so moving — I’ve always believed that these divisions are false. And, as a result of trying to make that argument over the years, I’ve also come to believe that these divisions are permanent — they can be denied, but they can never go away.

One particular temptation for choosing the museum over the arts and crafts fair that Saturday was a special exhibit of Chinese artist and cultural protestor, Ai Weiwei, whose work could leave Beijing while he himself was detained and surveilled on a daily basis. While museums of high culture regularly exhibit his work, I did wonder as we walked throughout the gallery (yes, we chose the museum), what makes his photographs or his sculptures “sanctified,” as it were.

I left the museum that day feeling different than usual. Truly, I had seen life as Ai Weiwei imagined it. But it left me wondering how to imagine my own life. “Beauty” didn’t describe what I had seen. But was it was a revelation. Was that enough to call it art? Marcus says “yes.”

That’s what art does, that’s what it’s for—to show you that what you think can be erased, cancelled, turned on its head by something you weren’t prepared for—by a work, by a play, a song, a scene in a movie, a painting, a collage, a cartoon, an advertisement—something that has the power that reaches you far more strongly than it reaches the person standing next to you, or even anyone else on Earth—art that produces a revelation that you might not be able to explain or pass on to anyone else, a revolution that you desperately try to share in your own words, in your own work.

And even as I nod in agreement, I wonder if the opposite would have been true at the art fair? Sure, I would have seen lots of pretty things, some even beautiful. I know; I’ve been to the fair before. But I don’t recall any revelations. Where does that leave the soap maker?

Perhaps this is the urge that Marcus so deeply regrets about the division of high art and low art. When one person or party or nation says you must see “this” as beautiful, or only “that” can provide you with a revelation, Marcus calls it an “urge to fascism,” a dangerous word when applied to people in power. But perhaps still an ugly word when applied to individuals passing judgment over each other’s imaginings of life?

It all comes down to that urge to fascism—maybe a big word to use for art, but I think the right word—it comes down to that urge to fascism to know what’s best for people, to know that some people are of the best and some people are of the worst; the urge to separate the good from the bad and to praise oneself; to decide what covers on what books people ought to read, what songs people ought to be moved by, what art they ought to make, an urge that makes art into a set of laws that take away your freedom rather than a kind of activity that creates freedom or reveals it. It all comes down to the notion that, in the end, there is a social explanation for art, which is to say an explanation of what kind of art you should be ashamed of and what kind of art you should be proud of. It’s the reduction of the mystery of art, where it comes from, where it goes…

This issue of shame came back around to us a few weeks later when my husband and I again chose a visit to the art museum, this time bringing our boys along. We wanted them to see Ai Weiwei’s work, to experience the same revelations we had. But those photos and sculptures that had moved us earlier now required justification. “It’s a statement of protest,” I explained to our youngest son who giggled at the photo of Ai holding up his middle finger to the White House. “They gave him a concussion when they were arresting him,” I said about the MRI image of Ai’s own brain. And I felt myself flush when we saw the picture of a naked man suspended from the ceiling in chains.

And we didn’t even risk taking them to the Matisse exhibit a few months later where we knew the Odalisk drawings and paintings would be far more than their young minds could sort through at this stage. Not to mention our own Midwestern adult sensibilities. Fascism? Perhaps. Or maybe just practical parenting. But why, then, do we “protect” the boys from Matisse while regularly exposing them to the advertisements of cable television or the magazine covers in the check out lane at the local Wal-Mart? And what about Robert Indiana’s 8-foot-tall polychrome Numbers made me so proud as I drug the boys through the rain to the outside patio at the museum that day, insisting that they were going to love them? (They did love them, by the way. But maybe only for my benefit? Maybe only because I had insisted?)

High art and low art may indeed forever be separated, and in earnest, many, like the educator, Andrew Jones, will try to bring them back together, to find a happy balance.

My life attempts to inhabit such a union. I find a greater negotiation, however, from Madeleine L’Engle, whose everyday encounters with high art not only reduced their mystique, but made her own creation of low art irresistible. From A Circle of Quiet, she writes:

I wrote poems, too. Looking through some old journals, I came across several. There was one, notable for its arrogance, if nothing else.

We lived on 82nd Street and the Metropolitan Museum was my short cut to Central Park. I wrote:

I go into the museum
and look at all the pictures on the walls.
Instead of feeling my own insignificance
I want to go straight home and paint.

A great painting, or symphony, or play, doesn’t diminish us, but enlarges us, and we, too, want to make our own cry of affirmation to the power of creation behind the universe. This surge of creativity has nothing to do with competition, or degree of talent. When I hear a superb pianist, I can’t wait to get to my own piano, and I play about as well now as I did when I was ten. A great novel, rather than discouraging me, simply makes me want to write. This response on the part of any artist is the need to make incarnate the new awareness we have been granted through the genius of someone else. (L’Engle 147)

So yes, we went to the museum. We even became members that day, my husband and I. It was his idea, actually. And not because we value high culture more than low culture, but because we very much want to be inspired to create our own art to imagine our lives as something more than they currently are.

photo by: Edna Winti

High Art, Low Res: Reviewing Art Basel Miami with an iPhone

The first time my college painting professor asked me what I thought of a Mark Rothko I said,  “I don’t know—what’s the caption?” So even though my training was in the fine arts, I eventually gravitated toward cartooning, which I now do regularly. But I still like to keep-up on what is happening in the art world. So this year I made my first trip to Art Basel Miami Beach, the annual event where the world’s top galleries showcase their works for collectors, curators, museum directors, and anybody else who can afford a hotel room in Miami during those four days.

There are plenty of other worthwhile activities going on during Basel. The street art scene has fully exploded, which I wrote about briefly here, and there are other smaller art fairs which are pretty terrific. But I wanted to see the epicenter of all the hype, the main spectacle at the Miami Beach Convention Center, where the beautiful people browsed among the big ticket art items: the Warhols and the Koonses and the Murakamis.

Officially, you’re not supposed to take photographs at the convention center, at least not with your high-powered 35MM. Of course, nobody objects to a little hashtaggy, Instagrammy buzziness, so smartphone pictures are allowed to proceed unchallenged. However, in deference to the artists and the galleries who represent them, I decided to do a photo review of the Basel exhibit by only taking poor or extremely cropped iPhone pictures.

Enjoy.

 

 

This is the carpet inside the main entrance of the convention center. It’s a great way to draw visitors inside the exhibition hall, because you’re pretty eager to get past this:

carpet

 

 

This untitled Jackson Pollock drawing from the 1950s, looking like a notebook page full of alien hieroglyphics, was unrecognizable as a Pollock, and especially from this angle, right?

 

pollock

 

Kevin Appel’s paintings at the Ameringer | McEnery | Yohe gallery were gauzy representations of rebar, overlaid with patterns of line and Benday dots, but which were almost entirely obscured by huge blocks of dark blue paint. If you could see the whole image, you’d be able to see that you couldn’t see it.

 

appel

 

Fortunately, I cropped this Jack Pierson piece so that you would have no idea what it said.

 

mofo

 

This gorgeous Kohei Nawa sculpture, PixCell Maria #11 at SCAI, appeared to be glass bubbles which assumed the form of the iconic standing Virgin Mary pose. Whereas people often see apparitions of the Virgin Mary in caves and in danish, I can imagine somebody seeing an apparition of this Virgin Mary in a bubble bath.

 

maria

 

There were two separate paintings which were nearly identical. Upon close inspection they were differently textured, but from a normal distance they were both large canvases covered completely in a single grayish powder-blue hue. One was by the American John Zurier, another by Italian painter Ettore Spaletti. One of them brought the viewer into a heightened awareness of bliss, and the other one kinda sucked. I can’t remember which was which.

 

blue

 

This interactive video installation was quite popular. There was a line to use it. Then I realized why: it was spitting out money! Then i realized it was an ATM.

 

ATM

 

You can tell there are a lot of Europeans there because: yellow pants! Only Europeans can pull off yellow pants.

 

pants

 

On the other side of this Ameringer | McEnery | Yohe wall was an appealingly bold abstract work by Monique van Genderen, which out of respect for the artist, I can’t show here.

 

wall

 

It’s exhausting looking at art all day, even for non-humans.

 

dog

 

Selfie with Lichtenstein!

 

lichtenstein 

Juan Genoves’ “Trayecto” was a fun work, an enormously tall panel of thick paint globs which represent hundreds of people running across a crosswalk. Evidently they all figured out where Lady Gaga was making her appearance.

 

trayecto

 

Finally, Basel is not just about art, but about the parties. This one really got out of control with all the zombies and Nazis!

 

dream1

 

(editor’s correction: this is actually a work of art exhibited at Art Basel, Jake and Dinos Chapman’s “In Our Dreams We Have Seen Another World” (White Cube) and not a party pic.)

Is That “Something”?

The sky above Stonehenge was two-tone with a bizarre, crinkled texture. Sharp slivers of grey flowed in curves and wisps and disappeared into the eggshell-colored background. The taupe rocks below were flecked with red and steel blue — the same odd texture as the sky. Colors stood in strong contrast next to one another as in a Van Gogh painting. But something about them hinted this was not a painting at all.

A bold red flame extended off the top left corner of the canvas and broke out into the open air. It billowed from the tail of the Millennium Falcon (yes, from Star Wars) as it careened toward the ancient stone structure. A glance at the tag revealed the mystery of the medium, if not the message: “duct tape.”

I punched the piece’s five-digit code into my phone and tapped to register my vote. As I turned to leave I caught a glimpse of buildings and a passing car reflected in the copper colored window of the Auto Fixit Body Shop where the piece was hanging. Was this experience part of the artwork, I wondered. Did the artist want me to read the modern city behind me into its strange collision of the past and imagination cast in duct tape? Why the Auto Fixit Body Shop? Did it matter that both the venue and medium were not intended for making, but for repairing? As I wandered away looking for the next piece to contemplate, I realized I could come to my own conclusions, but I couldn’t ever really be certain.

This feeling of uncertainty is, for me, the best part of my yearly visit to ArtPrize. Now in its fifth year, ArtPrize is an independently organized festival-meets-competition in Grand Rapids, Michigan. This year featured over 1,500 artists from 47 different countries with attendees casting almost half a million total votes. ArtPrize looks like what might happen if you combined an art fair and a contemporary art museum, shook them up, and poured them out over three square miles in the center of a city. Art might be anywhere: in the river, on the tops of buildings, hanging from the ceilings of restaurants, on the sidewalks, and, of course, on the sides of auto body shops.

As you wander through the environment created by ArtPrize it is hard to distinguish the art from the non-art. More than once I have seen passersby come upon a sculpture or installation and, unable to decide what it is and whether it is in the competition, say, “Is this…something?” Sometimes you squint and look for a tag, sometimes you try to overhear an explanation, sometimes you wait and see, and sometimes it is impossible to tell whether “this” particular thing is “something” or not.

Uncertainty can be disorienting, but it also affords certain freedoms. Visitors to ArtPrize feel no pressure to like what they see. Any artist over the age of eighteen with a venue willing to display their work can exhibit at ArtPrize, so it isn’t uncommon to find trite pieces next to revelatory ones, cheesy ones next to exquisite ones. Some of the art is charming, if strange, like the wooden fish carving I saw displayed inside a plastic dome that looked like an enormous eye protruding from the wall. Some of the art is profound like the 3-D model of a river at night created using digital models of sound signatures captured all over the city. When you go to ArtPrize you can expect to see art that is zanier than at any other art competition, but you might also be surprised—maybe even embarrassed—at what strikes a chord inside of you and makes you feel something you haven’t felt looking at art before.

When you look beyond the highly visible hype-focused pieces like this year’s giant mechanical fire-breathing dragon, which occupied one restaurant’s parking lot, you see that ArtPrize has developed a value for craft and technique that is sometimes missing in the highly conceptual corners of the art world. Previous winners of the $200,000+ publicly chosen grand prize have included a grand-scale photorealist painting of a wave, two elaborately detailed pencil drawings, a meticulously rendered 13-foot-high stained glass mosaic of the Crucifixion, and this year’s winner, a 20-foot-wide finely wrought quilted image of a Michigan shoreline. Of course, none of these pieces broke new ground in terms of content, but each was a large-scale display of masterful artistic technique.

Why hasn’t something like ArtPrize existed before? It would be hard to imagine ArtPrize without the GPS and mobile technology that lends coherence to the otherwise absurd idea of scattering thousands of works across the center of a city. Each piece of art is geotagged and as soon as a visitor enters the three-square-mile ArtPrize zone, they can register on the ArtPrize app, find routes, venues and works, as well as vote without ever speaking with a guide or buying a ticket.

As the novelist and coiner of the term “cyberspace,” William Gibson, recently said:

Cyberspace, not so long ago, was a specific elsewhere, one we visited periodically, peering into it from the familiar physical world. Now cyberspace has everted. Turned itself inside out. Colonized the physical.

ArtPrize has taken this concept and turned the art world inside out — putting virtual ballots into the hands of each and every visitor. Rather than allowing art to exist in the specific “elsewheres” we call museums and galleries, ArtPrize takes it to the streets, to the bars, to the coffeeshops and to the conversations of regular people. ArtPrize is a radically impure environment, unlike the hospital-white walls of museums. It is like a theater in which the footlights that distinguish the actors from the audience have been turned off. Suddenly the production, promotion and purchasing of art no longer feels like a specialist enterprise reserved for a select few — it’s now the stuff of everyday life.

Eventually ArtPrize goes away. The footlights come on again. Most of the artists remove their works and return home. Like the law of nature that makes oil mixed in water separate again, art leaves the sidewalks and the auto body shops and returns to the museums and galleries. But some of the residues of ArtPrize remain. The permanent pieces like mosaics, sculptures and murals fill in new bits of the city’s white space each year like a paint-by-number project. I hope someday a time comes when it is impossible to tell when ArtPrize ends and begins. But until then ArtPrize teaches us to pay attention. It keeps us asking, “What is this? Is this…something?” And it leads us to approach our world with a healthy dose of uncertainty.

The Curator + Ruminate Magazine Video Art Competition

This summer, The Curator and Ruminate Magazine joined together to co-host a competition for contemporary artists who create work with moving images. Submissions were placed in two categories: short film and video/ or alternative time-based media. This past weekend, we debuted the work at International Arts Movement‘s INHABIT, the annual gathering for people interested in beauty, faith, and art.

We are pleased to announce the winners of the Short Film category here!

GRAND PRIZE WINNER: Pro by Snow Yunxue Fu

Snow Yunxue Fu is a practicing artist from Guiyang China, now living and working in Chicago. She is currently studying for an M.F.A. in Film, Video, New Media, and Animation Department at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. Her undergraduate degrees include one from Sichuan Normal University in Chengdu China, another from Southeast Missouri State University, and a B.F.A. from SAIC. Her main areas of studies were in experimental digital 3-D animations, painting, and sculpture. Her work references the Western historical concepts of the Sublime but in terms of a confrontation with the grandness of an abstract technological interpretation of nature. It is a place beyond regional and cultural boundaries. In her work, she asks fundamental questions about human existence.

RUNNER-UP: Falling Blossom by Jay Jihyun Kim

 

Creator Jay Jihyun Kim completed her MFA course at the Academy of Art University in San Francisco, United States with a focus on Film/Video production. She works as a freelance film/video editor and video artist in New York City. Falling Blossom represents the deep sorrow and anguish of Korean women during World War II.

SHORT FILM COMPETITION JUDGE:

Intermedia artist C. M. Judge directs Moongate Studio in Fitchburg, MA, where she creates video installations and community-based public art projects. Focussing on the poetic confluences of body and spirit, Ms. Judge’s work has been exhibited worldwide. She serves as Vice-President of the Northeast Region for the Women’s Caucus for Art (www.nationalwca.org). Current projects include co-curating, FemLink: the international video collage (www.femlink.org), with French, video artist, Véronique Sapin featuring 149 women video arts from 64 countries and  collaborating with Paula Rendino Zaentz on a series of meditative video installations that celebrate sacred feminine knowing. Ms. Judge holds a Master of Science in Visual Studies from M.I.T. and is a popular lecturer on the intimacies of creative process.

#GrowCurator Campaign: Introduction

DONATE HERE

Lovely readers,

I’ll be straight: the budget under which The Curator has been working for the last five years is…jaw-dropping. That is, for those of you who know anything about what it’s like to publish a consistent and relevant journal in the world today, you’ll know that ~$3,000/annum is, uh, beyond meager.

We aren’t complaining, though. Heck, we love what we do; for us, The Curator is one of those rare places Frederick Buechner talks about where our “deep gladness” continues to meet “the world’s deep hunger.” That being said, we’ve decided The Curator deserves a better version of itself, for everyone’s sake. Our writers and editors deserve better care and compensation. (Side note: I myself have not received a penny in a year’s work). Our readers deserve more and better content and an expanded vision. Even beyond that, we’re utterly convinced there are artists and geniuses out there scheming to astonish the rest of us, just for the pleasure of it, and they deserve more and better attention. With your help, we can continue celebrating them. And, by golly, there’s some really cool stuff you will get in return! Check out our INDIEGOGO CAMPAIGN for the special perks you’ll receive for donating, and stay tuned for updates!

Zach Terrell,
Asst. Editor
@zachterrell

DONATE HERE

Art in the Ruins

Recently my girlfriend and I went to the river arts district in Asheville, NC. The final brewery we wanted to visit was closed, so we turned to art. Mostly empty, one of the buildings was a mixture of studios and galleries. We looked at pottery, asked the artists some questions, and descended into the basement gallery. The gallery rested in a repurposed fall-out shelter—the modern equivalent of the Neolithic cave. It was primal, dank, providing a sense that we were not the only living things present. As we entered, a teddy-bear-esque humanoid hanging by a noose greeted us. The first painting held former Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke celebrating with the CEOs of Goldman Sachs, Wells Fargo, and my own Bank of America in some palatial hall. Their eyes were cowish—wide and wet—with clawed hands holding bursting bags of cash. In another psychedelic painting machine-guns emerged from politicians’ mouths spraying bullets and a set of otherwise traditional portraits featured drones zooming overhead. Grenades with locks rested atop display stands and a large oil painting of a wild-eyed child eating dog food hung in the corner. There was also a half empty bottle of wine and a glass with a broken stem, but this was not part of the official display.

These pieces attempted to pry open the face of our political clockwork and unveil the gears of greed and avarice pumping and steaming underneath. Here was the full fury of didactic, pedantic, finger-wagging art. At the very least it sought to incite a response, a visceral reaction. If Ben Bernanke sleeps the sleep of the just, maybe I should toss and turn with the restlessness of truth. And while I agree with what those fingers were wagging at, I hated this art. In this repurposed fall-out shelter, political commentary became its own form of kitsch.[1] Any level of complexity or variation in mood would have suffocated this art’s explicit message and straightforward emotional agenda. Through political argumentation these pieces covered up the humanity of others, each brush stroke composed of equal parts paint and op-ed. Overall, my dislike of it boiled down to a cliché; we stood amidst art that was all telling and no showing. Like mimes on their day off, the pieces just wouldn’t shut up. Am I unfair? No doubt.

Uncharitable interpretations have a way of generating more questions than answers. This one raises the expected question; how does one define art, especially good art? I’ve been told good art is, and is for, many things: self-expression; making the world strange; becoming a better person; transcendence; a conduit for the sublime; beauty; the infinite; justice; catharsis; instruction; entertainment; life; death; power; love; truth; gift; story; meaning; excess of meaning; exodus from reality; forming the slow speed of empathy; aristocratic self-aggrandizement; art is useful, art is useless; art is art, art gives us, us; art is a mirror; art is spectacles; art is a window; an axe to break up the frozen sea within us; art is dead.

If it’s dead, can I poke at it with a stick?

For me good art is an image, song, sentence or structure that causes me to read, look, or listen at least twice. There are many reasons that I’ve engaged something twice. Sometimes it’s because I enjoyed it or because my teacher assigned it or because I disagreed with it or because my church reveres it. However, I tend to return to a work of art because it contains some subtlety or provides pleasure. I felt love or meaning, and my senses invited me to “spend a little more time.” I return to the work with a reason, asking “How much of the world is it showing me?” or just wanting to experience it again. The art and I strike up a relationship, sometimes even a friendship.

Oddly enough, for all of the time I spend with it, (esp. novels and film) art has played a humble role in my life. If I ever find myself at a psychological precipice, I doubt art will be the one to talk me down.[2] This is a boring confession, but art has never saved my life. What would that even mean, how would that happen? There I am, my heart flat-lining with despair or anguish and Samuel Beckett runs in, gives me CPR, and restarts its pumping? This is not to make light of these things. Art has saved people, just not me.

Even though art hasn’t “saved” me, amidst its twiceness art has changed me, formed me, even seduced me. I read Ender’s Game over and over because I want to make sure I’m nothing like the Napoleonic protagonist, Ender. I read Gilead over and over because my idea of grace needs to be sanctified, stripped down to the essentials. I watch Life of Brian because I want to laugh. I pray the Psalms because they give language to my grief. I see the Broadway production of Lion King over and over because my sister wants to. With others, I kneel before the cross because it stands as sign that God “takes the existence of suffering seriously.”[3] My twiceness hopefully relates to acts of repetition residing in the creation of the art. The photographer snaps one more picture for the love of it, the dancer jumps back onto floor for the fun of it, the drummer strikes the drum again for the fullness of it, the author writes another draft for the truth of it—each concerned with the good of what they’re making. And I return for different reasons, some good some bad, all of them human—a desirable déjà vu, a willingly Sisyphean act. In each encounter the cup of my senses overflows, spilling into my incomplete perception, mixing measures of love into loneliness, diluting falsity with truth, dissolving small hard bits of ugliness and ignorance.

Return with me to the fall-out shelter—my brain floating in beer amidst this violent art: the drones, the politicians, the grenades, the noosed teddy bear. The drone peels itself off from the portrait, flies to D.C. seeking the destruction of Ben Bernanke’s moneyed bacchanalia. The grenades undo their safety pins; rolling into the nearest bank vault; the teddy bear remains still as ever; the art, an AI becoming self-aware, the human creation decides it doesn’t want humanity anymore. These machines of oil and ink and papier-mâché determine that humanity is the excess, the virus requiring elimination. Each piece longed to turn perpetrators into victims, imitating the violence it sought to critique. This art made people engaged in dehumanizing activities, inhuman—attempting to take away any twiceness for flesh and blood. It elects to make evil free of ambiguity, one-dimensional, the work of individual and indisputable devils.

I’ve heard that survivalists secretly wish for the apocalypse. As we walked around the bunker, these pieces screamed that everyone outside was already dead, already lost, already infected by the plague. The apocalypse was now. The only way to survive was to stay, locked up, never breaching the world again. But this bunker art got the world inside out—inviting us to break out the bubbly at a funeral and bring ashes to a birthday. Each piece is an answer that forgot the question; their vision of survival was actually a form of death. Here, ploughshares were beaten back into swords.

What did I do?

I walked upstairs and bought some pottery.



[1] I imagine this art’s ideal American government is something akin to 1920s Paris ex-pat community. Congress split between the parties of poetry, painting, writing, and music—you walk into the U.S. Capital’s rotunda filled with the in-use painting easels of Senators. The sound of jamming cover bands leaks under the doors of congressional offices. This is just a guess though.

[2] As I say this, a library copy of David Shields’s How Literature Saved my Life, the kindle edition of Gregory Wolfe’s Beauty Will Save The World, and Francis Spufford’s The Child That Books Built are all judging me.

[3] Francis Spufford, Unapologetic: Why, Despite Everything, Christianity can still make Surprising Emotional Sense, 164.

Visualizing More Than 63,000 Cross-References in the Bible

Imagine charting the 63,779 cross-references within the Bible. The complexity of transposing such data sounds like an endeavor presupposing a drawn out migraine, no? For Chris Harrison and Christoph Römhild, the project became something that focused on the beauty of the data rather than the functionality of the information. They sought to visualize it, rather than read it. What happened next involved not only the cross-references they sought to graph, but a cross-textual process that translated wordy data into a beautiful representation using color and light–inspiring beauty that matches the level of awe felt when examining the layered intricacies of the Bible.

Chris speaks of the collaborative process in creating the chart:

Christoph, a Lutheran Pastor, first emailed me in October of 2007. He described a data set he was putting together that defined textual cross references found in the Bible. He had already done considerable work visualizing the data before contacting me. Together, we struggled to find an elegant solution to render the data, more than 63,000 cross references in total. As work progressed, it became clear that an interactive visualization would be needed to properly explore the data, where users could zoom in and prune down the information to manageable levels. However, this was less interesting to us, as several Bible-exploration programs existed that offered similar functionality (and much more). Instead we set our sights on the other end of the spectrum –- something more beautiful than functional. At the same time, we wanted something that honored and revealed the complexity of the data at every level –- as one leans in, smaller details should become visible. This ultimately led us to the multicolored arc diagram you see.

The bar graph at the bottom represents the Biblical chapters; the books alternate in color from white to light gray. Each bar’s length signifies the number of verses in the chapter. The colorful arcs represent the the 63,779 cross-references in the bible, each color corresponding to the distance between the chapters the reference can be found in.

Chris Harrison is currently a Ph.D. candidate in the Human-Computer Interaction Institute atCarnegie Mellon University.

Vive le Salon!

This piece was first published in 2008. Throwback Friday!

The Art Salon takes the art dialogue away from the exhibitionism of the public square, back to the privacy of personal circles, even the intimacy of the home. Salons first became popular among the nobility of 17th century Europe as a time when the comtesse and her girlfriends got together to hear about things that mattered – in the salon, their equivalent of our living room. Salons became a form of meeting integral to the shape of society – at least one gave rise to the French Revolution in the 18th century. For the trophy wife, the revolutionary, the avant-garde artist, salons have always been about standing up to the status quo.

Recently, I went to one such inspiring salon evening. Ryan Callis, an artist, and Chris Davidson, a poet, just hosted their fifth installment in Seal Beach, California, near Los Angeles. With the blessing of their wives, these two co-workers and neighbors open up the Davidson home every other month to other rabble-rousers and creatives. As the sun was setting, a few dozen friends and strangers milled about the front lawn, porch, and kitchen, and finally settled into the living room. That night, we heard a pair of artists speak, viewed a slideshow of Nokia-sponsored photos of India, listened to a poet recite from her book, and were acoustically serenaded by a rock outfit. Weeks later, I catch up with Ryan Callis via email, and tell him how smart he and his compatriots are for luring the art crowd to their surf and turf.

So is your artist salon REALLY called, “The Society of Interested Persons” ?
Ha, ha, ha, yes sir, it is. I have an affinity for creating titles as a potential for fun word combinations. My MFA show at Claremont, with Evan Roberts, was called The Grand Order of the Salt Dippers. We both surf, so we were “The Grand Order”. I think “The Society of Interested Persons” has a fun ring about it. For a poet, Chris had called it the very un-fun “Second Saturday Salon”. Yawn. I spiced it up.

What kinds of people typically show up to the Salon?
As founders and key inviters, Chris and I look to our friends and families as repeat customers. Next come those that visiting artists and lecturers bring. A few neighbors and an occasional passerby join in. We run in different circles and have a ten-year age difference between us. So we already mix it up with our own crowds. But maybe our crowd can be summed up best as 18-70 years old, poor to rich, Christians and not Christians, G.E.D. to Ph.D.

Do they fight?
It’s awesome because all these folks get together in a somewhat neutral environment, compared to, say, a gallery. Because we have breaks between presenters, I think it is amazing to watch everyone mingle, network, and be able to have topics for conversation.

Are art salons on the endangered list of art world species?
I don’t know. I know that in this day and age, anything without money or drool-inducing entertainment is automatically a rare species. But I observe the art world as more community-based – more potential for interesting community than most other worlds.

What in your opinion makes for a good salon gathering?

One in which quality of presenters and the enthusiasm of the crowd come together! A good salon is just an awesome evening all around; you can just feel it.

I still wanna know what unexpected things have happened.

Drunk, chatty housewives have been the surprise! Lots of inappropriate commentary or questions during presentations, but always innocent enough and funny in hindsight. There was another time when a presenter’s dad came to hear her speak, but thought a college party a few houses down was our salon! He ended up hanging out at that rowdy “salon” for two hours until he wised up. All alcohol-related things I guess.

Tell me something that’s printable about your co-host Chris.

Chris is an awesome poet. He is a man of many ideas and little time to make them happen, which is where I come in handy. He is also a very generous guy and he’s let us invade his house.

Tell me something about what YOU do when not co-hosting the Salon? You’ve got that solo show at the gallery coming up.
Yes. When I am not salon-ing I am painting, surfing, family-ing, and praying. I make art; the salon is a part of that. A less-cool-than-painting part of that. Oh, and I teach university sometimes. The salon is my way of acting out Dada urges.

What’s in store for next time? I missed the drunk housewives last time, I guess.
Next for the salon will be Chris as poet, me as the artist, and a local singer/songwriter named Barrett Johnson. Barrett is awesome, and I did the art for his album. It’s a question mark as to our lecturer, although on my mind is local and surfboard-shaping legend Rich Harbour, or Otis College of Art’s curator, and an interesting gal, Meg Linton. People keep asking for our work to be featured, but we had felt it was too soon, until now. Los Angeles artists Lynne Berman and Steve Roden, as well as LA critic James Scarborough have tentatively committed to the next, next salon. That would blow my mind.

photo by:

Works (and Cities) in Progress

This piece was first published last April.

In early March, Tom Brokaw picked Reading, Pennsylvania as “emblematic of many struggling cities.” In his short profile, students at Reading High School say they can’t wait to get out of this city. For many years, people in the suburbs and surrounding farmland told me they didn’t want to go in. Reading has been a city to drive around at all costs, and a place to dream of moving away from.

Slowly but vitally, crime rates have declined in Reading and new commerce has sprung up. Revitalization still looms a long way off, and a staggering unemployment rate, homelessness, and poverty hover close. But if Reading really functions as a symbol of other U.S. cities’ struggles, then maybe closely examining one crucial element of what makes people in Reading proud of their community and hopeful about its future will illuminate what can help elsewhere.

The GoggleWorks, the biggest arts center of its kind in the nation, calls Reading home. As a renovated factory building set in the heart of Reading, it sparks hope that the arts can jolt life into the city.

The campus is roomy enough to feel peaceful. Well-lit hallways look into 34 active studios. It’s also busy enough to feel energized.  Seniors, high schoolers, professionals, and elementary kids walk the halls. High school girls chat in Spanish and laugh. Artists help each other haul sculptures into one of the GoggleWorks’s five galleries.

Anyone can tour the galleries for free. Visitors can wander up to the second and third-floor studios to view works completed and works-in-progress and leave notes for artists or talk to them while they work. Community members can take classes at the GoggleWorks, and students can receive need-based scholarships. Several artists, like artists-in-residence and husband and wife Jesse Walp (woodworking) and Bethany Krull (ceramics), have visited city classrooms.  About his recent classroom visit, Walp said he wanted the third-graders to know “…there are other options in life.  There are artistic ways to live.”

Factory exterior prior to renovation; photo courtesy of the GoggleWorks

With such freedom of movement into and out of the GoggleWorks, the community has embraced the GoggleWorks as theirs. Barbara Thun, a GoggleWorks artist who says she wants viewers of her paintings to feel both an experience of beauty and a sense of unease, says, “Already our neighborhood community takes pride in this place.”  Thun, who is also on the GoggleWorks’s board, points to a lack of vandalism around the art center’s six-building campus as evidence that the community feels ownership.

How Does It Start?

So let’s say you live in an economically-gasping city like Reading and believe art fosters collaboration across the many lines that divide people, and you believe that this kind of collaboration infuses life into neglected urban areas.  How do you start a center for the arts in a city like Reading?

The GoggleWorks began when Albert Boscov took a walk.

Boscov visited Bethlehem, Pennsylvania (that’s right, “Christmas City“) during a First Friday event. Boscov happens to be Reading’s best-known businessman; his family started a chain of department stores. As he found himself among thousands who thronged downtown Bethlehem’s streets, he considered how similar Bethlehem’s history was to Reading’s and envisioned Reading infused with this kind of energy.

Second floor space prior to renovation; photo courtesy of the GoggleWorks

Boscov knew the arts had been instrutmental in reeling Bethlehem back from the edge when it lost its industrial base. (Remember Billy Joel’s song “Allentown“?  Remember the line about Bethlehem Steel: “Out in Bethlehem they’re killing time”?) Boscov contacted Diane LaBelle, an architect who had just left her job as director of Bethlehem’s Banana Factory arts and cultural center to ponder what to do next in life. When Boscov approached her with the idea for a Reading-based arts center, it was clear that this was what to do next.

The idea for the GoggleWorks took shape.  The city donated a recently-closed factory that had manufactured safety glasses.  As LaBelle toured its interior, she says, “It was so filled with light… I could see artists working.”

Boscov gathered a small cohort who asked LaBelle for a concept design.  She capitalized on the light that had captivated her and left the factory’s aesthetic intact. Indeed, encountering old boilers, heavy steal doors, and defunct circuit-breaker boxes, GoggleWorks visitors can still imagine themselves spelunking through an old factory.

The whole process, from the day LaBelle first saw the building to the day the GoggleWorks celebrated its opening, took three years.  LaBelle’s concept crossed the governor’s desk in 2004, and he approved it and granted $3 million for the project that same year.  Meanwhile, Boscov’s cohort ran a capital campaign to raise additional funds and LaBelle met with “anybody that would meet with me” to ask them: what does Reading need from an arts campus?  It turned out that people from over 500 organizations wanted to meet with her.  Above all, as GoggleWorks’s soon-to-be founding director, LaBelle wanted to fill in the gaps and provide what the city’s arts organizations needed, “but not be competitive with what was already there.”

Why Art?

Photo: Sean Talbot

But what does all this mean for the community? Why does an arts center bode good things for Reading?

When Barbara Thun describes changes the GoggleWorks art center has made in Reading, she talks about the parents of Berks Ballet Academy students.  Many of the students lived outside the city and their families weren’t used to driving downtown.  At first, when Berks Ballet moved into the GoggleWorks, parents picking up their kids would idle their cars as close to the door as possible, wait for the young ballerinas to hop in, and whisk them away.  As suburban parents grew more and more comfortable with the GoggleWorks and Reading, this changed.  Barbara Thun would see kids with dance gear sitting outside, laughing and playing while waiting for their parents.

More foot traffic into and around the GoggleWorks means more people on Reading’s streets and that, says Thun, “equals less crime.”  The GoggleWorks’s large parking lot casts light on the surrounding sidewalks and helps make the city safer at night.

More people crossing into downtown Reading means the city is now part of a bigger relationship.  Ideas, cultures, and talents that had stayed isolated as suburban, rural, and urban people kept their distance from each other can now mingle, and that feels safer and more comfortable each time it happens.

Not only does a site for the arts make art experiential, it means that artists are seen as essential to the community—risk-takers and beautifiers who will care for the community’s good– instead of being thrust to its outskirts.  For a long time, many Berks County artists felt alienated from their community. GoggleWorks artist and board member Suzanne Fellows, creator of a blogging paper doll named Eudora Clutey,  has lived in the area for 27 years.  She told me, “I felt like a total outsider until I found this place… Now that I’m at the GoggleWorks, I don’t want to leave.”

There must be something about the process of making art that is hopeful, too. To peer into artists’ studios is to see that beauty and wonder emerge through slow, sometimes mysterious and labored accretion. Watching ordinary people discipline themselves to bring forth artifacts is indicative is good evidence of a city still “in progress.”

 

Creating a Place like the GoggleWorks

What could brand new or concept-stage community arts centers learn from the GoggleWorks?  What attitudes and plans make the GoggleWorks function well in downtown Reading?  Here’s what the GoggleWorks artists, staff, and founding director think.

1. The community has to want it.

It can’t be one person’s brainchild or something only artists want.  The community needs to grab onto the idea, help to make it happen, and be aware that the art center is there.  You “can’t just put art there and hope people will see it,” says Kristin Kramer, GoggleWorks’s Director of Marketing and Development. From the get-go, the GoggleWorks designated a “special events committee” of people who knew Reading well and could organize events designed for neighborhood appeal.

2. The community has to feel like it’s theirs.

Providing scholarships so that everyone can come is essential, and so is refusing to have a territorial attitude toward the arts center.

3. Artists have to feel like it’s theirs.

Many GoggleWorks artists serve as board members, and all of the third-floor artists gather for Friday lunches, which have resulted in new ideas for exhibits.

4. People need to feel safe.

Keeping the GoggleWorks well-lit and ensuring plenty of foot-traffic has made even those who are cautious about Reading feel at ease here.

5. Other organizations can contribute.

Renting two floors to “arts partners,” arts-oriented companies and non-profits encourages cooperation, a central hub for the arts, and even a solution to economic challenges non-profits and small organizations face.

6. Artists can volunteer their time.

The GoggleWorks requires artists to contribute six hours per month of volunteer time, which keeps rent low and allows the GoggleWorks offer even more to the community.

7. Variety helps.

The GoggleWorks houses a theater that shows independent films and facilities for glassblowing, photography, woodworking, ceramics,  jewelry-making, and more. Variety draws a greater range of artists, lets artists learn from each other, and invites community members with a broad range of interests to take classes and learn new skills.

The Trueness of Beauty

Neither audience nor artist should approach art as self-expression. To do so robs art of its universal applicability. If James Joyce had written strictly to see himself on paper, A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man would not express me; yet it does. And if it does, whatever Joyce tapped into in the book must be something from beyond the self who was James Joyce.

Recognition of the universal in other people’s art does not necessarily give the artist a similarly open conduit to universality. How easy it is to say, “Joyce wrote about a sensitive, rebellious young artist discovering himself; I could do likewise,” and thus to produce a work imitative of Joyce in form yet devoid of the function that Joyce’s book performs.

The question of form and function in art is too often overlooked. In our age, creativity divides squarely along lines of familiar genre pieces and incomprehensible highbrow art. The idea of an artwork having a “function” or a purpose is a bit of a plebeian notion to both sides. Tools have purposes; but we can’t even talk about functionality in high art (since the artist declares what art is), nor in genre art, since that’s a comfortable product for a specific audience’s consumption. The function of the one is inward-focused, while the function of the other is financially focused. Neither is truly other-focused.

Yet Joyce’s book accomplishes something in me. It meshes with something in me that was just waiting to receive it. It closes some sort of open system. It just might be a functional work of art.

Somewhere in the many stages between draft and publication, Joyce must have set himself aside and set his audience aside and just listened. Walking the minefield of that distinction is the artist’s lifelong battle. The perils gather close on either side: a focus on the self, producing audience-experience-by-force; and a focus on audience, producing product-for-consumption. Strictly followed, neither of these approaches to creativity can produce functional art.

Joyce’s protagonist Stephen Dedalus says:

I mean that the tragic emotion is static. […] The feelings excited by improper art are kinetic, desire or loathing. Desire urges us to possess, to go to something; loathing urges us to abandon, to go from something. These are kinetic emotions. The arts which excite them, pornographical or didactic, are therefore improper arts. The esthetic emotion … is therefore static. The mind is arrested and raised above desire and loathing. [1]

Joyce’s framing of the improper arts illumines the dreadful confusion of artistic form and function that we see all around us. While complaints concerning pornographical versus didactic and genre versus highbrow are not exactly analogous, each demonstrates the catastrophic divide on either side of the summit of true art; and each complaint calls us to set aside consideration of our own taste and audience taste so we can listen to something bigger.

If there is truth in the world, it must be waiting just around the corner. Perhaps this, then, is that universality that Joyce hit upon: the trueness of beauty. No, I’m not talking about prettiness. Prettiness is a description of form, but beauty is a description of function.

So what is the function of art? It’s to heal. And such is also the function of love.

Astoundingly, the analogy carries. In personal relationships, blind self-expression (read narcissism or didactic art) attacks the bond of love. Likewise, insecure pandering to the other person’s assumed desires (read kissing up or pornographical art) attacks the bond of love. The motivation of both approaches is the same: to prevent rejection.

So how should we talk to each other?

Of course, this whole discussion is a bit disembodied. In the real world, form and function are inseparable properties of artworks and loveworks. But this view of the approach can help us realize what’s wrong when art and love aren’t working.

Form grounds people and gives them a sense of belonging. It’s the vehicle through which they experience the function of love. Just as we read genres in literature, we read genres in acts of love. Some people read romance. Others prefer literary fiction. Some people feel loved when you take out the trash for them. Others need tender words.

When love isn’t working, there are two things to check: actions and heart—form and function. You can’t repair a bad heart on your own, but you can at least choose the right action. You can at least write in the correct genre while you wait for your heart, for the trueness of beauty, to come back.

But you can’t stay there. Execution of familiar forms is the laziest, most dangerous place for an artist or a lover to be. If you practice a form long enough, you’ll start believing that there’s intrinsic function within the forms that are familiar to you; and your heart, your muse, will atrophy. You will lose your awestruck gaze on the trueness of beauty.

Again, Joyce’s Stephen Dedalus:

—[My mother] wishes me to make my easter duty.

—And will you?

—I will not, Stephen said.

—Why not? Cranly said.

—I will not serve, answered Stephen.

[…]

—Do as she wishes you to do. What is it to you? You disbelieve in it. It is a form: nothing else. And you will set her mind at rest. [2]

You can’t make yourself desire the trueness of beauty. As visual artist John Baldessari has said, “you have to be possessed, which you can’t will.” [3] The statement holds across art and love. But the funny thing is that in love, if you keep trying, the possession will start to come upon you; and what a victory that is, as form finally fills out with function.

 

Footnotes:

[1] Joyce, James. A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man. Penguin Books, 1976. p. 205

[2]  ibid., p. 239, 241

[3] Video: A Brief History of John Baldessari

Stuff Christian College Kids Don’t Like

Just a few months after graduating from a Christian college, I found an article that encapsulated the curiousness of the community I was leaving. Called “One Island Under God,” it was based on a Facebook conversation by authors Anna Scott and Brian Buell that listed a very specific category: stuff Christian college graduates like. The inventory of interests unearthed by Buell and Scott is jarringly familiar—and perplexing. It includes The Princess Bride, Sufjan Stevens, Franny and Zooey by J.D. Salinger, “Social and/or sophisticated or exotic forms of smoking” (pipes, hookah, cloves, cigars), certain fantasy series (Harry Potter, Narnia, Lord of the Rings), and Settlers of Catan. Does anyone else feel like a pinned butterfly?

The authors didn’t seem able to explain exactly what held together this heterogeneous group, but Anna described its effects well:

The great success, the genius of the “Stuff White People Like” website was due to the fact that it struck a resonant chord: we all thought we were the only ones who liked Mos Def, watched Arrested Development or read the The New Yorker. The analogous list for Christians is one that, likewise, calls us out on the things in non-Christian or “secular” culture that we think are above stereotyping or pigeon-holing, because they are not overtly Christian, but, it turns out, are beloved by thousands of other young Christians.

I’m sure many readers could amend and update this list. I’d add Wendell Berry, Mumford and Sons, taking some sort of “stand” against technology (typewriters, Instagram filters or actual Polaroids, venerating people who don’t have Facebook), Wes Anderson, Iron & Wine, 19th century non-British “classics” (by Dostoevsky, Hugo, Tolstoy, Dumas), T.S. Eliot, the BBC, Abstract Expressionism, Frisbee golf, and the following words: “community,” “generative,” and “vocation.”

Granted, this is a pretty specific demographic, but it’s sizable: 20-something Protestant Christians, overwhelmingly from white and middle-class backgrounds. Why are so many of us drawn to this “stuff”? What are we looking for, and are we finding it?

Anna hints at one possibility with her placement of quotation marks around the word “secular,” and her hedging use of “overtly” before “Christian.” While many of the listed interests couldn’t be found in a Christian bookstore, they are “covertly” Christian: respectable yet not evangelical. Christians take pride in Sufjan Stevens’s faith, in the reputation of T.S. Eliot and J.R.R. Tolkien (“Did you know he was Christian?”), in the vaguely Biblical language of Iron & Wine and Mumford and Sons. While the trend Anna identifies is certainly true, I don’t think it entirely explains the appeal. There are other unifying characteristics of many, if not all, of these tastes we seem to independently develop: they are innocuous and nostalgic.

Why does this demographic tend to like Franny and Zooey more than Catcher in the Rye, or prefer 19th-century novels to 20th-century ones? Catcher in the Rye is more discomforting than Franny and Zooey: more specific, more despairing, more enraged. Similarly, 19th-century novels of the ilk mentioned before are grand, epic, and all-encompassing. Besides their treatment of faith, Hugo and Tolstoy condemn what is from our vantage point easily condemnable: serfdom, abuse of clerical power, lack of opportunities for women. In a sense, the outrages are on a level extreme enough to be generally agreed upon. While I’d argue that there is radicalism present in these works, they can also be appreciated at a safe level, with the particularities of their contexts detached enough from our own that any risk is neutralized.

Similarly with nonrepresentational art: although many of the Abstract Expressionists had all sorts of positions and intentions that young post-Christian-college adults would squirm at, the art itself asks nothing but aesthetic appreciation (in fact, the vacuum of defined referents is one of its greatest failings).  It is not to everyone’s taste, yet very few people are actively offended by it. So, young Christians can justify their up-to-dateness, their participation in the “secular” world without danger: “I like modern art—I like Abstract Expressionism!”

What happens, as Anna identified, is that we construct a parallel pantheon to the “secular” one:  young Christians find suitable alternatives to Precious Moments and the Left Behind books, but unwittingly stereotype themselves by the very act of their idiosyncratic congregation. By reading Tolstoy and listening to Iron & Wine we think we are somehow above the stereotypical Christian world. We choose things that neither side of the “Christian / secular” dichotomy can disagree with: we find our space in the middle of the Venn Diagram.

The possibility of “nostalgia” is a related desire, and a widespread one. Hence the pipe-smoking, Eliot-quoting, herb-growing, internet-disparaging 20-somethings that you and I both know. But I have to keep this nostalgia in quotation marks because it is false; it is longing for the idea of worlds that few of us have experienced: the fantastical realms, the sepia-tones of the Inklings’ England, the agrarian life.

It would be tempting to say that the referent is Edenic or Elysian, but that would be too easy, and not quite true. Besides the tautological argument that we can’t miss something none of us has actually experienced, it’s hard to imagine that these selections bear anything more than a glimmering resemblance to paradise. The particular realities of the world of the Inklings—of sexism and elitism and class privilege—or of agrarian existence—of hardship and insecurity and powerlessness—are not what we long for. But the distance imposed by time, and lack of firsthand experience, adds an attractive patina to complicated reality.

Thus, for this group of young, Christian-college twenty-somethings, charity work is good, but political work is iffy. Protesting against contemporary slavery is honorable, but protesting against discriminatory hiring prejudices might take things too far. Non-objective art is beautiful; feminist art is discomforting. Talking about community is commendable; talking about alternative economic systems is extreme. We, like Goldilocks, are uncomfortable with the “too hot” (The Guardian) or “too cold” (Focus on the Family)—we like our porridge “just right” (the BBC).

When Jesus called Christians to be “set apart,” this list of tastes is probably not what he had in mind. He was a blazing flame of extremity: having prostitutes over for dinner, calling his followers to be homeless, subverting social hierarchies. When he wasn’t lecturing about human universals, Jesus mucked around in the particulars of his context, modeling specific political and cultural revolutions at radical risk. I have a sneaking suspicion that to his fellow citizens, Jesus looked more like the Occupy movement than World Vision.

I am not trying to claim that we don’t need World Vision, but we do need something more. Young Christians should be the most radical of us, attracted not to the inoffensive but to the sharp and controversial. Too often we abstract the particular just to a level of palatability, through ideological detachment or historical displacement. We take a cotton ball, and then pull at it until all that is left is a soft mass of cotton. The abstracted form is beautiful, but the cotton ball was useful.

 

Further reading:

 

The Art of War

Standing outside the Manassas Battlefield visitor’s center I began to photograph the open and lush countryside surrounding the battlefield monuments and the roads used for auto tours. It’s a new camera—a Canon SX40 HS—and I have fallen in love with it. It allows me to capture what I am truly seeing. The art seems to flow through it. As I was clicking shots of an old, weathered tree, cannons and a far-off barn, I could feel the wonder and awe of the place. It was gorgeous. I hadn’t taken such good pictures since my trip to Yellowstone a few years back.

When I got home and reviewed the pictures I felt accomplished. I am an amateur photographer, and I don’t want to overstate my expertise. But I am pleased with how things turn out every once in a while, like an amateur carpenter who happens to have built a quality piece of furniture. It may never end up in a museum, but the beauty is still there, intrinsic in the work.

As I reviewed the pictures I reflected on the day. It had been lovely, spent with family on an atypically humidity-free Virginia afternoon. The scenery had been quaint and expansive, possessing that Americana-like quality of rolling hills or heirloom quilts—simple and unending at the same time.

Then I second-guessed the pictures of the cannons I had taken. These were merely replicas of real cannons that had rolled on those grounds 150 years ago (2012 is the sesquicentennial of the Civil War, and Manassas was the first battle). This place of beauty, which I had so proudly captured in my photographs, was beautiful precisely because over 5,000 people had died in it. The soil must have been soaked with blood. There must have been hats and belts and limbs strewn in places. It must have been repulsive, black and ungodly. And because of that, the land had lain fallow and become a park, a place of beauty and easygoing Sunday afternoons.

Art and war are more intertwined than we often realize. War is the subject of so many tapestries that hang from castle walls. It fills the artwork of every major period in Western history, from the early Renaissance to Picasso’s “Guernica” to the art being produced in response to our current wars. War is the unifying theme in The Iliad and The Odyssey, foundations of Western literature. War permeates the Old Testament, and its violence continues into the New Testament in the form of crucifixion. War is the context of Erich Maria Remarque’s All Quiet on the Western Front and the horror Wilfred Owen sings about in “Dulce et Decorum Est.” War and fighting drove the songs of the protest movements of the 60s and 70s, and in some respects have been an undercurrent in independent and alternative music being produced today.

What then to make of photos that mix today’s beauty with history’s blood? What should we make of art that is birthed out of the loss of life, limb, brother, son? The nobility of war is superficial, and it quickly melts away into the constant of death.

Death is constant. In war the reality of death is intensified. Art, then, I would argue, is humanity’s response to sadness with joy, to darkness with light, to death with immortality, to borrow from The Glenstal Book of Prayer. Art reflects humanity’s desire for birth and resurrection. Art gives a moment, a glimpse, a passage, a poet’s line that for an instant can numb the pain and horror of war and death. Art is not mere entertainment—it does not seek to remove our gaze or make us forget. Art pushes us beyond the event into present reality and an unknown future. It is not a painkiller or salve—what art does is remember and reflect so that we may see beauty arise again out of the blood and cinders of war.

 

 

Montmartre to The Moulin Rouge: Can an Art Scene be Fabricated?

“Modern discourse is not really comfortable with the word ‘soul,’ and in my opinion the loss of the word has been disabling, not only to religion, but to literature and political thought and to every humane pursuit.”[1] For what is man, if not a soul? With it we consider our world and ourselves, we assess life according to dimensions beyond food and safety. It is the soul that desires more than these. It is the soul that knows the difference between life and the abundant life, between that which is merely material and that which transcends the world to embrace the spiritual. And when the soul turns its eye to the abundant life, it sees beauty. This is the realm of Art. Or, perhaps, it’s the value of Art. For what is the value of Art if not to affect souls?

For some time, however, there has been confusion on this point, and this confusion has been costly in two ways. First, as Thomas Frank of The Baffler explains in his must-read article, “Dead End on Shakin’ Street”, urban leaders and arts foundations waste millions trying to stimulate economies by fabricating neighborhoods into “vibrant art scenes.” Their notion, that importing artists makes a place cool, and that such coolness will somehow create prosperity, is a vacuous will-o’-the-wisp. They have no idea how an art immigration might stabilize an economy or cause growth.

Second, this misunderstanding of the place and purpose of art in life and community distracts us from the profound value an artist does bring to those near him. This value is not prosperity. In the Venn diagram of society, economic growth and abundant life only marginally intersect, as economics is concerned with what people have, while art is concerned with what people are. A prosperous place provides food, safety, and comfort. Art nurtures the soul. Living in an artful place is a spiritual experience because artists of all kinds contribute to the soul of that place. I want a healthy, productive artist population in my village not because it will become cool and mystically prosper, but because I want my town to nurture my soul, helping me to see differently and question differently, helping me to appreciate a color I’d never known or find a musical chord unplayed on the radio. Marcus Aurelius said, “The universe is change; our life is what our thoughts make it.” The place in which we live is the context of our thoughts. For our soul to thrive there, it needs the rich nutrients of art’s insight and beauty, art’s mirror into our own soul and window into the soul of our neighbor.

For this, we need some artists, living if we can find them, but dead ones are good too.

* * * *

Five or six years ago, my friend Mike and I were in Paris, enjoying a weekend away from our work in Belgium. He had been to Paris several times and was my guide. We toured the Louvre, sat in on a funeral at the Notre Dame, and climbed the Eiffel Tower.[2] The next morning Mike took me up a 400-foot-high hill to visit the Basilica of the Sacred Heart of Paris, a towering cathedral overlooking Paris from the city’s highest point. As we walked, he described the Basilica and mentioned, casually, that there was also a “small artist colony” nearby. My interest in the cathedral was mostly archaeological. We traveled often together and if there was a castle or cathedral where we were going, we made every effort to see it. But I had never been to an “artist colony” and was excited, for anthropological reasons, to see what a colony of artists looked like.

Later I learned that this “small colony” was the most prolific art scene in the Western World: Paris’s Montmartre. Artists such as Monet, Picasso, van Gogh, Matisse, Toulouse-Lautrec, Langston Hughes, and many others worked there at some point in their lives. Some were very poor, barely able to get by. I don’t know whether Montmartre prospered as a community during their time, but it certainly thrived.

I wasn’t expecting what we found there. As I stood outside the Basilica, the whole neighborhood had a calm economy of beauty: diverse but simple, vigorous while at peace with itself. Art was everywhere, near and far. Paintings and people trickled into the cobblestone streets. Beauty breezed in from every side. To my right rose the old cathedral, white in the morning sun. Below, to the left, the city of Paris—also white, oddly enough—stretched to the horizon, the black Eiffel Tower rose to one side. The place was quiet, but hopping. Shops opened, people swept sidewalks, tables and chairs were arranged on sidewalks and in the square. Maybe it was the jet lag, but I remember how easy it was to breathe there. All was calm, but not sleepy. At a table on the sidewalk in front of a pastry shop sat two people, I don’t remember if they were old or young, sipping morning coffee, smiling at each other. I was struck. The soul of man—ancient, industrial, and modern—came together in that spot as a blanket for that couple.

We only spent a few hours there, drinking coffee in the early morning, exploring the paintings and stained glass treasures of the Basilica and wandering the streets until lunchtime, but I don’t think I’ve ever been to a place more “human.” It wasn’t merely the art that gave the place its soul. It was the centuries of people living off the beauty, creating it and being molded by it. By the time I got there, the neighborhood and its art had become one.

Later that day Mike and I wound our way down to the lower city’s 9th arrondissement, at the foot of Montmartre. The tone of the streets changed. The buildings became tall, their faces flat. Plywood paneled the outside of a nightclub. The sidewalks had a greasy sheen to them. Few people were about; it was still daylight.

From a gash in the storefronts rose a red windmill: the Moulin Rouge. I had seen the movie—I’m listening to the soundtrack as I write—but hadn’t known the place was real. It didn’t look anything like the grand circus in the film. It looked like a strip-club. The door was hidden by the shadow of a deep entryway. Had it been open I might have entered, for purely anthropological reasons, of course.

I got the sense that the Moulin Rouge was prosperous. It was quite a spectacle. Red neon scrawling wandered all over its front. And I have no doubt that once the sun set the dark streets would be vibrant indeed with certain performing arts.

The walk from the peak of Montmartre down to the Moulin Rouge is about one kilometer. Both are prosperous, but only one has soul.

 


[1] Marilynne Robinson, When I Was A Child I Read Books (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2012),  8.

[2] We did this in one day, though I was very sick. Apparently the pharmacists in France are alchemists. Using mostly charades and sign language I was able to acquire a pint of something that fixed me right up.

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My Mother Versus Modern Art

My mother and I walk into an art museum. Already, this sounds like the set-up for a joke, and really it is. You could call it a small miracle that my mother was even willing to step foot inside a building with something called “art” on its walls. Probably the last time we entered the National Gallery together was for my class field trip in fifth grade when, just to be nice, she signed up to be a chaperone.

We get tickets, and she tells me she will treat for lunch after we are all done — the first reason I brought her along.  And as we walk toward the modern wing, she now discovers the second.

“Mom, is it okay if I write down your responses to the art?” I ask, pulling a small black notebook out of my backpack before she answers.

“Yeah, I guess so,” she says.

We walk toward the wall in front of us.

“What do you think of this one?” I ask her.

In front of us a canvas stretches across the wall, the length and height of a man, except that no forms or colors are painted onto the canvas’ surface.

“Well…” she says, “Am I missing something?”

“What do you mean?” I say.

“I mean… is this it?” she asks. I stand next to her, just to her right.

“Hmm. I see what you mean,” I say. Then suddenly I step backward. “Let’s look at it from back here,” I say.

My mother joins me, taking steps backward, continuing to stare at the canvas in front of her, her head still. We look for a few more seconds.

“I think there may be a white paint on the surface,” I say, watching my mother’s face. My mother squints her eyes. Her mouth squirms. Then she sighs, turning to look at me.

“I’m sorry, Lizzy,” she says, “I just don’t see anything at all. It just looks like a blank canvas to me.”

“Fair enough,” I say, grinning. I make a note in pen on a page in my notebook.

We move on to a sculpture hanging on the wall just a few steps away. We pause in front of it.

“Is that what I think it is?” asks my mom.

I laugh. “Almost definitely,” I say, “Marcel Duchamp was famous for his urinals.”

“And that is ‘art’?” says my mother, pointing at the urinal, “Who decides these things?” She makes a few furious hand motions and then turns to leave.

“Hold on, hold on,” I say, scribbling in my notebook. “I came to find one piece in particular. We can leave after I see it.”

My mother sighs and follows me deeper into the gallery. Soon I catch a glimpse of purple and grey paint from a few rooms away: one of Jackson Pollock’s lavender masterpieces.

“The public is not willing to work at understanding a piece of art, and artists are not willing to explain themselves. We find ourselves at a tragic impasse.”

“Here it is,” I tell my mom. We sit down in front of it on a wooden bench. “Okay, so what do you think of this one?” I ask.

“Well,” says my mother, “On a first glance, it looks like some of the paintings you created in pre-school.” I laugh.

“And on a second glance?” I say.

My mom stares at the painting for a bit before answering. “As I stare at it,” she says, “I begin to feel sad. It seems sad to me. Is that right?”

“Sure,” I say.

“And… it looks like it might be raining. Isn’t it called ‘Lavender Mist?’”

“Yeah, that’s great, Mom,” I say. I nod, trying to encourage her to go on.

Instead she says, “But, hun, I still don’t get it. So can we leave now? I’d like to grab some lunch before we head home.”

I smile. “Okay, Mom,” I say, and we make our way toward the cafeteria and then out into the open air, both convinced our outing was a success: for me because my mother was willing to stare at modern art for thirty whole minutes, and for my mother because she knows I will not force her to step into another art gallery for another ten years at least.

The truth is, most visual artists I know have mothers and fathers like mine — they love their children, they may have even paid for art classes or a creative degree, but they do not understand why in the world their children are so enthralled with the visual art of our time (or the time before us). They may not even understand the art their own children create.

Yet I have found that the world of museum art has no respect for such viewers, even if the artists have a personal connection to this broader non-artist audience through their own families. The audience that seems to matter most in this circle is the world of curators and critics and collectors: those people who ultimately choose the art that will hang on blank gallery walls, who write articles about its place in art history, and who pay thousands of dollars for a piece of history to hang above their stone fireplaces.

Artists in this culture find it an insult to have to sit down with an art-illiterate person to explain their work. It is beneath them; the work should speak for itself. But what if it doesn’t? What if someone needs help in understanding why an artist’s work matters?

This is troubling. If an ordinary person, like my mother, has no interest in stepping into the National Gallery on her vacation, then art has become entirely irrelevant to the general public. Visual art does not matter anymore. It holds no power to move culture, to touch children, to change hearts and minds.

And in fact, the public’s views about art are not really that surprising. When you look at the art that has been lauded for the past sixty years, you can see why most people feel that visual art, particularly art that hangs on the walls of art museums, was not made for them. They “just don’t get it.” (Though, really, who does?)

The public is not willing to work at understanding a piece of art, and artists are not willing to explain themselves. We find ourselves at a tragic impasse.

However, in this chasm between art and the public exists a movement of local artistry — artists who are showing and selling their work in their local communities, who are telling stories through their artwork, who are painting real people they know, who are willing to sit down and explain the abstraction in their work. They are not afraid of the public. In fact, to them, the public is their primary audience.

In my hometown in Colorado, a gallery, the Modbo, has formed a collective of local figurative painters who meet together monthly to critique each other’s work. The owners of the gallery have developed a reputation for the art they show, and the community has responded: the work sells. Non-artists can stop into openings and talk with artists directly about their work, asking questions and developing a relationship with the artists in the collective.

I cannot tell you that this group is single-handedly changing the art world, but I know they are fighting a movement of artists who care less and less about audience, and more and more about self-expression. These visual artists are held accountable: they exist in a community of artists who critique their work, and they exist in a community of people who will buy their work only if they connect on a personal level with the art and the artist.

I wonder if visual artists already accepted into the museum world could use their influence to change the cultural attitudes of audiences and artists towards each other. The larger the audience, the more true fame and influence an artist has.

I also wonder how often we consider our audiences in our art-making. Our audience matters. Art loses impact if we create only for ourselves, and often, our best art comes from considering others.

Perhaps we can hope for a turning of the tide, a swing back toward the center of the pendulum arc. Self-expression has had its heyday. Now, let us return home, back toward art made with others in mind. I can tell you that my mother, and perhaps yours too, might even venture inside a gallery to take a peek at what we make.

 

photo by: Allie_Caulfield

Waiting for Blooms

These photos were taken at Hiyoriyama Park in Ishinomaki City.

Hiyoriyama is a large hill near the coast from where you can clearly view the damage and destruction of the Minamihama and Kadowaki districts. The hill got its name because it was used as a vantage point by fishermen to check the weather before voyages. Many people evacuated to this location on the fateful day in March, witnessing the tsunami washing their city away.

Historically, Hiyoriyama has been famous for its many cherry blossoms and its Shinto shrine which was first built on the hill in the 12th century.

The many bridges that can be viewed from Hiyoriyama are a big part of Ishinomaki’s identity. The original bridges were built with personal funding from a local entrepreneur and other citizens. These bridges have contributed to the city’s growth and transportation for more than a century. Currently (as you can see in the one photo), there is a mountain of cars that went through sea water being stacked on one side of the bridge, and a mountain of rubble close to 100 feet high being stacked on the other.

The boy’s grandparents’ house and family business used to be located in the vacant lot shown in the first photo. Both were completely swept away by the tsunami.

 

 

 

 

 

Occasionally, we enjoy having contributors curate an entire of issue of the magazine. Makoto Fujimura, founder of the International Arts Movement (publisher), commissioned three colleagues to collaborate on this special final March issue.  As you’ll gather, the emphasis is on Japan.

Ito Jakuchu: the Preserved Colors of Independence

Imagine seeing the Declaration of Independence but a few feet away, and the rag paper has no blemish or damage, and the ink is indelibly fresh, as if the Founders had signed the document yesterday. Imagine having thirty of these documents from the same period lined up side by side, all in the same impeccable condition.

At the Ito Jakuchu exhibit, Colorful Realm: Japanese Bird-and-Flower Paintings at Washington DC’s National Gallery (until  April 29th), such is the experience of awe: of encountering a myriad of masterpieces, all carefully and scientifically conserved, and recently restored. I literally had to blink several times before it sunk in that the works in front me were done at least ten years (1757- 1766) before the Declaration of Independence was signed. As the founding fathers of our nation toiled to begin the great experiment of democracy, there were artists like Eitoku Kano and Jakuchu who toiled half way around the world in the Edo period, during Japan’s isolation years, birthing some of the world’s most indelible paintings. The accomplishment rivals that of the great heights of the Renaissance, and Jakuchu was Japan’s Michelangelo, and this particular series of scrolls his Sistine Chapel paintings.

I had seen this series of scrolls two years ago in Japan as part of the National Gallery of Art: The Treasures of the Imperial Collections exhibit: Splendor of Japanese Art.  Mr. F of Japan’s public television (NHK), who invited me to stay an extra day in Japan so I could attend the opening, asked “So which works do you find special?” I replied “this whole Jakuchu room…” Not much of an answer, as I just listed the entire first two rooms of the exhibit, so I went on to justify myself by explaining that you can see, in a matter of one viewing, what made Japanese art so distinct from the Chinese counterpart, or from Korean influence: as Japanese artists, like Jakuchu, literally began to focus on the micro layers of nature, the depiction changed from the Chinese cosmic sweep of the world captured in a single painting (as in one’s life compressed into a Confucian whole) to the Japanese sense of delicate, refined discipline found in nature.

In that naturalistic, decorative and animistic movement, Ito Jakuchu (1715- 1800) was the greatest and most innovative genius. The entire collection of Jakuchu’s extraordinary works from the collection of the Imperial Palace of Japan, which was revealed to the public for the first time ever in Japan two years ago, has made its way to Washington DC along with Jakuchu’s three major Buddhistic scrolls (never before seen in the U.S.).  This major effort, overlapping with the centennial anniversary of cherry trees being transported to DC, is truly a once-in-a-lifetime exhibit.  The cherry blossoms disappeared early this year because of the warm weather, but Jakuchu is there for a month.  We will not be able to see these paintings again, even in Japan, in our lifetime. Do not miss this exhibit.

Jakuchu was an idiosyncratic and bold artist. Strongly religious (his name means “Like the Void,” coined by a Buddhist monk and friend Daiten Kenjo) and tied to the highest level of literati society in Kyoto of the 18th century Edo period, Jakuchu, as all the other artists of the time, sought foreign influences, which were not easy to find. Shogan Tokugawa closed Japan’s borders from 1603 to 1863, exiling many missionaries (in one of the greatest persecution of Christians in history) and foreigners, and forbidding their influence.  For this exhibit, one of the restorers discovered that Jakuchu used Prussian blue color imported (probably smuggled) from the West. His visual language was no doubt partly influenced by the descriptive language of European portrait paintings (most likely also kept in secret, too), but he blended them in sharp detail, in humorous and virtuoso celebration of animals, birds, fish, frogs, insects, plants and … the Phoenix.

What makes Jakuchu stand out from his many excellent contemporaries is his inventiveness, and his bold, if not transgressive, use of traditional images and motifs.  He had a vivacious and humorous vocabulary, and many of his images read like a Buddhistic koan, not a kind to be puzzled over in profundity, but a type of divine comedy.  His vegetables represented Buddha’s disciples, in other scrolls that imitated many ancient scrolls. Frogs acting like a Buddhistic priest was not new, and the famed Cho-ju-gi-ga, a scroll painting of 15th century, no doubt left an indelible influence on Jakuchu, but Jakuchu’s frogs are simultaneously symbolic and real. Jakuchu had a rare gift of being able to depict nature even to the minute details and, at the same time, provide a sense of a cosmic, abstract, and whimsical flow of life.

But it was the depiction of the Phoenix that made me stop as I pondered the images in Tokyo and now in Washington DC. The large banner of the Phoenix painting also greets you as you enter the National Gallery.

Why the Phoenix? One could only guess, but much like the unicorns of medieval European tapestries, artistic imagination takes us to the foreground of what cannot, and does not exist. Yet it is real in a vital and significant way to the day, to define the world that ought to be. Jakuchu painted these mythical birds, not because it was a popular theme (there was only one other Phoenix painting in existence in Jakuchu’s Japan, of northern Korean origin, preserved at Shokokuji Temple in Kyoto where he spent much time), but because he had to somehow delve into the inquiry into the unknown world. He declared his artistic idiosyncrasy in his imaginative landscapes. His were the colors of the independence of imagination.

The Phoenix is painted with oyster shell, crushed and re-mixed several times until it becomes a paste.  What makes Jakuchu’s white Phoenix so alive are colors painted behind (the back of) the silk, a delicate and nuanced technique of Chinese art that Jakuchu incorporated. Oyster shell is notoriously difficult to use and preserve on silk; as the silk is rolled to be stored, the shell will flake away. Somehow, Jakuchu found a way to make the luminous white last, and looking at the weaving of the silk (made easier to observe because of the National Gallery’s protective glass is much closer to the paintings than usually allowed), I wondered aloud if he had the silk made specifically for this series of projects: the colors have much to do with the surface they are painted on, as much as the pigments.  This series of scrolls was dedicated to his father and his family, and specifically made so that he and his family could be remembered after his passing. They are to be enduring parables of their lives represented in the birds, flowers and creatures – symbols of creative human beings trapped in the cultural isolation of Japan, longing for a universal calling.

Thus, while the fathers of the American Revolution saw the inevitable drive toward a country free of tyranny, for their independence, Jakuchu painted, in the afternoon light of Kyoto, these visionary and memorable works. Jakuchu shared the urgency to somehow warn and enlist the future into the present, and succeeded to do so as evidenced by this exhibit, partly thanks to the Japanese’s impeccable skill in preservation. Jakuchu’s paintings, with many fine examples in the Price Collection (formerly exhibited regularly at Los Angeles County Museum, but sadly not as public today), have influenced countless artists, including Takashi Murakami, the Japanese Andy Warhol of our day, as well as early fathers of “Japanimation,” like Hayao Miyazaki.  No doubt these works will continue to enlist imaginative revolutionaries of the future. My early career, too, was shaped by the birds-and-flowers genre, particularly the Jakuchu paintings in Los Angeles.

On American soil, the worn-out rag papers that perfectly capture our fragile democratic experiment, and still remain in a moisture-controlled box in the Capital, give us a glimpse into the delicate and fragile journey of the past. Jakuchu would have loved to have seen that document of our tumultuous history (he lived until 1800); that sense of adventure is captured in the Phoenix after all. And to have the entire series of the Imperial collection of Jakuchu paintings, available for but a few weeks in DC, makes our adventure to Washington DC worthwhile, even with the unfortunate early passing of the cherry blossoms.

 

 

Occasionally, we enjoy having contributors curate an entire of issue of the magazine. Makoto Fujimura, founder of the International Arts Movement (publisher), commissioned three colleagues to collaborate on this special final March issue.  As you’ll gather, the emphasis is on Japan.

The Isness of Art

In downtown Hanover, New Hampshire, there is a gallery that carries local and regional art: the League of NH Craftsmen Gallery. You can enter the front door at Lebanon Street and find yourself in a broad, open space of gorgeous local handicraft on display. Or you can come in at the back, as I prefer, climbing steps past a downstairs studio where a bearded man cradles fast-spinning clay in his hands. The door at the top opens onto a host of well-crafted, authentic pieces: display cases filled with jewelry, shelves of blown glass and glazed ceramics, walls of framed art, and–the jackpot for me–stacks of matted paintings and photographs.

The picture that connected with me on this particular visit was a whimsical serigraph by New Hampshire artist Catherine Green. Entering the back door, I flipped through a stack topped by a stylized depiction of a creek bed, right up my husband’s alley, though somehow not to my taste. I wondered if there would be something to satisfy us both. There was. A wooded landscape, rendered stark and serene in confident greens and calming blues. Quintessential New England. Each slow, silk-screened paint layer was pressed through at exactly the right spot, and a skillful use of white space defined the winding snow path that lit the way through a birch forest to a hilltop cluster of pines.

I loved the spareness of the rendering. And I was immediately and poignantly reminded of a scene from L.M. Montgomery’s lesser-known Emily of New Moon, wherein the title character names her front yard trees and makes friends of them. More to the point, I was reminded of my first acquaintance with the book, holed up at home during a ninth grade snowstorm. Appropriately, the screen print in my hand was titled “Meeting Old Friends.” I carried it around the gallery with me, and I brought my husband back the next day for a second opinion. I deemed the picture well worth the price. I walked out the door, art in-hand.

One-of-a kind, handcrafted finds are popular these days. We live in a culture that, at the moment, values the authentic, the handmade. Area farmers’ markets are nouveau chic shopping spots, their tables laden with locally crafted wares. Small, local art galleries are promoted and supported. Major home furnishing retailers get in on the action, too, not only selling items that merely look old and timeworn; they actually market original vintage pieces to coordinate with their faux-distressed tables and bed frames. They even (much to their credit) support online artisan sites like Etsy. Etsy items get pinned and repinned on Pinterest, and new members seem to join constantly, sharing their discoveries with friends and strangers. It’s fast becoming an era of mass marketed authenticity.

Recently, a New York Times Home & Garden article called for ceasefire. One person interviewed proclaimed frustration with too many things crafted. The overabundance of unique, authentic items in the home began to “seem like a ‘design uniform’.” The value became diluted. Another person explains, “When you pile Etsy on top of Etsy, it gets really cacophonous: ‘Everything in here is totally unique!’ It starts canceling itself out.” …and he throws the baby out with the bathwater.

I would like to keep hold of the baby, please. The same article asks the question, “How much authenticity is too much?” Perhaps therein lies the problem. If we’re only looking for the authentic, we will find it anywhere and everywhere. We could buy up the entire art gallery in hot pursuit. And we will indeed get oversaturated. Rooms packed with too much of the “real thing” — vintage furniture, artisan crafts, prints bought off Etsy — will amount to the same thing it always amounts to when we gather stuff for the sake of gathering stuff. When acquiring for the sake of acquiring, the value of the item itself will surely be lost.

In this kind of deluge, it’s easy to forget the value of the individual: the singular work of art and the unique person, and the intersection of the two. And we’re all so different. Our perceptions and pasts and particularities of “isness,” as Madeleine L’Engle would say, converge to make meaning out of, and thus to find value in, surprisingly different items from person to person– when we pay careful, close attention to each actual item, that is.

Walter Benjamin approaches the matter from another direction. As a collector (of books), he notes that the “phenomenon of collecting loses its meaning as it loses its personal owner.” Belongings lose significance the further they get from the person who owns and appreciates them. It follows that a unique, original art object needs to be grounded in the caring ownership of an individual in order to be valuable — and in order to be authentic.[1] The work of art that is dissected from humanity has no real history; it might as well be a painting in an assembly line. But when Benjamin rifles through his crates of beloved books, full of personal meaning and past experience: “what memories crowd in upon you!”[2] He wants to keep hold of the baby, too.

Back in the art gallery, I held the painting, and I could smell the chill in the air from the snowed-in weekend when I first read Montgomery’s Emily, recuperating from the flu on my mother’s living room sofa. It was transporting. Yes, meaning may get lost in the jumble when too many one-of-a-kind pieces are bought and hung merely for the sake of an aesthetic. But in those unexpected moments at a gallery when a certain picture seizes my imagination and, even better, rouses memories of other moments, art and personal history intersect– in real time, in actual space. Authenticity is augmented.

When L’Engle talks about isness, she suggests there’s a certain glory in being precisely who we are, each person as unique and real as the work of art I ended up bringing home with me.[3] She recognizes that when our individual isnesses intersect, our true selves are more deeply established; via relationship, we reaffirm our very existence back to each other. I contend that works of art can do the same. And if any created items reflect our lives back to us–by memory, by story, by sheer imaginative rendering–therein lies an authenticity that deepens the already significant work it takes to craft each handmade, individually-conceived piece in an art gallery.

So I say, “Sure.” The bathwater can go and take the glut of authenticity with it. Maybe it’s all just a slurry of marketing ploys, anyway, destined to be washed down the drain when the next big decorating trend comes along. Thankfully, art doesn’t get dragged down with the rest, especially when it is created out of time and skill, slow focus and care. When it connects with someone on a personal level. When it isn’t sought merely to add to a cumulative collection of “authentic” things.

We can talk local art, and we can talk authentic, quality craftsmanship. We can talk about the grand meeting of the two, and we should. But value that’s lasting is ultimately in the personal connection, in the meaning made out of memory and imagination at the moment we engage with a work of art. It’s the experience I climbed those steps looking for. It’s the kind of authenticity I can’t get enough of.


[1] Benjamin, Walter. “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction.” Illuminations. p.222-223

[2] Benjamin, Walter. “Unpacking my Library.” Illuminations. Harcourt, Brace, & World, Inc., New York: 1955. Transl. Harry Zohn. p.67, 66.

[3] *L’Engle, Madeline. A Circle of Quiet. HarperCollins: New York, 1972. p. 6, 110

 

On the Validity of the Vogel Collection

A recent visit to the New Orleans Museum of Art (NOMA) led me to ask several questions– some specific, some general– about little local art museums. I kind of grew up at my little local art-history-science-et cetera museum: the Berkshire Museum in Pittsfield, Massachusetts—at least, my memories of childhood visits there are extraordinarily vivid and beautiful. Yet the Berkshire Museum was a gallimaufry at best: a mish-mash of dinosaur bone fragments, stuffed owls, plastic figurines depicting the fauna of various climate zones, a few marble sculptures, a handful of paintings, and one mummy. Oh, and the basement level was an aquarium, stocked with marvelous fishes, amphibians, and reptiles. As a little child, I was not the art snob I have, sadly, become, and just adored the place. It was an Aladdin’s cave of wonders. What child doesn’t thrill at the sight of a lion fish, a headless Venus, or the blackened toe of a dead Egyptian sticking from its cerements?

These memories of the Berkshire Museum came back to me as I reflected on my visit to NOMA. Unlike its northern cousin, NOMA does not combine natural history, archeology, and fishes with its art. It contains the cast-offs that the big museums didn’t want: one Picasso, two Rodins, one Boucher, one Andy Warhol sketch, one Calder mobile…. There are a few impressive pieces, such as a series of stunning photographs by Robert Polidori of Hurricane Katrina’s devastation, and a glorious Dale Chihuly chandelier. There are whole rooms of anthropological artifacts, and porcelain figurines, and reproductions of period dwelling spaces.

NOMA’s star exhibit is its portion of the Vogel collection. Mr. & Mrs. Herbert & Dorothy Vogel are a working-class couple who decided, upon their marriage in 1962, to collect contemporary art. Little by little, they purchased affordable pieces—mostly drawings—until their collection started to generate attention. Artists helped them out by creating works specifically for the Vogels or by offering them reasonably-priced works. Eventually, their collection grew to the point that they decided to make these works available to the public, divided them up, and donated 50 works each to 50 museums.

Here’s the rub: I do believe the Vogel Collection is a fraud.

Now, now, I know: I am well aware of all the debates about what makes art, “who gets to decide?”, “my-five-year-old-could-paint-that”, and so forth. I know about the Brillo pads. I know about the urinal. I know about 4’33”. I know. I know. I’m hesitant to make my own judgments on such a hot topic, and on such a respected exhibit—but I rebel against calling the NOMA’s pieces “art.” Here are three examples.

a few geometrical lines drawn on paper with colored pencils:

a triangle of steel in the corner of the baseboards:

a series of pieces of notebook paper with a few drops of watercolor paint:

Whatever else it may be, must be, or is, art requires talent, training, and technique. These pieces evidence none of those.

So here is the big question I have about small museums: Are they worth it? They can never compete with the Metropolitan, the Louvre, the Hermitage. And there really aren’t enough Degas to go around—OK, maybe there are almost enough Degas, but not enough Michelangelos or da Vincis, for sure—so wouldn’t it be better for the art to have it all gathered in a few places and there displayed to maximum advantage? Why scrape and scrounge to try to get together enough mediocre works to have a collection in every city?

Well, the answers to those questions are obvious. Not everyone can afford to travel to New York, Paris, or Moscow to see the great collections, and everyone should get a chance to view some art. Traveling shows frequently bring all the works of one master to audiences in their hometowns, or offer a few noteworthy masterpieces to a wider viewing public. And some art is better than no art—isn’t it?

So then, here is my NOMA-specific question: Who got duped? The Vogels? The curatorial staff of NOMA (and 49 other museums)? Critics? Reviewers? Me?

And who was the con? The “artists”? The Vogels? NOMA?

Which leads me back around to where I began. I’m not sure that little museums are any more susceptible to artistic deception than big ones (there have been plenty of scandals about cutting-edge exhibits or works at the big-name places), but perhaps they are a bit more desperate to build their collections, offer more exhibits, and generate more press.

Yet the Vogel collection does have other kinds of value, however, beside that of presenting profound and complex masterpieces. Many of the works are preliminary sketches or studies for other works. Many reflect the personal relationships between the Vogels and their artists—which are as important as financial support. Perhaps what this exhibit communicates is the need for community: the need for artists to get to know their public and each other, and to thrive in a space where there is emotional support.

There is another way to do that, however, besides fooling patrons into buying a smiley-face drawn on a sketchpad: make art for a practical purpose. After viewing the Vogel collection, a bit sick at heart (and stomach), I moseyed upstairs to look at the “Pre-Colombian” section, which displayed works from a wide variety of ancient cultures. There were carved stone screens from Cambodia, Zen sayings in calligraphy, African war masks, South American fertility totems, jade vases from China. I wanted to know if my negative response to the Vogel collection was just a matter of eduction: If I had somebody to teach me about the value of those pieces, would I see them as art? Well, I have very little education in the aesthetics of these ancient cultures, so I thought it would be a fair test to look at these works and see if I could appreciate them. So I stood in front of them, gave each one a fair chunk of time, and opened up my mind.

They were beautiful. The stone temple-screen from the 13th-century Khmer Kingdom, for example, as rough and colorless as concrete, yet revealed true artisanship in its complex curves and elaborate detail. Without having any art education in this time period, culture, or people, I yet saw its beauty. It taught me its own aesthetic.

So that is why I am not convinced by the Vogel collection. I imagine that if someone sat me down and taught me a course on the historical value of those pieces, I could come to appreciate them intellectually. But they are not beautiful, and they could not teach me their own aesthetic, which every work of true art should be able to do to the willing mind and eye.

In the end, then, the little museum’s need to pack its empty rooms with anthropological artifacts—pieces made for worship, ritual, work, love, home, or war—meant that it offered me quite an education in the widest possible range of works. And maybe that’s even more valuable than if I had spent the afternoon gazing at the Sistine Chapel ceiling. Well, I don’t know about that. But for those who can’t make it to Italy, an afternoon at your little local museum might make you angry, and amaze you, and teach you as much as it did me.

 

Catching Glimpses of the Commonplace

Have you ever thought that you need photographs to prove your experiences because your stories are not enough?

Horrible storytellers, like me, rely on images to tell our tales, both ordinary and extraordinary. Typically, the best spoken stories involve uncommon events: strange encounters with the homeless or rescuing an outrageously drunken friend from his demise. But what about the ordinary, the everyday moments that lack the intrigue of the unusual? Are those stories not worth telling?

The stories that stay with me are composed of the quiet moments that can easily pass us by, and which are, incidentally, the hardest to describe in words. For example, the glance lovers exchange when no one is looking or the expression on someone’s face as they view the earth from 30,000 feet for the first time. I realize the impossibility of capturing every single ordinary moment and that catching those real moments is innately challenging, but it is that struggle which makes those stolen images so much more powerful.

 

David’s Dropped Stone

Near where the peasant girl is being raped, and in the same room as another attempt, there stands in the Villa Borghese, a stone David facing a Goliath we can’t see. In a city where the classical and Christian collide, bristle, fizz, and even combine, these galleries, and this sculpture stand out as strange for that monstrous marriage.

I knew Gianlorenzo Bernini was a great sculptor — one doesn’t escape Rome without being marked by that belief, especially if one’s rooms are situated across from the Ponte St. Angelo, bedecked as it is with 12 life-size marble angels of his making — and I knew he was devout (see: St. Theresa in Ecstasy), but this David bothered me. Not for the reason Donatello’s David does: the effeminate and small boy an imp gloating over a victory not his, and not for the reason that Michelangelo’s impression of classical perfection used to do. I was irritated that the hands hanging lazily about his body seemed lazy themselves, out of all proportion with an otherwise perfect rendering, until I realized that they’re too big because they’re God’s hands about to sling the shot, not his, and outsized because outsourced, appropriately. But Bernini’s David has a more difficult formal problem, that wouldn’t let me walk away from it to find all the other treasure in that great collection in the Borghese gardens.

He seems hunched. He’s built like an athlete, like a contender at a Greek games, but is poised nothing like one. I’ve spent considerable time imitating his stance, drawing suspicious looks from museum security guards, as I try to figure out how a move like that would work. He’s bent as though he’ll fling the stone backhanded across his body using only his tricep, or perhaps over his head, using only the shoulder muscle as projection: either way, these are two of the weakest muscles in the male upper body. Put your back into it, I think. Get your torso involved. He looks like the very antithesis of the discus thrower for whom nothing is at stake but a gold medal or an amophora of oil. Here David is, with Israel’s reputation, the lives of his family, and even his God’s good name on the line, and he’s looking like he couldn’t even skip a stone across a pond, let alone knock out a heavyweight.

The biblical account has it that he’d practiced. When his father, Jesse, outfits the boy with battle-gear, young David puts them off, saying “I cannot go with these, for I have not tested them” (1 Sam 17:39b).  Apparently, he’d even warded off lions and bears with his little slingshot, which, to put it lightly, takes some doing (34-35). Bernini has it that he hasn’t.

Any farm boy knows how to throw stones. My brother and I could hit any tree in our yard at a distance of 30 paces (measured albeit in the steps of 11-year-old’s) 4 out of 5 times, consistently. When I was 13, I decided that a man should know how to throw a knife so that it would stick in the tree like an arrow. The problem was that I was 13, and my mother didn’t let us play with knives. So I improvised. Finding a razor blade (who knows where?), I split a  stick and fastened it to the end with twine. Presto: throwing knife. I enlisted my brother, and we spent the afternoon — it must have been summer: why does it seem there was time for anything then? — making a target.

I got to go first since it was my idea and I was older. I grasped the make-shift blade-side like I’d probably seen in an action movie I was too young to have been watching, took the carefullest aim I could, centered my breathing, and let it fly. I didn’t really feel anything, but by the time my knife reached the target (I missed), blood was covering my forearm and dripping down my elbow.

As is typical (I have since come to find) of young boys, my first thought was not I wonder if there’s an artery in my hand that’ll bleed me to death (there is), nor was it to wonder if one of those shots I got was for tetanus (they weren’t), nor even Will it scar (it does), but, Oh man, now Mom’s gonna find out and we’re gonna get in trouble. Despite the blood ruining my T-shirt and cotton shorts, it was my brother’s first thought, too.

I mention this story because I’m writing these impressions with a pencil held against that scar over twenty years later, and because this sculpture makes me nervous. Every kid hates the admonition, and statistically I still think it strains credibility to believe you’ll actually put someone’s eye out, but I think this David just might, and it won’t be Goliath’s. Even though I know the outcome of the story as well as I know anything, I worry, seeing him there: for his mother, for his sheep, for God’s people. His face looks determined, even angry compared with Michelangelo’s cool defiance, or Donatello’s wry, self-satisfied smile, but his anger doesn’t look controlled. It’s the sort of bit-lip, screwed brow, clenched teeth that seems to help at the time, but that isn’t actually a good idea, if you want to win a fight. I think it’s a good thing the Olympian gods were around to save Daphne, fleeing in the next room, because if she had someone like this to defend her, Apollo would’ve had his way, and we wouldn’t have any poetry.

But if I could sling a stone better than this shepherd, and even, despite his neoclassical musculature, take him in a fight, he’s still a better candidate for saving Israel than I would’ve been because his faith is bigger than mine. “You come to me with a sword and with a spear and with a javelin,” shouts the young, ill-equipped boy, “but I come to you in the name of the Lord of hosts, the God of the armies of Israel, whom you have defied. This day the Lord will deliver you into my hand, and I will strike you down and cut off your head” (v. 45-46). David’s body is one machine, a man full of God’s might — of faith so strong he can wield it like a sword.

I think this is Bernini’s point: he’s not coiled around the column of his torso — spring-loaded and ready to fire — because God’s strength is different from man’s. He has thrust out his jaw, and bothered gathering the stones, and turned, though he doesn’t know what he’s doing, as if in wind-up because he has to do something, but he knows better than I can usually remember that God is the one who puts it through the uprights, between the eyes. The thing about that stone is that he could’ve dropped it, or even thrown it in the wrong direction and it still would’ve gone winging like a bullet into the forehead of the Philistine champion, because while he’s setting the stage for a blessing, God is the one who delivers it.

It’s the same story as Elijah and the sacrifices: you gather the firewood; I light it, because ultimately, it’s a story about God’s faithfulness, not about a man or a rock, which I seem to keep forgetting. Or, it’s a story about both, which is my real problem: I keep splitting the world and this story and the art I see into separate modes — God’s work vs. mine, David’s aim vs. God’s, my story vs. David’s, David’s vs. Goliath’s — when really, what’s beautiful about Bernini’s David is that, even if clumsily, he’s gathered all that into himself as God’s agent, and rolled it into a ball the size of a stone whose trajectory was laid at the same time as the foundations of the earth he’s standing on, and so am I.

Caught and Taught

One of the creative venues in which I dwell is photography. Dare I call myself a photographer? I did until I read a post on Rodney Smith’s blog in which he wonders, “If I am a photographer in the first place (which is extremely questionable with great aspirations, and I know one when I see it, but whether I have achieved the Holy Grail of being a photographer is a whole other matter) . . .If Rodney Smith, who has created some of the most compelling photographic images of the past few decades, thinks it questionable to call himself a photographer, then hubris would abound if I were to make such a claim. So I spend quite a bit of time behind the lens learning how to see. I see an enormous number of images, and often explore the work or websites of various creatives to see what inspires or draws them in. The problem is I accumulate more images than I have time to consider, but the nuggets are there in the numerous URLs and RSS feeds I follow.

I was cleaning up my RSS inbox recently and noticed one site in particular had over a thousand unread posts. That caught my attention, as I was pretty sure it wasn’t nearly that high a week before. I started to scroll through the posts and soon realized they were all photographs rather than the usual text or story from this author. On some days the author posted upwards of sixty photos. Given a few weeks at this volume, it’s no wonder there were over a thousand posts waiting for me. While deleting them I looked at each image, even if only for a moment. And something happened. Certain images caught me, stirring an emotion or captivating me. It was akin to casually walking through a museum and suddenly being stunned by a piece of art in such a way that you forget you were walking at all.

Detail of The Invasion by Adolphe William Bouguereau.

We live digitally but often can make claims that the digital realm is the bane of true artistic existence. The flood of information and images and videos on a given day can make any head spin. There is something to be said for standing in the presence of the original, something that can be seen live that isn’t seen otherwise. It is, after all, the same reason most of us value human contact in real space instead of phone calls, text messages, and all the other disconnected connections available. Certainly, another human is an art to behold, live in space and time.

That said, images still have power even on a LED screen. Not all those images in that folder were deleted. I kept some to come back to and explore why I had a response and to let that response play itself out and see where it might lead. Many took me to memories or longings; others gave context to emotions I could not put in words until then.

One of the first was a cropped version of The Invasion by Adolphe William Bouguereau. Only the lower quarter of the image is visible, the grasping cherub on blue, the white wings, almost like a pleading, a divine attempt at detour, one I have experienced numerous times in my life. A cut of a painting that tells a different story when seen in full, wherein it doesn’t seem to be a detour at all but, as the title says, an invasion, like a swarm coming on.

Then there was an image titled Tree House. It gave me a sense as if I just arrived on the scene of a long coming collapse and destruction; the sense of immediacy yet well past time from some other era. It reminds me of the years I spent as a mountaineer guide and would discover strange scenes like this in far remote wildernesses.

Poppy Field by Eliot Porter.

Eliot Porter’s 1970 photo titled Poppy Field first evokes the place where Dorothy and her Oz friends fell listless and sidetracked on their way to the Emerald City. The poppies stand out in such contrast to the rest of the landscape that they almost look painted onto the print afterwards. It also stirs a verse of John McCrae: “In Flanders Fields the poppies blow / Between the crosses row on row / That mark our place . . . ” The words were written nearly 100 years ago by a Lieutenant Colonel after watching a friend die on the battlefields of the First World War. Poppies, a brilliant marker of the dead among Flanders then, are still worn on this Veteran’s Day, this Remembrance Day so to not break faith with the dead. As McCrae’s poem ends: “If ye break faith with us who die / We shall not sleep, though poppies grow / In Flanders fields.”

This leads me to one of my own images taken a few years back on medium format film. It’s titled Faded Glory, as it was taken at sunset on the edge of winter at the Crested Butte Cemetery. An old soldier’s grave in a land too cold for poppies (and maybe even Remembrance), the cross and the flag — symbols both, and both losing much of their intended original meaning as iconic images that have saturated our psyches and so lost their power to speak without words unless captured in a manner unfamiliar.

Pictures still speak though most are lost amongst the noise of so much visual overdose. Like the chatter of a cocktail party, the amount of imagery I encounter in a given day becomes a droning wash, indistinguishable. Still, regardless of medium, when a work of art is excellently crafted by paint or by lens, it will still stop my breath in its subtlety or its screaming beauty. After all, something extraordinary doesn’t beg for attention. It doesn’t need to.

Faded Glory by Kendall Ruth.

As I clean up the “noise” collected over weeks on my RSS reader, those images of beauty, slipped in between the thousands, still grab the attention, the emotion, and memory of my busy and noise-filled world. And maybe they will woo me to the local museum to see more of their kind in the quiet stillness of their presence with only the click-clacking of the security guard’s shoes to break the moment. They, and others like them, check my vision such that the next time I look through a lens, more of my heart sees out into the world around me. Maybe that is what Rodney Smith senses, after all these years and all he has accomplished, that he is still learning what he sees, and can’t bear to claim the name Photographer.

 

It’s an Introvert’s World

As early as your first steps and words, people begin to tell you things about yourself.  What you’re good at.  How you should behave.  How you can improve.  People uplift you. People put you down.  It’s hard to figure out who you are when you barely have time to decide for yourself.  But once you discover a part of who you are on your own, even if it is the absurd fact that you prefer Mondays to Fridays, or that you have an insatiable desire to sneak into private pools, these parts become vital to forming the ever-growing identity known as “you”.

I’m intrigued by how personality plays a major role in who we are; more specifically, I’m interested in how extroverts and introverts live their lives both entwined and separate from one other.  About 68% of the population is ambiverted, which means that most of us have both introverted and extroverted tendencies.  However, I’ve noticed that we the world tend to applaud the people-oriented types, rather than consistently appreciating those who would sometimes rather be alone. In this series, I attempt to capture the small, quiet moments, the bold defining traits, and perhaps even some unexpected quirks of what makes up the at- times- hidden, magnificent world of the introvert.

I found that our differences fascinate me, and yet, our common humanity seems to provoke me even more. This project became an exploration of myself, my interests as a photographer, and the overall beauty of humankind.

 

Why I Shoot Film

For too long in the early days of our marriage, my husband and I were without a camera. We have no photographs of our long drive from New York State to the Deep South a few days after our wedding; none from our honeymoon to Portland, Oregon. I sold my 35mm SLR, a Pentax ZX-M, to my father before our wedding for two hundred bucks. As far as I know he never used it. I had never used it much either.

I bought the camera in the autumn of my junior year of college. I had enrolled in a photography class, partly because I wanted to give it a try and partly because I was toying with the idea of taking on studio art as a minor. This was before the rash of digital photography, when digital cameras were still bulky and could hold a floppy disk. My photography class was all 35mm. What I remember from that class is vague: always scratching the negatives when I developed them, spending hours in the dark room, self-portraits of my feet and shots of an ex-boyfriend. I don’t remember learning technique or how to see creatively. I shot photos for one semester, and only shot one more roll the following summer before putting my camera away.

A year ago I asked my father if I could have the camera back. It wasn’t until this summer that it finally made its way to me with one roll of expired film. My husband, daughter, and I were in upstate New York for an extended vacation to see family, and I shot through the roll in three days. After each photograph I pulled the camera away from me to see what it looked like, a habit I’ve acquired with my DSLR, only to be reminded that this type of photography was not immediate. I had to wait. I had to take my time, adjust the camera and the focus carefully, and wait until the entire roll was exposed to take it to be developed.

I can’t say exactly what made me want to shoot film again, except that I knew I wanted to be a better photographer. In the duration of my marriage I had accumulated a hand-me-down point-and-shoot and eventually upgraded to a DSLR. I had committed to completing the 365 project and was shooting photos every day. Eventually I got brave enough to put my DSLR in manual mode and learned how to compose a creative photograph, mostly by trial and error. My photos were improving merely by the daily habit, but I still hungered to get better. Shooting digital had given me the skills and the passion, but I wanted to shoot film because I knew I couldn’t cheat. Instead of the limitless frames I could shoot with my digital camera, I would have to carefully consider each shot with my film camera.

I thought I knew what I was in for when I started shooting film, but I had no idea. Every roll I shoot fills me with excitement, anticipation, and often a bit of doubt. It’s an exercise in patience but also in self-kindness, since I tend to be perfectionist and set unreasonably high standards for myself. Photography helps me to capture that sense of wonder and experimentation that small children find commonplace. They try new things just to see what will happen; I do the same with my camera. What would happen if I point my camera at the sun? What would this brilliant red look like? Or blue, or green? What if I focus on the background when my inclination is to focus on the foreground?

Of course, these are questions I ask myself when shooting my digital camera, too, though the sense of play is different for one critical reason: delayed gratification. When I shoot my digital camera, I end up taking the same shot twenty times or more, making small adjustments with each frame. Often the best shot is the first, but because I have the opportunity for a do-over, I take it. Film gives me a chance to play with the knowledge that each photo is a risk and all I can do is trust what I know and go for it. Sometimes it can feel like a guessing game, but because I can’t see the photo the camera just produced, I have make a decision and trust it was the right one. Sometimes it is; sometimes it isn’t. That shooting film enhances my sense of play enables me to find joy even in my mistakes, even in the questions that arise to which I have no answer, even in an entire roll that may have to be tossed away.

What I love most about film is how gritty it is. The prints can sometimes be a bit grainy—especially if, like me, you don’t have a lot of money to spend on fancy, good-quality film—or they can be soft like a watercolor painting. Colors are vibrant and sometimes unexpectedly so. In an age where we can not only take digital photos but can then manipulate them with photo editing software, film is pure and raw. A film print simply is what it is.

Marilyn Chandler McIntyre, in her book Caring for Words in a Culture of Lies, writes, “Beauty and peace are things to be learned and protected, because we see all too much evidence around us that they can be lost.” Photography, in whatever capacity, is a way to preserve that beauty and peace in the moments of our lives. To pick up a camera and shoot a photograph is among the sacred tasks we can perform. For me film photography is the best way to delight in beauty and creation and experience moments of gratitude for this life. I will never stop shooting my digital camera, but I don’t expect to ever put down my film camera. Instead I expect to marvel at every newly developed roll of film, because this is the world as I see it.

 

This article originally appeared on the Art House America Blog. All photos are by Lindsay Crandall.

Eclipsing the Object

In 2001, a work by Damien Hirst, an installation piece valued at six figures and consisting of, “a collection of half-full coffee cups, ashtrays with cigarette butts, empty beer bottles, a paint-smeared palette” and “newspaper pages strewn around the floor,” was efficiently disposed of by a cleaning man. Said that man, Emmanuel Asare: “As soon as I clapped eyes on it, I sighed because there was so much mess. It didn’t look much like art to me. So I cleared it all in bin bags, and I dumped it.”[1] “To mistake an artwork for a real object” wrote the philosopher Arthur Danto, “is no great feat when an artwork is the real object one mistakes it for.”[2] Yet these mistakes almost never occur inside the art gallery or museum. There, things are nailed down, and in the museum we are inspired to consider the ontological status of each artifact. In fact, if you have ever walked through a museum exhibiting art made in the last century, you have also exhausted yourself wondering whether and why that is art, moving from room to room in a frenzy of philosophy, haunted by the ontological question, seeing its face in every flower.

Anish Kapoor's "Marsyas."

It is taken for granted that this has anything intrinsic to do with the actual appreciation of art. But if attempting to define art is a repeated fact of our experience ,with artworks it does not follow that it is a natural part of that experience, that it ought to be a part of it. Really, there are two sides: those on one side contend that the enjoyment of art and the contemplation of its nature are often one and the same thing; art is merely the handmaid to philosophy, exists just to illustrate it, and then, sometimes, in a circular coincidence, this philosophy is also about Art. The “impressive thing” they said about Warhol’s Brillo Boxes, was that they were “art at all.” Art about Art; art which, if it stood for anything, stood most remarkably for Art.[3] On the other hand, another school of thought maintains that appreciating art is about looking, that what counts is the art’s form, and it should be enjoyed and evaluated on that basis.

But okay—we’ve forgotten how to look. “More of us spend time in museums and art galleries than ever before” writes the critic Roger Kimball, “but how much time and attention is spent in informed and careful looking?”[4] It is, after all, relatively easy to drift through the museum on a cloud of philosophy—or inside it, in a fog—and easy to read labels and listen to audio tours, but looking? We don’t know how to look at art. Looking is hard. Looking hurts when we do it.

Fortunately, we have experts. We have critics and scholars whose educated example is drawing into greater focus an every gently-sloping foothill in the artworld panorama. Together, they compose our Peterson Guide to the arts.

About the work of Anish Kapor one expert has this to tell us:

The truly made work is thus enriched because it introduces into the expanded field of the object, that displaced movement of ‘thirdness’, the diagonal relation, that inscribes something that remains nameless, that something that moves the material beyond itself, towards the other, surviving at the point of invisibility, sustaining the unthought.[5]

What is going on here? There is no attentive analysis, no thoughtful observation, no well-founded interpretation, no art object at all — only dark abstractions in tightly woven obscurantism. The theoretical has finally eclipsed the object. A century ago the philosopher Clive Bell defined the art critic as a medium between public appreciation and cultural artifact: “To be continually pointing out those parts, the sum, or rather the combination, of which unite to produce [artistic] form, is the function of criticism…This [the critic] can do only by making me see…”[6] How things have changed! Academic trend, authorizing the reduction of artworks to models of theory, has seduced commentary into relationship with the quasi-philosophical. Ensnared in allegiance to the abstract and opaque, criticism bears little connection to sharpening public vision, even less to vision itself.

The review above has something to do with Anish Kapoor (a “something that remains nameless”). The public adores Anish Kapoor; his sculpture in Chicago, “Cloud Gate”—that delicious, molten bean—“is claimed to be the world’s most popular work of art” and Kapoor’s 2009 Royal Academy show was allegedly “the most successful exhibition by a contemporary artist ever seen in London.”[7] Perhaps this is because Kapoor’s work displays an uncommon sensuousness. A few years ago the artist became infatuated with a messy blood-red wax. Here it is, in one example, whittled into an immense wheel frozen in extrusion through the aperture of a blade that could have been lent by the Demon Barber of Fleet Street.[8] Kapoor’s relationship with the public and his work’s visual and tactile qualities augur scholarship with a plain-spoken, democratic feel and careful progression from observable qualities to outlying meanings. If observant and concrete literature on art is available, you would expect to find it in connection with Anish Kapoor. Instead, perception, description, experience—in short, aesthetics—are prejudicially shut out. Their going leaves a void. The title of the aforementioned review is “Making Emptiness.” Well then, tu quoque, brother.

There is more like this on the Tate Modern museum website, so theory is not confined, but displays itself in the most public places, embarrassing everyone. In 2002, Kapoor inflated one of his more monumental sculptures, Marsyas, inside Turbine Hall at London’s Tate Modern: a red polyvinyl web stretched trunk-like from a circular base and then split to effloresce at two ends in gaping sleeves. The sculpture filled the many-storied hall; visitors looked pitiful next to it. “Anish Kapoor,” a writer assays in a blurb by a photo of Marsyas, “is renowned for his enigmatic sculptural forms that permeate physical and psychological space…he has explored what he sees as deep-rooted metaphysical polarities: presence and absence, being and non-being, place and non-place and the solid and the intangible…”[9]

But it is unclear how the first statement is not totally vacuous. Certainly all objects “permeate physical and psychological space.” And although it may be true that Kapoor’s work deals with metaphysical themes, it is not possible that it is about “metaphysical polarities.” Metaphysics, as a theoretical science of objective fact, is limited to examining the facts of being or place, not the non-entities of absence or non-place.

Marsyas is a gargantuan sculptural installation, and because its form changes fundamentally with the perspective of its viewer it is difficult to describe. Kapoor, who is unfailingly philosophical, would probably say something about it such as: “Marsyas subverts the notion of “object” because it offers nothing objective to the common viewer at all, nothing singular or constant; the concept of Marsyas the sculpture changes all the time. Really, there is no Marsyas.”[10]

But Kapoor would be underselling himself because what is true of Marsyas at this level is also true of anything colossal. Perhaps the artist could acquiesce to something more earthly.

A prominent aspect of Marsyas is its deep, mouthy sleeves. Deep space is fascinating, and the sleeves, which are large enough to hold train cars, suck the eye up and into them like a flower drawing a bee. Without the ribbing in the polyvinyl, there would be less psychological force to the shape; the ribs act as vectors which propel the eye. The pull extends to the rest of the body and gazing up into a blossom produces an anticipation of suction: a vacuum could start in the belly of the sculpture behind its apertures and a blossom could tilt and bring you up inside it and you would never see your home or family again. Or, if you prefer, the sleeves are fluted like a trumpet or a gramophone, and a gigantic, rushing sound seems imminent. The form is imprecise, but the feeling in common is dread.

Because Marsyas is several stories high, it is surmounted by walkways and from there, apparently, a person can look down across the entire sculpture and take in both its massive trunk and the two brachial tubes that open into blossoms. The ribbing which pulses through the entire sculpture is especially felt along the tubular arms, where the symmetry of the arms reinforces the effect of their straining or being pulled from the main trunk: adding a third or fourth arm would have interrupted the sweep of the eye from end to end and mitigated the perceived tension along the sculpture’s back. Around the arms and trunk the contours of the sculpture are soft, but then the stems enlarge suddenly into forced mouths. It is unnatural that the delicate stems should gape into ellipses like a plated bottom lip. There is strain here, Kapoor wants to say, but it is traumatic, not therapeutic. It is coerced and terrible. The composer Arvo Part was inspired by Marsyas, wrote the elegiac “Lamentate” concerto, and performed the work beneath the sculpture in 2002. The fact feels like a corollary: we don’t need to know that the work’s title refers to a satyr “who was flayed alive by the god Apollo” to understand Part’s inspiration—Marsyas is full of violence.[11]

The preponderance of theory-based art in the last century has made philosophy inescapable, and we have forgotten how to look. “More of us spend time in museums and art galleries than ever before but how much time and attention is spent in informed and careful looking?”[12] It may be, as countless scholars are led to believe, that there is really nothing important to see, that theory is the noblest content of art, that the most profound and essentially artistic of truths occupy the precinct of ideation rather than experience. But then, how plainly works like Marsyas evince the contrary.


[1] Donald Kuspit, The End of Art (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2004), From a selection of epigraphs to the text.

[2] Arthur C. Danto, “The Artworld,” in The Philosophy of Art, eds. Alex Neill and Aaron Ridley (New York: Mc-Graw Hill, Inc., 1995), 205.

[3] Ibid., 581.

[4] Roger Kimball, Art’s Prospect (Chicago: Ivan R. Dee, 2003), 262.

[5] Homi K.Bhabha, “Making Emptiness,” Anish Kapoor, http://www.anishkapoor.com/185/Making-Emptiness-by-Homi-K.-Bhabha.html.

[6] Clive Bell, Art (New York: Capricorn Books, 1958), 18.

[7] Mark Hudson, “Anish Kapoor: Leviathan, Monumenta 2011, Grand Palais, Paris, Review,” The Telegraph, http://www.telegraph.co.uk/culture/art/art-reviews/8506594/Anish-Kapoor-Leviathan-Monumenta-2011-Grand-PalaisParis-review.html.

[10] Kapoor has titled at least three of his works Non-Object.

[11] Tate Modern, Op. cit.

[12] Roger Kimball, Op.cit.

The Beautiful Beach: A Photo Essay

It is May 7, 2011 — a Saturday. We drive forty-five minutes south to Dauphin Island. This will be the last time we will visit the Gulf of Mexico before moving away.

It had been more than a year since the BP oil spill. Last summer we didn’t go to the beach at all. My husband Adam got a part-time job doing EMS standby for those working to clean up the shores. He said time and again that it wasn’t that bad where we lived in Alabama, but we were still grateful for the extra income.

In late October, we finally took our daughter Lily to the beach at Dauphin Island. It was off-season and barely a soul could be seen. Still, there were no tar balls and we had little concern. We played in the sand and swam. Adam tried to catch crabs with his bare hands. Mullet jumped nearby. Everything seemed all right.

I made a bucket list of things to do before we moved. On it was one last visit to our southern beach. We arrived early, long before the heat set in, and found a quiet place to build a sand castle and walk Lily along the water’s edge. We knew we wouldn’t see these waters for a long time; we probably won’t live so close to the water again. But the Gulf will always be there and the beaches are just as beautiful as they’ve ever been.

Note: these photos were taken with a Holga 120 camera.

Where Are We Now?

The image to the left it Caspar David Friedrich’s painting “The Wanderer Above the Mists”: that quintessentially Romantic image. In it, the solitary, heroic individual stands with his back to civilization, facing the Nature’s sublime and formless power. The color palate is earthy, mysterious, suggestive, and primitive. Vast distances stretch to the vanishing point directly behind the central human figure. This is the icon of the nineteenth-century Artist: the lonely Genius standing by himself before the infinite canvas of Nature’s might, untouched by squalid crowds, and bending Chaos to the shape of his Will.

Now, in your mind’s eye, change the picture. The man turns around, smiles, and beckons you forward with one hand, while his other gestures towards the scene, offering it for your interpretation. In place of jagged mountains, the skyscrapers of a cosmopolitan city rise through smog. Instead of swirling mists, the distances are crowded with working-class people, all cheerfully clamoring together as they pick up rocks, flowers, and rubbish for communal examination. Every ethnicity is represented in the throng, both genders, and all sorts of lifestyles.

This is the twenty-first-century arts scene: friendly, open, and diverse. The image of the Starving Artist in the garret has been supplanted by the Savvy Artist-Administrator in the office, on the stage, and on the iPhone.

A year ago, I began asking “Where are we now?” I was teaching at a homeschool program where each academic year corresponded to one historical time period. I had already taught literature and music from Medieval through Modern: the upcoming year would be “Postmodern” (1960-present). I realized that, while I had some idea of the prevailing ideas, themes, and techniques of the past (in Europe and North America), I could not characterize my own era with confidence.

So I set out to take the pulse of the moment. To do this, I began interview people in the arts.

For a year, I have posted these interviews on my blog. I have talked to poets, novelists, musicians, composers, actors, theatre directors, graphic designers, photographers, college arts students, arts educators, movie reviewers, a film art director, a sculptor, an editor, a publisher, an arts journalist, an arts theologian, and a former NEA chairman. I met them in New York City, Philly, the Berkshires, and my own Lehigh Valley; I talked to them on the phone; I interviewed them via email. I asked them the same questions over and over:

“What topics tend to recur in your work?”

“What specific techniques do you use?”

“What theories inform your work?”

“Do you think these are typical of those working in your genre?”

“Do you belong to any particular ‘school’ or ‘movement’?”

“Who are your favorite writers, composers, filmmakers?”

“How is the ‘sacred’ faring in contemporary North American arts?”

“How are the arts reacting to postmodernism, posthumanism, and globalization?”

“How do you think we got to the phase where we are now?”

“Where are we going?”

—and anything else that came up in conversation. We talked about the internet, Sherlock Holmes, mystical minimalism, Shakespeare’s view of time, recycling, the Parable of the Lost Chicken, adults with disabilities, Miley Cyrus, nude paintings, Pop Surrealism, quantum physics, Photoshop, Romeo & Juliet’s robot, dirty dancing, virginity, an inaudible instrument, missionary work, Greek and Buddhist chant, 3-D movies, El Sistema, vampires, and opera libretti. Mostly we talked about each individual artist’s work, which was exactly what I wanted. I wanted to build up a picture of the current arts scene in North America by a series of snapshots.

Now I have a composite portrait, made up of glimpses into fifty-some-odd artistic lives, and what does that palimpsest reveal?

It reveals the death of Romanticism. Of course, we already knew that Romanticism is dead everywhere except, well, except for film scores, individualism, environmentalism, landscape painting, figurative sculpture, our idolatry of sexual romance… But we may have overlooked the fact that the Artist of the nineteenth century no longer works in the twenty-first.

The Solitary Genius has been replaced by the high-energy young artsy person who understands money, management, public relations, and education as well as she understands her craft. She believes art is an industry, not a monastery. This person, latte in one hand, SmartPhone in the other, opens up to the audience, inviting viewers to share in the creative process from idea through execution to interpretation. This suit-clad hard-working urbanite has one goal: engage the audience. It’s about collaboration, entertainment, openness, and diversity. It’s about real people, not inspired supermen. It’s about making connections across the arts.

A theatre company performs free Shakespeare plays in public. A pop singer stands around for hours, meeting her fans. An actor performs his life story, then holds a Q-&-A for audience members to drink beer and ask him about his religious journey. A symphony orchestra director and her visual artist husband recreate a Medieval altarpiece in conjunction with a musical performance. A violinist performs Pachelbel while a dancer dances and a painter paints—in church, during the worship service. A symphony orchestra invites college kids to sit amongst the musicians during a rehearsal. A theatre director invents a new genre of textual performance. A poet and a fiber artist collaborate on a chapbook, then the poet and a dancer perform a commentary on the Iraq war. An actress jumps into a freezing pond so a photographer can create composite images for a new style of graphic novel. A Broadway show tweets out to half a million followers. A painter sets up his easel in a Philadelphia park and talks to passers-by as he paints the Crucifixion.

Why? Why should artists care about reaching out to their audiences? Why should they take the time away from honing their peculiar craft?

Well, for one thing, because everybody’s broke, and nobody’s coming to the old-fashioned shows anymore. Every artist and arts organization continues to deal with the aging of its original, subscribing audience. Every artist and arts organization has to deal with technology. Audiences are asking: “Why should I pay all that money and go out in the cold when I can sit at home and watch it on YouTube?”

And for another, artists have to figure out what to do in a strange new environment of vapid freedom. As has happened over and over in the history of the arts, the old revolution became the new tyranny, then the new tyranny was overthrown, and the current rebels and their children stand in the colorless streets asking, “What do we do now?”

The revolution in poetry was the invention of free verse, around about the nineteen ’teens and ’20s. This led to a second wave of confessional verse. By the ’80s, the only way to be radical was to write formal poetry, and a poetry war began. All of the poets I interviewed pick and choose from the gamut of free and formal techniques without inhibition. Some of them have learned that the only way forward is back.

The big revolution in music was the invention of the 12-tone row, or dodecaphonic music, around about the 1940s. By the ’60s, this was the new establishment. Any composer who wanted to be taken seriously had to write 12-tone, or at least atonal, music. Minimalism was a re-reaction, but has become another familiar member of the ruling regime. Many of the composers I interviewed are trying to find a newly tonal voice of either simplicity or expansion.

The revolutions in the visual arts in the 20th century included cubism, photorealism, minimalism, pop surrealism, and street art. Some of these movements became so experimental that they threw the very nature of art into question. Some artists have reacted by retrograde motion. One painter I interviewed has returned to the meticulous, demanding, and dangerous techniques of Baroque glazing to create masterpieces on a scale and with an emotional impact like those of Velasquez, Goya, Caravaggio, and Vermeer. A sculptor I interviewed uses the 5000-year-old method of bronze casting, completing every stage of the work himself from the initial sculpture through making the molds, pouring the metal in his own foundry, and putting the patinas on the final sculpture.

So the old rebellion has become the new tradition, and the new rebellion is turning back to even older traditions. At this moment of transition, there is an openness to new ideas, new voices, new methods, and newcomers. The positive side of such openness is the rich variety it makes possible. The negative side is the proliferation of, quite simply, bad art. Also, art about badness. Lewd content is old hat. Moral certainty is rated as propaganda or, worse, hate speech. Nobody wants to admit to communicating a message through art.

And, unsurprisingly, hardly anybody wants to talk about theories, put themselves in categories, or offer a label for our times. One composer might consider herself a “Maximalist.” One poet might fit the term “Expansive Poetry.” One theatre director has developed “Panoramic Theatre.” One graphic designer advocates stewardship of the “Creative Economy.” There is a movement towards more Storytelling in literature, film, and radio. Form and Narrative are alive and well. While I am not prepared to label my era yet, either, all of these words suggest something large, welcoming, vital, and comprehensive.

Yet, oddly enough, while there are individual arts and artists worth getting excited over, American poetry is pretty boring right now, publishers are wondering if the Book is going extinct, the visual arts are a gallimaufry, and music is just struggling to pay the bills. Artists are searching for a sense of order in the universe. Contemporary art is trying to make meaning from disparate pieces rather than from a holistic cosmology or a rationalist epistemology. There is nothing to hold on to as towers fall, economies crash, and truth is always just out of reach.

Artists long to offer something for the sustenance of the inner life. They look to the past to find what the present is missing. They value mystery and intimation over virtuosity. The source of their inspiration is in their embodiment. Some of them are recovering their lost role as public voices: heralds of ceremony, satirists of government, and meaning-makers after tragedy. Beneath the varied techniques, artists offer what human beings have always needed: horror and hope, fear and faith, grief and glory. Dana Gioia told me, “I want my poems to have clear surfaces and troubling depths.” The art of the moment that has troubling surfaces and no depth will not last, no matter how accessible, engaging, entertaining, or inclusive. Works that are profound and well-crafted will last, as they have always done.

Laid Bare: Snow, Photography and Truth

The notions of nature are lonely photographs.

Think about it for a moment. How does one go about describing nature?

Where does one begin? What does one include?

Perhaps more importantly, where does one end their portrayal?

For instance, I may say that I find few images of nature more beautiful than the silent, meditative impressions of a snowy field backstopped by a stark black wood.

Pause again, slowly reading the previous line.

I find few images of nature more beautiful than the silent, meditative impressions of a snowy field backstopped by a stark black wood.

Hmm.

You may be sitting there thinking, “Yes, I understand, I know exactly the scene he describes. I saw just a similar scene this morning while driving to work.”

or

You may feel something like this: “Ok, what are these ‘silent, meditative impressions’ and how does snow convey them? Also, how black is this wood? Is this just a poetic term for a fence on the edge of a field, or is he indeed speaking of a very dark forest? The Black Forest perhaps? Germany?”

Quickly it becomes apparent that the reader is no longer engaging with nature vicariously through the writer’s description, but is instead trying to find meaning through the chosen words, carried along by streams of consciousness.

The experience has morphed into an understanding of semantics rather than substance.

At once the reader is confronted with one of the obstacles and beauties of nature writing: it is impossible to recreate in your mind the scene as described by the writer. Only the writer knows the image he describes.

Take for instance another line describing this indisputably snowy landscape.

The subdued blankness of the snow contrasts with the harsh void of the forest, forming a scene that sings of elegiac serenity amidst its bleakness.

Apart from the creeping thought that perhaps Cormac McCarthy has abandoned violence for simpler pursuits such as wax poetic nature writing, one still runs into the barrier of language in the search for full understanding of the image described.

Put simply, this winter scene is a snapshot, a photograph captured by my eyes and left to develop in the recesses of my conscious, sitting and waiting till a kindred sentiment appears to save it from loneliness. Put even simpler, I saw this image of snow, a field and trees last week while driving home. It cannot be completely understood by anyone but myself, as it waits warm and alone inside my head.

As I said, the notions of nature are lonely photographs.

——–

August Sander, The Right Eye of My Daughter Sigrid, 1928.

In his 1927 remarks on a photography exhibition at the Cologne Art Union, German photographer August Sander stated that photography “can render things with magnificent beauty but also with terrifying truthfulness; and it can also be extraordinarily deceptive.”

He continued, “There is nothing I hate more than sugar-glazed photography with gimmicks, poses and fancy effects. Therefore let me honestly tell the truth about our age and people.”

August Sander spoke regarding his work People of the Twentieth Century: A Cultural History in Photographs, a collection of forty-five portfolios of photographs of German society during the post-WWI Weimar Republic.

Sander sought to portray German life as it was, photographing what he called “archetypes,” documenting through photography slices of the German citizenry. As such, his collections bore titles as The Farmer or The Artists.

By objectively presenting the German people as they were, Sander included the handicapped, vagabonds, androgynous women, and Communists in his work, not just standard, traditionally imagined faces of moderate, mainstream Germans.

Purely, August Sander wanted to tell the truth.

——–

This is not a meditation on snow. This is not a lesson on the history of German photography. This is not even a case for the aesthetics of nature, which, let us agree, is of the highest value.

This is a question of truth in reality, of accepting beauty in this world as it is. The contrasts of the white snow and black forest harkened back to the black/white of August Sander’s photographs, a thread of connectivity stretching decades.

Does a specter of a snowy field hold as much truth as the images of August Sander? Yes, but it is an aesthetic hybrid of truth, trapped as it is within myself, understood only by me and locked in its time just as the objects of Sander’s camera were trapped within theirs.

Maybe there are times to simply accept the truth of life as it is, not as it ought to be. Perhaps these imperfect images are the truest signposts of a world to come, indications of the need for rebirth. But until that time, let us not ignore the beauty in the brokenness. Let August Sander find pride in his people. Let me find solace in a lonely snowy field. Let that image lie dormant in my mind, reminding me of a past photographer’s attempt to find truth.

Winter always seems to instill a desire for things to come, but for that passing moment, riding in my friend’s Subaru Forester, all I wanted was that field surrounded by a dark wood, and the truth it hid.

The Four Holy Gospels

This September, Dan Colen exhibited his bubble gum canvases at the Gagosian Gallery, a linchpin in Chelsea that represents some of the biggest players in the contemporary art world. Herds of people, including Hollywood golden boy James Franco, mingled around the massive works. Traipsing around as if I had business there (my beat up Converse tennies hinting at the truth of the matter), I wanted to approach fellow bystanders about their impressions, wanted to hear more about the business of gum-stretching and grass printing, but the pretension in the room was impenetrable. For Colen, the evening was a historical event; it marked his first solo show (outside of the gallery’s bathroom) since his friend Dash Snow died of a drug overdose in 2009.

Makoto Fujimura’s exhibit of the Four Holy Gospels at Dillon Gallery this December was an altogether different event. Truly historical, the collection was painted for a new Bible released by Crossway Publishing to commemorate the four hundred year anniversary of the King James Version. Prior to this, commissioned illumination of the scriptures lay dormant for five hundred years. This was also historical because it was the first time words of scripture have been directly paired with abstract painting, as opposed to representational, for publication.

The opening of this new exhibit was an assemblage of the right variables: interested folks with keen eyes, a knowledgeable and present gallery staff, and an artist aware that this was a highlight show of his career, having said, ” Whether I like it or not, this is what I will be remembered by.” The event was open to the public, so the wandering gallery-goer had a home at Dillon with the middle-aged mom, Catholic priest, school administrator, hedge fund manager, and hipster just the same. If there was any intimidation to be felt, it was due to the foreign feeling of sincerity in small talk. The room was warm with the scent of “Biblical Landscapes” a musky mix of  frankincense, myrrh,  Japanese notes of cherry blossom, and even a bit of whiskey especially mixed for the occasion by a neighboring French perfumer.

Mark | “Water Flames”

The five large works in the show were the frontispieces created as title pages for each of the gospels.  All are painted Nihonga style (traditional Japanese painting) with pulverized minerals. Each painting is unique from the other evidencing the nuances in the gospel accords. The Matthew piece “Consider the Lillies” is a muted combination of sixty layers of minerals including azurite, malachite, and oyster shell, as well as gold and platinum powders, while the Mark piece “ Water Flames” is a rich, bright mixture of gold, platinum, and cochineal ink.  Fujimura also created a custom letter for the start of every chapter of every gospel numbering eighty-nine in total. This makes the contemporary Bible distinctly like the illuminated manuscripts of the Middle Ages.

Fujimura’s trust in his tradition and vocation allowed him to confidently approach the project and adorn the pages with understated elegance. The magnitude of this project’s historical significance didn’t seem to stilt him at all. Aware of the historical weight on his shoulders, he married a western tradition with the eastern tradition of Nihonga. Refreshed and impressed, I couldn’t help but think what a significant exhibit this was. This project was truly an artistic expression of global Christianity— there in Chelsea of all places, we were at the heart of a transgression of cultural & religious boundaries.

The paintings are transcendental when read alongside scripture, but still approachable, as is the artist’s life sans the exploitative tactics employed by so many of his peers. In this case, Fujimura’s work invites us to approach the scriptures that are at the heart of all that he puts his hands to. This trickles down into his studio practice with interns, in his interaction with other artists across the globe, and in his writing.

Luke | “Prodigal God”

I mention Colen’s show at the Gagosian because it is a grand encapsulation of much of what is shown in Chelsea.  While aesthetically intriguing, it lacked what made the Four Holy Gospels such a privilege to behold:  accessibility, an accessibility personified in the gentleman artist that Mako Fujimura is. His exhibit created an unlikely atmosphere, especially as it compared to others on the block. It was a sanctifying environment, available to all, but still a challenge to most. In this art market, we as viewers haven’t earned the close proximity to work that Fujimura facilitates in his exhibits. He has said, “we, today, have a language to celebrate waywardness, but we do not have a cultural language to bring people back home.And that is exactly what the exhibit at Dillon accomplished.

Jack Chick is Robert Crumb

I just concocted a new conspiracy theory. A year and a half after seeing R. Crumb’s illustrated Genesis in the New Yorker, I’ve had some time to digest it and I now believe that Robert Crumb and Jack T. Chick are the same person.

I knew that I had seen those crude black and white comic drawings before. But for some reason those happily forgotten memories of Chick tracts (those creepy little pamphlet/comics about the eternal dangers of non-Christianity) were coming back to the surface, convicting me to get saved all over again. All thanks to the agnostic king of underground comics, R. Crumb. But how can I really posit that Crumb and Chick are one and the same? The evidence piles up surprisingly quickly.

After Crumb’s initial rise of popularity in the late 60s, he went on to become an icon of 1970s pop culture with characters like Fritz the Cat, Mr. Natural and the “Keep on Truckin’” guy. Coincidentally, Chick Publications began productions in 1970, and ever since then, the same demons Crumb had been exorcising were being battled by Chick. Both of these artists created stories that dealt with sexual perversion, fear of authoritarianism, existential dread, and shocking violence. The one key difference was that Crumb worked from a psychological lucidity, while Chick came from a daft, religious point of view. Gruesome nudity is commonplace in Crumb’s comics, but Chick tracts can be just as disgusting. People who celebrate Halloween, gay rights, or religious tolerance are often cast as the villains in Chick’s stories. Basically, if the reader does not accept Jesus by the end of the tract, he will burn in Hell for eternity.

One Chick tract is about Henry, a non-Christian man, who molested his daughter due (somehow) to his pornography addiction. The victim daughter is never seen in the comic, but the protagonist father is convicted of his sin. A Christian tells Henry that he will go to Hell if he doesn’t repent. Henry fears for his afterlife and says, “I’m so sorry for what I’ve done. I’m so ashamed… I don’t want to go to Hell.” Then he prays a prayer and gets saved. Suddenly, he feels clean. Later that day, he tells his wife that the most wonderful thing happened to him, but before he can say “Jesus” she confronts him about how he’s been sexually abusing their little girl. Henry quickly explains that Jesus can fix everything, so they commence prayer. The wife gets saved too, and then the daughter makes a surprise appearance at the last frame. The parents tell her “We’ve got wonderful news Lisa, your Daddy and I will never hurt you again.” A frightened looking child holding a teddy bear up to her ear responds, “Really?” They assure her, “Really, honey. We love you, and Jesus does too.” And they lived happily ever after. The end.

In Chick’s comics, the bottom line is Jesus. It doesn’t matter how big or small your sin, everybody is going to Hell, and that’s all that matters. If you believe in evolution you’re going to Hell, or if you molest your daughter you’re going to Hell. The sin itself isn’t really that important, as long as you ask Jesus to forgive you of it (because he will, no matter what!).

Chick tracts are an anomaly in both the underground comics scene and fundamental Christian circles, neither demographic fully embracing Chick’s work. Underground comics artists are a community who often support and encourage each other, but Chick was never a part of this group. And Christians may either despise or adore Chick tracts, depending on the individual’s level of close-mindedness and self-righteousness.

Chick’s comics are so controversial, extreme, and vile, it seems improbable that the man sincerely believes in the messages he presents. Then again, the Westboro Baptist Church isn’t a joke– not even a really bad joke.

But one can’t help but wonder. After all, Chick studied drama in high school and college, even receiving scholarships thanks to his acting talents. And back then he wasn’t a Christian. Could a man so creative and prolific be equally as hateful and narrow-minded?

After reading a Chick tract, a thinking person’s first reaction is something like, “is this satire?” The standby evangelical question, “do you know where you’re going after you die?” is the core of every Chick tract. The morals come from the purest form of fundamental Evangelicalism, even down to the occasional King-James-Only tirades. They are offensive and crude, but nearly 1 billion of these tracts have been published (more than any other underground publisher). How can an anonymous evangelical nut accomplish such a feat? Power of the Lord, I guess. Either that, or the power of Crumb.

The best-selling comic book author in the world recently received the filmic treatment from Kurt Kuersteiner in God’s Cartoonist: The Comic Crusade of Jack Chick. The film is a flawed attempt to perpetuate the infamy of Jack Chick, full of cheesy music and choppy editing. But by the end of the film, the subject of Jack Chick becomes even more mysterious and perplexing.

The documentary features interviews with authors who have written about Chick, as well as a few friends of the artist, and various other religious figures who do their best to explain who the man behind those horrible gospel tracts is. Unlike Terry Zwigoff’s acclaimed documentary Crumb, which is mostly camera time with the subject, Chick is not seen in Kuersteiner’s film. In fact, Chick has never been interviewed on camera, and he intends to keep it that way until the Lord takes him home, or returns in the rapture. (Chick is a dispensational premillenialist; Jesus will return in the clouds to take him and all Christians up to Heaven prior to the forthcoming Apocalypse that destroys Earth in seven years).

While Crumb has given more than a handful of interviews over the span of his career, Chick remains intentionally unseen. Could it be because Chick isn’t even there to give an interview? Just another clue that my conspiracy theory has legs.

In a 2009 interview with Vanity Fair, Crumb said, “You don’t have to be a Fundamentalist Christian to be interested in the Bible. It’s really a fascinating mythology.” He wasn’t talking about the success of Chick tracts, but his own personal interest in the Bible and his reasons for illustrating the book of Genesis. However, it’s possible that quote could be used to explain why Chick has no need to do an interview.

Although Chick attempts to portray Biblical messages in very literal, easy-to-understand layouts, it’s possible that his art is more similar to Crumb’s than either man would ever admit. Crumb always knew that his crude art was a projection of his subconscious. He says in Crumb, “I don’t work in terms of conscious messages, I can’t do that. It has to be something that I’m revealing to myself while I’m doing it, which is hard to explain. While I’m doing it, I don’t know exactly what it’s about. You just have to have the courage to take that chance.”

In a sense, Chick’s comics require some psychological courage as well. The images, though literally interpreted, come across rather surreal, not unlike a Crumb comic. Grim reapers shoving businessmen into a pit of flames. An angel flying through space like Superman. It can be quite a trip. And yet, Chick’s art is actually an attempted representation of literal truth, not semiotic metaphors.

Interestingly, Genesis has more realism than perhaps any other Crumb comic, which is ironic considering the mythic content. And when that spiritual surrealism combines with realism (in black and white comic layout), the two artists appear amazingly similar in both their style and substance. Both are straightforward and simple, but both feature an anthropomorphic God of the universe as a key character in the plotline. What both artists achieve most successfully is a visual representation of things that ought not be understood in a concrete sense. Whether religion is perceived as a mental or spiritual manifestation, both Crumb and Chick are able to make invisible worlds apparent to the naked eye.

For Crumb, the artistic merits of his comics hinged on freedom of expression. Though mainstream comics rehashed old Superheroes and Looney Tunes characters, Crumb’s daring work shocked even the most desensitized cynics. The underground landscape was essential in enabling Crumb to exercise the freedom of unleashing any psychological monsters that were terrorizing his mind. His art was his catharsis and his savior, and inspired millions of readers to relate to his openness.

Chick is also concerned with freedom. Even though Canada banned his comics as hate literature, he’s a flag bearer for bigoted Christians across the U.S. And his freedom is found in accepting Christ, not gushing out his repressed psychological demons for the sake of the collective unconscious. His art is a means to an end/savior. Soul-winning is priority number one, even if that requires bullheaded ignorance and illogical opinions. Of course evolution is false and leads to eternity in Hell. Of course.

Could there be two underground comic artists who deal with the exact same neuroses? Or is it just one man who deals with his neuroses in two different manners (spiritually or psychologically)? Are Crumb and Chick the same man? I posit they are. But if not, Crumb still has a chance. If he read a Chick tract today, he could choose Christ and enjoy an eternity with Him in Heaven. And Chick still has a chance to see a therapist.

Minimalist Paradoxes

“Today the happening thing is just what is happening. We have reached the end of ‘isms’.”  So Stephen Bayley lamented in his article entitled “Does Minimalism Matter?” commenting on the current exhibition John Pawson’s Plain Space at the Design Museum in London.  He forecasted an obituary of sorts for minimalism, that unrivaled arch-snob of the art world; in fact, it was that minimalism has lost its throne that led Bayley to question its continued relevance.  And yet, is that a fair characterization?  Certainly, minimalism relaxes in the lounges of our highest social brows, but as I write this, I stare at the screen of a MacBook that is charging an iPod: two artifacts of a thoroughly populist impulse of unadornment.  Bayley continued,

“Was minimalism the last absurd, exhausted spasm of neophilia, the cult of the new that so defined modern taste? Or is it still, and will it remain, the ultimate refinement of aesthetic sensibility: the place we go when we have been everywhere else?”

It’s a fair question, for John Pawson is responsible for both an austere Cistercian monastery in the Czech Republic and a Calvin Klein store in New York City.

John Pawson, Plain Space.

Modernity is taxonomy; postmodernity is after that.  That minimalism can inhabit both the realms of high art and the lowbrow pulses of style in the fashion industry perhaps testifies to its status as the last “ism.”  Yet, it is peculiar that certain designers like Pawson so enthusiastically embrace the blurring of art and style.  Stephen Bayley fears that this fusion will be the end of minimalism, but I wonder if it is not something within art and style that has birthed their recent interchangeability, but rather something in our postmodern conception of things.  Until recent times– by which I mean, since the advent of mechanical means of reproduction such as film and photography– there always existed a sharp dichotomy between art and style based upon the opposite sources of the two: visual art represented the cosmos, while style represented an individual’s self-aware and introspective judgments and preferences.  Thus, within visual art, there was a hierarchy and an order that was acknowledged and saluted with conventional paintings, sculptures, and buildings.  There was a belief that there was objective meaning and form embedded into Creation that we, as the subjects thereof, passively received and represented in our art.  Though we have always been mobile, there was a steadfast constancy that we could never escape this meaningful world.

On the contrary when considering minimalism, Plain Space has been described by Rowan Moore of The Guardian as “a sort of ultra-tourism, a consummation of the secret affinity between static architecture and travel, where both are about place and escape.” This could be why Pawson is still the only architect to have designed both a monastery and an airport.  Perhaps it is minimalism that has the unique ability to bestow upon us both the titles of subject and object; we are its form and content.  Could it be the ultimate in anthropocentric art?  For whether we are contemplatively meandering through Plain Space or browsing the aisles of American Apparel in the spirit of  the Helvetica typeface, we are conferring our humanity in all directions.  This quality can only come about when the traditional hierarchy and cosmology of the universe has been lost, and the distinction between art and style ultimately collapses.  There is then no reason to represent the physical world because there is no longer anything to represent, all that is left to serve as the objects of art are the subjective judgments of individuals.

There is something final and conclusive about minimalism that embodies the tension of our present age.  Maybe it rests upon the notion that there really isn’t anything mysterious anymore about our surroundings after the endless dissection and analysis of modernity– that what is only and truly wondrous are the grand forms that we construct and impose onto our cosmos.  And after all, what genre of art is better equipped to passively receive all those forms of ours than minimalism?

So Much Depends on Photography

“India is in a constant state of photographic decay– I mean that in a good way,” Jimmy Chalk said to me, stepping over a shredded bicycle tire. He was approaching a wall that had once been painted with Tamil letters, but was now faded and cracking, the paint curling outwards like shards of bark. “You see what I mean?” he asked. “Every wall, every bit of sidewalk, is gradually decaying here, and this gives every wall or shed or storefront a wonderful visual texture, or mixing of colors and composition of these unnatural shapes.” I could see what he meant as he came nearer to the wall, which seemed like a relic from some older, forgotten age. Its bright colors had faded in places but remained in others. There were watermarks and what looked like bullet holes riddling the length of the wall, cutting through the text of the Tamil, which is a script of curved, crossed and house-like images. In the United States such walls would have been painted over years ago to keep the appearance of cleanliness, order, progress. We could only find walls such as these in tucked- away corners that the sanitizing hand of gentrification has passed over. But every surface of every object in Chennai seemed to be like this wall: faded paint, crumbling, pockmarked, rusted – a whole universe of texture and color.

Photo by Jimmy Chalk.

Jimmy had been given the task of guiding me through a crash course on photography for my new job. We went out into Chennai armed with cameras to experiment with different photography techniques. He showed me how to adjust the lenses, the aperture settings, the length of the exposure, the white balance – and what difference it meant to take pictures with the different settings. We wandered to an open playground where a number of children were playing cricket using stacked cinderblocks as their wicket. The red dirt of the field rose into the air from the clatter of their bare feet chasing the ball, creating a surreal orange glow in the air. This was perfect light, Jimmy said. He went over the speed settings, how to frame the shot to catch the batter in action, how to keep the moving ball from blurring in the shots. We waded into the game and tried to take pictures of the action. The Indian children were either flamboyant or shy around the camera and these two American strangers, either waving and laughing or perhaps hiding in the folds of their mother’s sari. Both made equally lovely pictures.

A new student of photography, such as myself, will find no shortage of source material to study on the subject. There are extensive manuals and sources of instruction on camera settings, quality of light, and generally taking good pictures.  There are also a number of more academic treatises on the subject of photography itself as a form of expression. Perhaps the best chronicler of photography in an analytical sense is Susan Sontag, whose 1977 collection of essays entitled On Photography first addressed the implications of a photograph. In a later work entitled Regarding the Pain of Others, Sontag notes that one of the principal things distinguishing photographs from other forms of art is that a photograph purports to represent truth, to be an accurate reflection of the actual realities of the world the moment it was taken. She quotes Virginia Woolf in saying, “photographs are not an argument; they are simply a crude statement of fact addressed to the eye.”

Photo by Jimmy Chalk.

Sontag then spends the rest of the book laboring to disprove Woolf’s glib remark, noting how easily the framing of a photograph, a caption, a convenient lack of context, can obscure or change the meaning of the image. She requires the whole book to make her argument because her position contradicts what reason and experience might suggest: here is a picture before me; this happened; this was real. Photographs present themselves to us as indisputable proof about what stood before the eye of the beholder at the moment the picture was taken. Photographic evidence still carries a good deal of weight in the courts. Even in the age of Photoshop tampering, a good deal of proof is required to demonstrate that the image isn’t true, because the base assumption is that it is credible until proven otherwise. Unlike literature or paintings, for example, the mind assumes the accuracy of the photographic image.

But the photograph is also an impossible object, a captured moment that once was but can never be again. In this way it is perpetually false, a present-time rendering of something that has long since vanished from the world. As literary theorist Roland Barthes puts it, “[w]hat the Photograph reproduces to infinity has occurred only once: the Photograph mechanically repeats what could never be repeated existentially.” Anyone who has seen a photograph has had this experience. Consider Capa’s infamous Death of a Loyalist Soldier, which allegedly captures a soldier in the Spanish Civil War at the moment he has been shot, flung backwards by the bullet, his rifle airborne just beyond his outstretched arm, his shadow behind him on the hill waiting to catch his falling body. This soldier was killed only once, yet his death replays ad infinitum in the consciousness of the world through this photograph. It has taken on its own life, completely separate from his.

Consequently, we take a great weight upon our shoulders when we pick up a camera. In On Photography, Sontag warns that “to photograph is to appropriate the thing being photographed. It means putting oneself into a certain relation to the world that feels like knowledge – and, therefore, like power.” Few of us consider such things as we are snapping photos of our night on the town and posting them on our Facebook profiles. How often do we stop to consider how we are representing the world, what part of the world we are allowing to take a life of its own, to live on forever, when we take a picture?

Photo by Jimmy Chalk.

This may have been the most important thing that Jimmy said as we turned from the cricket game and began walking toward his studio. There was a responsibility inherent in this work. First, to do justice to the people whom we would photograph. And second, to do justice to the world we chose to immortalize, to take great care in the things we chose to transform by photographing them. Consider the composition, the arrangement of objects. Consider the space, the balance of light and dark elements, the shapes. Consider the story. That woman is looking toward something. Shall we photograph her from behind that we too may see it, or shall her gaze in itself be the story? What are we saying about the world that people will believe is true? Should we say such a thing?

So we stepped back through the gates and over the garbage around which a group of stray dogs had gathered to pick the leftovers, and I thought of William Carlos Williams. So much depends upon a red wheel barrow glazed with rain water beside the white chickens. So much depends upon the simple composition of objects in a pleasing shape, the quality of light, shadow, color, texture, the framing of the action to create a story.

In the days following my class with Jimmy, I have found myself studying the world more closely, examining the lines that compose the world, the way objects catch light and then throw it back, and especially, what all of this means. It has reminded me of the remarkable nature of our presence as observers in this world, the remarkable nature of beauty of the world itself. And this is the gift that a photographer can give to the world, and that photography can give to those who would wade into its deeper waters.

Fast Food through the Lens of Still Life Photographers

The representation of food has always had a presence within the realm of the visual arts. Working together, both food and art serve to depict specific cultures and lifestyles, and the still life has proven to be a valuable tool to gain insight into the importance placed upon objects throughout history. Our relationship to food becomes increasingly complicated as globalization removes us from the source and natural product. Four contemporary artists approach the subject of a Burger King hamburger in different ways ranging from digital photography, to Polaroid film and a flatbed scanner. The distinct viewpoints allow the viewer to discern the varying relationships that consumers have with fast food. From nostalgic comfort food, to harsh realities concerning consumer culture, the framed shot documents the unpalatable eating habits of the modern customer.

fig. 1. Roal Roscam Abbing, Big King XXL, 2009.

fig. 2. Burger King, Big King XXL, from www.burgerking.de, accessed on 17 August 2010.

The contemporary Dutch artist Roel Roscam Abbing’s series Fast Food uses the aesthetic devices from traditional still life paintings to bring a historical focus to his photographs. In Big King XXL (Figure 1), a large and sloppy hamburger — still cradled in a waxy wrapper — is surrounded by its ingredients in their natural state. The composite whole is far removed from the individual parts and illustrates the trend of viewing food as a product of industry rather than of nature.[1] Routine advertisements for the Big King XXL hamburger (Figure 2) present the consumer with a visual unreality as a lure into the restaurant to eat synthetized food.

Jon Feinstein’s 2008 series titled Fast Food features an assortment of sandwiches and sides purchased from chain restaurants. Stripping each foodstuff from a contextualizing background, the food floats against a stark black void — each detail meticulously recorded via the flatbed scanner. For Feinstein, the use of the scanner in place of a camera is twofold; it allows him to render the image in a “rigid, specific and typological manner” and it mirrors the “removal of the hand in food preparation.”[2] Represented sans the gloss of the company branding, the food is presented un-apologetically to the viewer, pressed against an invisible boundary. Each image is paired with a number followed by ‘grams’ to highlight the amount of fat in each meal, as demonstrated in the photograph 16 grams (Figure 3), conceded by the artist to be a Burger King cheeseburger. According to Feinstein, “These photographs investigate the love/hate relationship that many Americans have with fast food, and like many other aspects of popular culture, its ability to be simultaneously seductive and repulsive.”[3]

fig. 3. Jon Feinstein, 16 Grams, 2008, digital c-print, 50.8 x 50.8 cm, edition of 10 + 2 APs.

Through this series, Feinstein highlights his interest in our “attraction to things that we know are ‘bad’ for us.”[4] In his book, Fast Food Nation, Eric Schlosser argues that at this point in history, we are conditioned from childhood, through branding and advertising, to seek out fast food. Entire marketing strategies were developed to establish life-long consumer loyalty from childhood. It is through these associations that as educated adults, aware of the health concerns associated with the consumption of fast food, we continue to eat it. Schlosser continues by reasoning that aroma and memory are linked and that a scent has the ability to “evoke a long-forgotten-memory”, with childhood foods leaving “an indelible mark”[5] causing adults to consume them without exactly knowing why. This could explain Feinstein’s observation in relation to the Fast Food series, “I noticed that even after making the images, free of branding, gloss etc, I still felt myself drawn to eat fast food occasionally. Similarly, as disgusting as many of the images are, when they are exhibited people often describe the photos as making them hungry.”[6]

fig. 4. Jeff Vespa, Burger Series, 2006, large format Polaroid, 50.8 x 60.96 cm.

It is within the context established through Schlosser, the nostalgic tones of the 1950’s visual aesthetic in the Burger Series (Figure 4) by Jeff Vespa, can be understood. Vespa visited the fast food joints around Los Angeles in order to recreate the out-dated stock images found on laminated menus in the diners across America. Hamburgers were only purchased from restaurants where the consumer was required to order at the counter, brought back to Vespa’s studio and styled to present all of the ingredients in the sandwich to the viewer. The images were shot with a Polaroid camera, one photograph of each burger, each an original artwork. The idea of originality is in direct contrast to the subject of Vespa’s work. The fast food restaurants from which the hamburgers were sourced standardized every aspect of production — from the diameter of the patty, to the exact amount of ketchup and mustard. This enabled the company to manufacture and assemble — not typical verbs associated with food production– the same product in every restaurant. By using the Polaroid camera, Vespa references the Pop art movement because “the image is instantly recognizable and when you see so many in repetition it reminds you of Warhol.”[7] For the viewer, the vintage medium presents the appetizing hamburger so that it is easy to visually consume and recalls faded childhood photographs, highlighting our latent juvenile desires.

fig. 5. Sally Davies, Days 1 & 180, Happy Meal Project, 2010.

In his book In Defense of Food; An Eater’s Manifesto, Michael Pollan offers a few simple rules to live by – one being, “don’t eat anything incapable of rotting.”[8] Although the guideline seems a bit obvious, the photo series The Happy Meal Project (Figure 5) by Sally Davies demonstrates that as a culture, we routinely consume an overly-processed hamburger that at six months, looks the same as the day it was purchased. Davies bought a children’s happy meal containing a junior hamburger and fries, set it upon a shelf in her apartment and snapped a photograph everyday to document the breakdown of the meal. According to Davies, “the first thing that struck me on day two of the experiment was that it no longer emitted any smell.”[9] Over time, the french fries and hamburger patty began to shrink and at six months “the food is plastic to the touch and has an acrylic sheen on it.”[10] This is an ongoing photography project that has yet to reach an outcome and one wonders that if these images, like Feinstein’s, will still produce feelings of hunger when exhibited.

In the words of Schlosser, “a nation’s diet can be more revealing than its art or literature.”[11] Investigating the art depicting a nation’s diet reveals inherent behaviours as well as the consumer’s convoluted psychological relationship to food. Taking a wide-angle viewpoint of the genre in conjunction with the writings and stance of contemporary food critics, a clear portrait of the modern consumer emerges – one that reaffirms that now, more than ever, we are what we eat.

[1] Pollan, Michael, The Omnivore’s Dilemma : A Natural History of Four Meals, New York City, Penguin Group, 2006. 197.

[2] Feinstein, Jon, email interview, 29 September 2010.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Schlosser, Eric, Fast Food Nation: the Dark Side of the All-American Meal, New York City, Houghton Mifflin, 2001. 123.

[6] Vespa, Jeff, email interview, 30 September 2010.

[7] Ibid.

[8] Pollan, Michael, In Defense of Food: an Eater’s Manifesto, New York City, Penguin Group, 2008. 149.

[9] Staff Writer, McMould-defying, Mx News, 12 October 2010.

[10] Ibid.

[11] Schlosser, Eric, Fast Food Nation: the Dark Side of the All-American Meal. 3.

Faith in the Useless: Art as a Space for Reconciliation

“After raping them we would also kill them . . . they would flee once we let them go. Then we would ‘bang!’ shoot them in the back to finish them up . . . perhaps when we were raping her, we looked at her as a woman . . . but when we killed her, we just thought of her as something like a pig.”

Japanese soldier testimony from Iris Chang’s “The Rape of Nanking


Ever since I first came to China in 2006, I’ve been afraid of Nanjing — not the city itself, but what happened there in December of 1937. So when I was invited last month to accompany artist Makoto Fujimura on his trip to lecture in Nanjing, I was terribly confused.

I neither wanted to confront the open wound of this event myself, nor did I think art had anything to do with its healing. I’ve always felt that government reparations are what were needed, not art. Art seemed useless.

However, through the comments of three friends, I’ve realized something much deeper than political relations is at stake in Nanjing. And in the end, not only did I go — but I now have a sense of faith in the useless.

The first comment came from my Chinese friend Xiao Bei.

“I don’t hate the Japanese for what they did in Nanjing,” he said. “I hate that they don’t admit the extent of it, that they write their children’s textbooks to downplay it. I just want to see that they’re human, too — that they can acknowledge the evil.”

For a long time, what’s been keeping me from reading about and going to Nanjing — one of the most historically important cities in China — is a simple fear of confronting evil. I knew vaguely of the six-week reign of horror when the Japanese army entered the city on December 13th of 1937, but that’s all. And I’ve always been intimidated by the story of Iris Chang, who after researching and publishing her seminal text, The Rape of Nanjing, for seven years committed suicide.

In a way it has always seemed to me that, following Chang’s example, to go further into the knowledge of such darkness is to venture out into evil itself. Thus I was never willing to go near it. But that’s exactly what Xiao Bei wanted the Japanese to do. I felt maybe that’s what I needed to do, too.

The second comment that pushed me closer to faith in the useless was from Mako on the first night of his trip to China.

“I’m excited about going to Nanjing,” he began, “because putting a problem in the open is an act of creation. When that doesn’t happen, the soul hardens. And there’s been so much silence about Nanjing.”

That night I felt for the first time that I had words to describe what was happening inside of me — a hardening of the soul. I knew confronting Nanjing would demand something of me; I would be implicated simply by being human. It would ask me to mourn and weep, to be soft and to be hurt. In fear of being overtaken by emotions that I couldn’t control, I was hardening a part of myself that’s essential to being human — empathy.

While Mako’s words gave me the first hint that art, creation itself, might have something fundamentally powerful to contribute towards reconciliation, I wouldn’t say I was convinced yet. Just curious. However, the next day I did buy Chang’s book and begin reading.

Days later when we arrived in Nanjing, I spoke with an organizer of the event, Jeremy. He explained “We didn’t invite Mako here as an advertisement or propaganda, but rather because [we] wanted to create a certain kind of space.”

In Nanjing, Jeremy and his associates live day to day with its ethos, the racism against the Japanese, the pain of the local people; it’s like white noise, always there, muting the rest of life. But he’s not interested in formal political apologies.

By the time I sat down in the auditorium of about 400 people, mostly Chinese students from the Nanjing Arts Institute, I was nervous with anticipation. Would Mako apologize on behalf of his ancestors? How would it tie into his art?

What happened was not what I expected, not at all.

Mako just talked about his art like he always does. The only thing specific to Nanjing was that when talking about his personal experience with 9/11 and the need for art to come to terms with true evil, he mentioned Nanjing as a parallel example of “pure darkness.”

“Yes,” I thought, “more on that. Tell them how sorry the Japanese are . . . ”

But he didn’t. He talked about how good art claims that both evil and beauty exist. It was all about art, and it felt useless.

As Mako ended his lecture and asked the audience for questions, I thought the whole thing had missed the point. But then the most curious thing happened: people began asking questions.

They didn’t mention the Rape of Nanjing either, but every comment danced around the shadow of it. One girl spoke up saying that she disagreed with Mako’s claim that true beauty requires implicit sacrifice. She said she would like it better the other way.

Another disagreed that vulnerability was required for communication, and said that the way to communicate was to make yourself strong enough to participate in dialogue, not weaker. Then the event ended.

It’s taken me weeks since then to think over what exactly happened that night. Something had been exchanged, I just wasn’t sure what. Mostly I kept reflecting on the words of Xiao Bei, Mako, and Jeremy — “I just want to see that they are human,” “what’s needed is an act of creation,” “we’re making a certain type of space.”

Slowly I’ve begun to realize that something more fundamental than an apology was being exchanged that night. We had gone farther, deeper, and to more places than a specific apology on Nanjing could go. We talked about evil, beauty, sacrifice, and true communication — all components of human-ness.

I think it’s possible that people like me, who are interested in Nanjing and the reconciliation of the Japanese and Chinese, could have called Mako’s lecture and the entire event useless. And in a sense that’s true. The event wasn’t utilitarian; like good art, it wasn’t employed for some function.

But the event really was a creation of space where things essential to being human were discussed, and it has since dawned on me that perhaps it’s in just this kind of space where seeds of reconciliation might actually be planted.

And this is where faith in the useless is required, because what’s at stake is the conviction that something happens in the space that art creates.

The effects of art are by no means measurable. But what about empathy? What about the capacity to communicate? Isn’t a lot at stake when we behold beauty? Isn’t it useful for becoming human?

What was wrong with the Rape of Nanjing was not simply one country’s aggression towards another, but that for six weeks evil and darkness reigned. Beauty was not allowed to exist, and thus humanity wasn’t either. But art confronts exactly that situation because by its existence it asserts that beauty does exists, and that creation of something new is possible.

The essence of good art is the same essence at work in Oskar Schindler’s factory, John Rabe’s safety zone, and Iris Chang’s truth-telling — an act of hope in a disintegrating world. The glory of these stories is that people do something, even when that something is small and seems useless in the face of overwhelming evil. But that takes faith — faith that something bigger is happening than the little you are contributing.

So art might seem useless. The body can survive without it. Politics and economies could go on, and relations between Japan and China will continue. But the soul won’t survive — and neither will our human-ness unless beauty exists. The six weeks of Nanjing are a continual reminder of that.

By putting faith in the useless, Mako’s event challenged the Japanese/Nanjing loss of humanity. It was one step in rehumanizing the exchange between two cultures, it was one person of Japanese descent asserting his humanity, and even if not measurably useful, it’s invaluable. It’s certainly beautiful.

The Art of Marina Abramovic and the Prophesy of Matthew Arnold

The upside-down values of the art world, popularly infamous, ridiculed, and resented, are by now the mark of the sphere itself, sufficient to establish the cynic’s principle that if you wish to succeed in the art world, do what you would never dream of doing in the real one. Take for instance Chris Burden’s 1971 performance piece Shoot, remembered in photographs with the artist’s dry captioning: “At 7:45 P.M. I was shot in the left arm by a friend. The bullet was a copper jacket .22 long rifle. My friend was standing about fifteen feet from me.” Burden was later awarded four grants by the National Endowment for the Arts; respected New Yorker critic Peter Schjeldahl calls him “pretty great.”

The Artist is Present.

More recent in what has been named “ordeal art” was the late spring retrospective of Marina Abramovic at the Museum of Modern Art; an exhibition titled “The Artist is Present,” and the backdrop to a history-making endurance performance by Abramovic of the same name. For this, the longest performance staged in a museum, the artist sat motionless and silent eight to ten hours a day for nearly three months at the center of MoMA’s atrium. A preceding interview with the New York Observer stated that “Ms. Abramovic . . . expects her new piece to be one of the most physically and mentally punishing pieces she has ever undertaken” [1] — a far more meaningful statement taken in the context of her oeuvre. In 1973, Abramovic gave her first performance, Rhythm 10, which involved stabbing her fingers twenty times. For Rhythm 2, the artist swallowed psychopharmaceuticals to induce seizures and stupor. In 2004, for The House with an Ocean View, she fasted on display for twelve days, housed within three massive squares bolted to the interior of the Sean Kelly Gallery.

Although the performances may look like irrational feats of masochism, Abramovic’s work is rooted in ancient religious and philosophic traditions. The artist’s spiritual counselor is Lama Doboom Tulku Rinpoche; clearly, Abramovic has absorbed the Buddhist doctrine which emphasizes mortification as a facilitator of the mental states leading out from suffering to enlightenment. Reviewers even describe the artist’s experience onstage as a “spiritual transformation” although Abramovic mentors her young students through ascetic practices which more resemble the earthly, psychological methodology of late Greek Stoicism — the conditioning of the emotions against life’s unkind vicissitudes. Extreme asceticism is often a compound, or a conflation, of physical and spiritual transcendence, a confusion of chemistry and divine inspiration. Abramovic’s performances are no different: “All the aggressive actions I do to myself,” the artist told the New Yorker, “I would never dream of doing in my own life — I am not this kind of person. In performance, I become, somehow, like not a mortal.” [2] The practice is akin to Shinto coal-walking and the Whirling Dervish’s whirl: suffering staged to find the gods, and to become like one.

Still, to define Abramovic’s performances as ascetic exercise would be a contradiction; a performance as such has purposes which can only be fulfilled by an audience. Biographer James Westcott explains that “Marina has always seen her art as a kind of public service” [3] and in a March interview with the New Yorker, the artist described her own work as “heroic, legendary, and transformative” — the chance to “elevate viewers’ spirits and give them courage. If I can go through the door of pain to embrace life on the other said, they can, too.” [4] But Abramovic intends more than simple inspiration. She speaks often of baring “the energy of the soul,” and the transfer of what could be called a “religious experience,” the artist acting as spiritual medium. “The idea (of The House with an Ocean View) the artist told an interviewer, “was pure experiment: what would happen if I purify myself by not talking and not eating for a certain period of time. Can I project that to create a sort of invisible energy?” [5]

Abramovic’s statements are mysterious, mystical, and if we don’t understand what the artist means by them it is only greater evidence that the work intends to be spiritual food: “The built-in trouble with all these existential experiences” writes Francis Schaeffer, “is that the content of such an experience is not open to communication. Only the unknowing would demand, ‘Please describe to me in normal categories what you have experienced.’” [6] If the meanings attached to Abramovic’s work are inscrutable it is because they occur foremost as experiences, experiences that summon power, energy, knowledge, whatever, for the laity and artist-as-priest. The rites, however, are nothing like true faith, as they exchange orthodoxy for experiment.

Here it is impossible to ignore the words of poet Matthew Arnold, who imagined that art would one day supplant religion. [7] History shows that the substitution becomes urgent when religion is rejected or fails: Nietzsche’s proclamation of the death of God foretold the spiritual hunger of Gauguin, Marc, Kandinsky, Mondrian, and many other early moderns. Kandinsky sought to reclaim “the soul and the spirit of the twentieth century” through a new art, and Gauguin painted What? Whence? Whither? in existential despair.

The recent work of Marina Abramovic could be said to represent the height of this idolatry; in an inevitable conclusion, art has not only supplanted religion, but absorbed it. [8] Art has gained so much of religion that it can no longer support its own nature, and as a result, the aesthetic has been lost — eloquence, symbol, and material relinquished for utility.

Abramovic’s oeuvre captures this evolution in the microcosm of its own timeline. Occasional symbolism has given way to the experiential purity of performances like The House with an Ocean View and The Artist is Present. But even at the beginning the performances preferred scientific clarity to artistic emotion, presenting Abramovic’s usually naked body like meat hung at the butcher’s. Over time, the material has only been further reduced: Designing The Artist is Present at MoMA Abramovic exchanged stage and props for the white space of the atrium and a Shaker-simple table and chairs, inviting audience members to sit opposite her in meditative silence; little is needed when artist and audience are there only to “exchange energy.” [9]

Even to the art world’s infrequent visitor it is obvious that the mainstream is polluted, desecrated by pornography, violence, and kitsch, what British philosopher Roger Scruton calls signs of “the degradation of art” and of an overwhelming “spiritual hunger and longing.” [10] It is easy to condemn the self-torture of Burden’s and Abramovic’s performances like Shoot and Rhythm 10, to view the cutting, shooting, and stabbing as evidence of this degradation and longing. It is more difficult to see that performances like the one Abramovic recently endured at MoMA imply the same. If Burden’s violence affirms the spiritual deficit, then Abramovic’s MoMA experiment is an attempt to fill this void. We have erected art where faith once stood, and the substitution has left art shattered. Perhaps this proves what history has been trying to tell us all along — that art cannot exist where faith does not; that truth, goodness, and beauty are strands intertwined.


[1] Yablonsky, Linda. “Taking it to the Limits.” ARTnews December 2009: p. 91 3 July 2010 http://www.skny.com/artists/marina-abramovi/press/

[2] Judith Thurman “Walking through Walls.” The New Yorker 8 March 2010: p. 26 3 July 2010 http://www.skny.com/artists/marina-abramovi/press/

[3] Neyfakh, Leon. “Queen of Pain.” New York Observer 1 March 2010. 3 July 2010 http://www.skny.com/artists/marina-abramovi/press/

[4]Thurman, Op. cit.

[5] Morgan Falconer, “The Art and Death of Marina Abramovic” Art World Magazine Oct/Nov 2008: p. 40 28 August 2010 http://www.skny.com/artists/marina-abramovi/press/

[6] Francis A. Schaeffer, The God Who is There (Downer’s Grove: InterVarsity Press, 1968), p. 28

[7] “The Study of Poetry” in Poetry and Criticism of Matthew Arnold, ed. A. Dwight Culler (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1961), p. 306.

[8] Gene Edward Veith, Jr. State of the Arts (Wheaton: Crossway Books, 1991), p. 138.

[9] Thurman, Op. cit., p. 26.

[10] Roger Scruton, Beauty (New York: Oxford University Press, 2009), p.188.

The Call of the Mud Angels

I was 18 years old and in Florence, Italy in 1969, playing drums in a touring band. I suppose I was too busy drinking and chasing Italian girls to realize the Arno had flooded Florence less than three years earlier, but hey, I was a Baptist preacher’s kid in a far away country on my own for the first time. Now I wish that I could have been a “Mud Angel” who helped rescue and restore some of the world’s most important pieces of art, as well as books from the flooded Biblioteca Nazionale.

Restorers moving Cimabue’s “Crociffiso,” a victim of the 1966 flood in Florence.

I don’t know who should be more ashamed, me or my art history professor, but I had never heard of the angeli del fango (“mud angels”) until I read Dark Water by Robert Clark.  Clark wrote of the angeli:

You could call them volunteers, except they hadn’t volunteered or been recruited: they’d simply appeared as though from thin air and set to work.

It was always cold and always damp where they worked, and often where they ate and slept. There was, of course, a surfeit of Chianti dispensed from immense demijohns just as there was limitless talk and laughter. People fell in love: with art; with one another; with themselves, because how often did you get to be a hero, much less an angel.

Because I tend to fall into the romance of an idea quicker than Clark Griswold, this mission, this project, this role drew me and made me wonder if they could still use an old guy as a mud angel forty-some years later — not that I knew anything about restoration of art or books. I once dabbled in what I thought was restoration until an old, tobacco-chewing mechanic set me straight.

In high school, I bought a 1940 Ford with a plan to “restore” it. But being under the influence of the Beach Boys and others who sang of the virtues of a cool ride, one that would assure you would never be without a date on a Saturday night, I began to “pimp my ride,” although we didn’t know that term back then. I wanted a car equipped like the Beach Boys’ “409,” memorialized in their song of the same name:

Nothing can catch her,

Nothing can touch my 409,

My four-speed, dual quad, posi-traction, 409

Giddy up, giddy up, 409

So the first order of business in my “restoration” of this old car was to move the shifter from the column to the floor, attached to a four-speed transmission. This was critical for any hot rod. On the first test drive following this transformation, I stopped by the garage of the tobacco-chewing mechanic for a part. He came out to the car rubbing his permanently grease-stained hands on a filthy red shop rag. I was expecting high praise for the quality of my work, but instead got a rant from the old guy that began, “You cocky, long-haired, sumbitch! You ain’t restoring this old girl (pause to spit); you’re restylin’ her.”

With that he wiped tobacco juice from the corner of his mouth with his shop rag, then turned and walked back to his garage mumbling expletives and shaking his head, as if trying forget what he had just seen. But he taught his lesson, and this student now knew what restoration was and wasn’t, at least when it came to cars.

Reading the July 12 issue of The New Yorker this summer, I came across an article called “The Mark of a Masterpiece” by David Grann, and from this article I learned more about restoration, creation, and conservation.

Grann tells of meeting Peter Paul Biro (whose father Geza was a “serious painter”) who studied at the Royal Academy of Fine Arts in Budapest. Geza, who died in 2008 at the age of eighty-nine, had his left arm — his painting arm and hand — crushed in an accident while a prisoner of the Russians. While trying to teach himself to paint with his right hand and needing to support his wife and two sons, Geza took a job as a restorer at the Museum of Fine Arts in Budapest — a job he hated. I found myself wondering if, when it comes to art — and maybe life — “creator” is a higher calling than “conserver.”

I looked again to the Grann article.

For all their seeming kinship, a restorer is the antithesis of a painter: he is a conserver, not a creator. Like a mimic, he assumes another person’s style, at the expense of his own identity. He must resist any urge to improve, to experiment, to show off; otherwise, he becomes a forger. Yet, unlike a great actor, he receives no glory for his feats of mimicry. If he has succeeded, he has burnished another artist’s reputation, and vanished without the world ever knowing who he is, or what he has accomplished.

Now my thoughts run broader than art, books, and cars, to people like me, created in the image of a Creator yet many times torn, fractured, broken, and in desperate need of restoration.

I can see for myself that when I try self-restoration, it becomes more like attempted re-styling: trying to make myself in the image of another. Many times my restoration attempts smack of mimicry or forgery, and I find myself wondering who I am after all. I long for authenticity, but many times see only a persona of some kind.

But what if there is an instance where the creator and the restorer are one and the same? I recalled a verse: There has never been the slightest doubt in my mind that the God who started this great work in you would keep at it and bring it to a flourishing finish on the very day Christ Jesus appears.

What if Cimabue had been able to restore his Crocifisso himself? Would he have even wanted to undertake it? Maybe something more akin to redemption would have been on his mind — and a new creation.

I have come to this conclusion: dispassionate or dishonest restoration of anything will never be beautiful. (A re-styled ’40 Ford? Now that’s a different matter, although Henry Ford might beg to differ.)

I’m now reading the restoration themes in the biblical books of Job and Lamentations differently. Perhaps the writers knew something of this restoration:

This I recall to my mind, therefore have I hope.

It is of the LORD’S mercies that we are not consumed, because his compassions fail not.

They are new every morning: great is thy faithfulness.

The LORD is my portion, saith my soul; therefore will I hope in him.

I would sing the repeated refrain of the eightieth Psalm, more fervently today: Restore us, O God; / make your face shine upon us, / that we may be saved.

Into the Process: A Journey with Chuck Close at the Corcoran

Sometimes an experience with a work of art resonates so deeply with our person that we feel as though we were a part of its composition. Like a story whose pages magically unfurl the novel of our own lives, we are hit by the breadth and depth of a journey that feels immediately familiar and cuts to the core. Such was my recent encounter with the work of famous portraitist Chuck Close.

Chuck Close, "Phil," 1980.

A few weeks ago, a friend invited me to spend a Sunday afternoon with her at the Corcoran Gallery of Art. With no sense of what might be on exhibit, yet eager to muse over art with a friend, I quickly consented. As we approached the building that lazy Sunday, I noticed a banner displaying a gridded-out image and the name Chuck Close. As I stared at this vibrant display, I realized that the artist had employed a process strikingly similar to the one I had just learned in a summer design course and somehow felt that he and I had met before. Minutes later, my friend and I ascended a set of heavily-treaded stone steps into an entire gallery of Close’s work, a chronological survey no less. Almost immediately, my jaw locked into the open position and remained that way for the next few hours. That afternoon read much like a romance novel, as piece by piece I fell in love with the story that unfolded before my eyes, discovering striking ties to my own woven deep within its pages.

The beauty of this particular survey is that through it I did not just experience the final products of Close’s art-making; instead I experienced the art-making itself. In addition to completed pieces, the Corcoran’s exhibit showcased intricate stencils through which Close and his associates pressed pigmented pulp pieces, a grey-scale key used for translating color values from photograph to canvas, and a series of woodcuts — each representing a step in the process towards a final work of art. I, like other visitors to the gallery, thus experienced not just fully-formed works, but the story of an artist’s development and the stories of each work’s maturation.

A look at Close’s earlier work reveals an unmistakable process that cuts across his output from various points in time. Close almost jokingly refers to his earlier painting as that of a “junior abstract expressionist.” Studying the paintings of de Kooning and the like, he began a slow journey towards understanding and then redefining a movement. In the ‘70s, Close began employing a gridding process, where he experimented with mezzotints, wovens, and airbrushes to create unique portraits. By the early 1990s, he had developed amazing textiles ranging from huge handmade paper pieces to rugs and tapestries. In the past twenty years, he has broadened his methods even further, masterfully graduating into a variety of printmaking mediums, such as woodcuts, intricate silk screens, and daguerreotypes.

Close’s appreciation for and understanding of abstract expressionism is immediately evident in his work, but it is as one who has mastered the techniques and transformed them into an entirely new genre. His work today is anything but junior. Square by square, inch by inch, Close translates bits of images from one source to the next, working steadily until their essence has been recreated as accurately as possible. His final products are somewhat like glorified pixilated images, where viewers can see the grid up close and experience how each part helps make up the whole. They are, however, richer and deeper than anything digital, executed by hand with careful planning and an incredible attention to detail.

Chuck Close, "Georgia," 1982.

The featured works maintain little room for mistakes and second-guesses, as Close’s processes are often irreversible — burnishing a piece of metal, layering pigment on top of already-dried pigment, and making paper by hand, just to name a few. Each image, however, becomes a way for Close to invite others into his process. Many of Close’s final works leave tracings of the grid evident, allowing viewers to imagine and step into the ways in which he created them. Simultaneously, much of Close’s artwork is collaborative in nature, starting often with a photograph or drawing of an artist who has inspired him in some way and then ballooning into group manifestos, involving many talented artists and apprentices who help him turn ideas into realities.

Glimpses of Close’s artistic development emerged further in a video that played in the lobby, which featured him in his summer studio painting from a wheelchair. Here, Close talks about his childhood: groomed by a family that appreciated and encouraged his artistic tendencies, failing miserably at traditional school assignments but able to garner reprieve by turning in creative extra credit projects, and hit hard by the death of his father at the age of ten, yet rebounding quickly to a love of painting. From early on, Close’s journey is a mix of immense tragedy and immense joy. While his father’s death could have easily crushed him, as could a major spinal injury in the 1980s that left him paralyzed, Close beautifully resurrected himself in both instances by channeling his energies into creative work.

Chuck Close, detail of "Self Portrait," 2000.

Even amidst immense difficulties, Close persisted and pursued his passion for art-making. This is where Close’s story speaks to my own. My personal experience with Close’s work is akin to that of a girl who wakes up on a plane next to a stranger who later becomes her sweetheart. The encounter was not planned, goodness knows it could not have been planned if I had wished it so. Yet, there is an unmistakable trace of a master craftsman delicately weaving a story into his loom without my knowledge.

Waiting for my own artistic vocation to unfold, I have been inspired and encouraged by the journey of Close. In his own small way, he has reminded me to wait patiently for frayed seams to come together, illustrating how seemingly fragmented pieces can converge to form a splendorous quilt of beauty.

Close became stronger as an artist by taking the time to master his craft, and executing precision and foresight in each step of translating an image for a new medium. Similarly I, as someone pursuing a love of design, craft, and creativity, must work diligently to realize the fullness of my calling as an artist. But simultaneously, like Close as well, I must realize that sometimes our grandest plans become grounded, but only because something much bigger is in store.

The New Where and How of Art

“Art can be weird.”
—Ron English in Hi-Fructose

Imagine a little trip back to college, freshman year, Philosophy 101: that earth-shattering, mind-blowing class. Ten weeks into the semester, readings in Metaphysics, Epistemology, and Ethics have already trashed old assumptions and made The Matrix look more plausible than it ever did before. Now the professor writes on the board:

AESTHETICS = THE STUDY OF ART AND BEAUTY

The class sighs in relief. Finally, something soothing. Images of naked goddesses float before the collective imagination while ghostly strains of Mozart echo in the mind’s ear.

But what’s this? Four minutes and thirty-three seconds of silence — that calls itself music? Music can’t be silent! And what’s that? A urinal in an art museum? A urinal isn’t art! And after tape-loops of train whistles, the creepy tones of Sprechstimme, Hugo Ball carried on stage in a tinfoil mitre, and a couple Dadaist poems, Plato’s cave sounds as home-sweet-home as Kansas. Aesthetics is not so simple after all. Apparently, it can be as difficult to define “Art” as to define “Reality.” And beauty might be in the eye of the beholder or beauty might be an irrelevant approach after all.

There are two overlapping movements currently underway — worldwide art phenomena of great energy and influence — that redefine Art yet again and smash barriers implicit in the oppositions “high” vs. “low,” the gallery vs. the street, art vs. protest, and the classic vs. the cutting-edge. They do their best to defy taxonomy, so even calling them “two movements” is questionable, as is the attempt to label them. But for this conversation’s sake, these contemporary visual phenomenon can be discussed under two modes: “Street Art” and “Pop Surrealism.” While they began in different venues, they do have some similar effects and are, perhaps, growing closer all the time.

Street Art in Manhattan's East Village.

Street Art, also called urban art or post-graffiti, is not so much about What is Art as Where is Art? It was originally art executed outdoors in a public space, usually in a metropolis. In the last seven years, it has caught fire across the globe, flaming through city streets, rail lines, subway tunnels, and high-rise buildings. It has burned its way through Amsterdam, Bristol, Cork, Lille, Lisbon, London, Los Angeles, Madrid, Melbourne, Milan, Montreal, New York, Paris, Rome, São Paulo, Sydney, and Tokyo, becoming fantastically prolific, popular, profitable, and even — in some cases — respectable.  To the uninitiated eye, most Street Art just looks like graffiti. It is often spray-painted, stenciled, or stuck on posters. Some contain a ubiquitous, ambiguous “tag”: the artist’s logo or visual pseudonym, such as an arrow for Above, a stick-figure with a big head for André, the face of a giant for Obey. However, the artists explain that the major difference between their work and graffiti is its public nature: “Unlike graffiti, where the work is intended to make sense to a peer group, street art is open to everyone to understand.” [1]

Understanding is very important to Street Art, because it exists to communicate a specific message. This is often political — protesting the Iraq war or the installation of surveillance cameras, for instance — or ideological — many works of Street Art combat commercialism. CutUp Collective made a practice of slicing up billboard images and rearranging the squares into new scenes that question the advertising industry. Many satirize politicians or celebrities: In one attributed to Dolk, the Pope wears a dress, striking Marilyn Monroe’s famous subway air-vent pose. One brave artist, Banksy, painted protest images all along the West Bank wall as soldiers fired at him.

And that’s another facet of Street Art that once defined it but is beginning to shift; originally, it was illegal. Spray-painting on the surfaces of public buildings is, after all, vandalism. One artist calls it “a beautiful crime.” [2] Many artists got arrested. For some, the thrill of working at night in a forbidden space under extremely dangerous conditions involving heights, electrical wires, scaffolding, moving vehicles, or live bullets was as essential as the act of making art. Over time, some artists realized that prison would put a quick stop to their careers, and began finding legal ways to display their work. Some now paint only with permission of building owners. Others make it removable, on posters, stickers, or other paper installations. And others have moved on to canvas and have begun hanging paintings in galleries. As a matter of fact, alternative galleries have sprung up just to showcase art from the streets — thereby taking it out of the open public space altogether.

Pop Surrealism, also called lowbrow, underground art, art brut, or urban contemporary, is not so much about What is Art, either; it’s more about How is Art? It is another outsider, with origins in cartooning and comic book illustration, but has its galleries, too. Like Street Art, a piece of Pop Surrealism might be a sculpture, an installation, even a toy or other artifact; but it is usually painting. Or, more accurately, within this larger movement there are fine art painters in the Pop Surrealist style.

"Bride: Obstinate" by P. Tepper.

I recently had the privilege of interviewing a young painter, P. Tepper, who loosely identifies himself with this movement. He described the methodology used by some of its most influential artists: Todd Schorr, Mark Ryden, Joe Sorren, and Greg Simkins. To this list might be added Robert Williams and many more.

Tepper explained that a Pop Surrealist painter will first choose one of the great European masters such as Monet, Rembrandt, or da Vinci. Next, he will pick his subject matter from pop culture, often something strange, bizarre, juvenile, kitschy, or carnivalesque. Then he will paint this contemporary subject using the techniques of his chosen master. This in itself is an odd juxtaposition: A baby doll or a toy painted with Baroque glazing, Impressionistic impasto, or a pointillist approach. But that’s not all. He will also skew, mar, maim, and distort the image into a creepy, nightmarish caricature. The technique is masterful and the content is bizarre. There are a lot of monsters, creeping creatures, disconnected body parts, corpses, ooze and slime, zombies, foxy ladies bordering on soft porn, worms coming out of eyeballs, children butchering or being butchered. It’s an ugly world beautifully painted.

Because of the excellent technique, many of these works hang in the world’s major art magazines and galleries, including MOMA, the Tate Modern, and even the Louvre. But then again, so does Street Art. There are other ways these two movements are moving closer. Both are interested in “smashing the façade of artistic standards.” [3] Both are fast-growing, multi-international trends with large followings and significant commercial success. But while Street Art is coming indoors, into galleries and private collections, Pop Surrealism sometimes goes outdoors. Ron English, with whose quote this article began, took a group of artists to Texas and asked cattle ranchers, “Hey, can we paint your cows?” They didn’t mean paint pictures of cows. They meant, paint pictures on cows. So they did. They painted some with zebra stripes, some with rainbow stripes, and some with maps of the world on their flanks.

I knew art could be weird. But I hadn’t known it could be quite this weird. Looking at Street Art or Pop Surrealism, I think: “Why, oh why, didn’t I take the blue pill?”


[1] Eleanor Mathieson and Xavier A. Tápies, Street Artists: The Complete Guide, p. 7.

[2] André, quoted in Street Artists p. 8.

[3] Hi-Fructose: New Contemporary Art, vol. 16.