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.

Nontraditional galleries flourishing

From the New York Times‘s Bushwick Journal: Art Galleries With Less of a Profit Motive Flourish in Brooklyn .

There are drawbacks to putting an art gallery in one’s living room, among them having to keep the floors spotless and hide dirty socks. But there are definite benefits, too: no overhead, for one, which comes in handy if the art market, in keeping with most other markets these days, happens to sputter to a halt.

In Bushwick, Brooklyn, galleries owned and run by artists have sprouted over the past few years in living rooms as well as in storefronts and factory spaces. Unlike gallery owners in Chelsea or SoHo, many of these artists-slash-gallerists have an extra layer of insulation against the spiraling recession. Most have full-time jobs and said their motive for showing art was just that: to show art.

“I Am Not A Machine”:
Addressing God in Less-Established Terms

Review: “I Am Not a Machine”, at NYCAMS
Friday, December 12, 2008 – Friday, January 16, 2009

New York, as far as it is understood, is still the reigning capital of the contemporary art world (to those in London, you’re not far off). Aside from its few hundred galleries, one expects to find some of the strongest art being made in Manhattan, Brooklyn, and the other three boroughs. The last significant exhibition held in the city by Christians in the Visual Arts (CIVA), a non-profit, was at the Museum of Biblical Art in 2005. I bought the catalog, but I couldn’t say I was satisfied with “The Next Generation: Contemporary Expressions of Faith.”

Photo: John Silvis

Now, the latest CIVA exhibition, called “I Am Not a Machine”, acts as a fitting follow-up for those curious about Christian belief and new art practices. On view until January 16, 2009 at the gallery of the New York Center for Arts and Media Studies (NYCAMS), this selection of New York-based artists is arguably more “Next Generation” and “Contemporary” than those represented by recent exhibitions of Christian artists. Curated by Christina Beckett, the current show features artists who skew towards their twenties and thirties, and the works suggest Christian expression has more integrity when addressing God in less-established terms.

Resisting the establishment is the tone set by the show’s title, “I Am Not a Machine” (in assertion, not unlike the “I-Am”, as pronounced by the organization which publishes this magazine). A subtitle adds, “This life is not the last painting.” These two declarations recall two possible tropes circulating in Evangelical conversation: dehumanization, and the afterlife. However, seeing the works makes one wonder, “Does the machine and that painting in question actually stand apart from our transcendent identity?”

All the works included in “I Am Not a Machine” reveal the dynamic pivots between material objecthood and immaterial experience. But the most captivating pieces demonstrate a no-holds-barred confrontation, considering the simplest of materials with the most complex of processes.

One work, by Jimmy Miracle, graces the exhibition’s announcement card. In Ascension, Miracle composes a mise-en-scene using what he could find from trash at the beach. The brilliant yellow color of the shirt he pegs up above the pale sea and ring of shells becomes easily seared into the viewer’s memory. For his C-print, A Symbol for Sight and Reality Artist, Jay Henderson scans a simple three-dimensional object and, on Photoshop, repeatedly and flatly describes the solid forms until it recedes into digital oblivion. Jonathan Cowan’s Untitled, a large picture built of (and installed with) clear office tape, embeds an overwhelming assortment of disparate, largely everyday figures surrounding the artist: his wife’s face, reproductive and birth diagrams, talking heads from TV, office memos – including himself hand in hand with a pop-ified Jesus. Its earthy quality is further accentuated by the additional self-portrait of the artist as a contorted, Siamese twin-like face accompanied by open-palmed hands.

Perhaps Christians are better off facing the stuff of this present machine, because it seems immaterial benefits, like the “I Am” so sought after, especially arises out of existing conditions.

New York, New Art

The first week of September typically marks the beginning of the new season for the contemporary art world. In New York City, for instance, most galleries significantly reduce their hours of operation during July and August, and some close entirely. September marks their vigorous re-opening, often displaying the boldest, brightest and highest selling artists in a gallery’s roster.

September openings are a frenzy of crowds hopping from show to show, hoping to see something new and interesting – or at least something worth talking about. With so many openings happening at the same time, there’s a fair chance you’ll see something within your interests, but an equally fair chance you’ll see a lot that’s . . . not.

This is a rundown of my admittedly biased opinions of the more notable shows I was able to see on the first (presumably biggest) opening night of the 2008-09 art season – Thursday, September 4th.

Johnston Foster at Rare Gallery – Despite being pinned as resembling one of the sculpted angry mobsters (not necessarily a complement), this show left me wanting more. Johnston’s aesthetic of recycling odd materials into recognizable forms is familiar and no longer novel enough to stand on its own as spectacle, so I found myself hoping the installation would be balanced conceptually – give me something to chew on, so to speak. It may have been there, but I didn’t find it and the work itself didn’t compel me to dig deeper.

On the upside, next door was a surprising and engaging photography show at Danziger Projects by artist Paul Fusco. These beautiful images played in the space between art and journalism and were obviously poignant, given the state of our presidential race. Here were images from the train carrying Robert Kennedy to Arlington National Cemetery from New York, showing crowds of devoted mourners and spectators lined up to see him pass.

Phoebe Washburn at Zach Feuer Gallery was our next stop. Although the show was hugely crowded, I found the spectacle outweighing the payoff for me again. Washburn, noted for her massive installations of repeated objects of detritus, seemed to be turning a new corner with her make-shift store and installations resembling ecosystems. I thought this had a lot of promise, but in the end, the work seemed to be problematic for me in two different ways. The store, which sold made-on-demand products (pencils, shirts, beverages and other “ort”) maybe worked too well in pointing to the futility of a product/consumer system – I didn’t want any of the “ort” sold, but I wasn’t drawn in with its aesthetics enough to balance what I read as the message. It reminded me of Jason Rhoades’ Pearoefoam, for some reason; but in that case I was sucked in by the balance of concept, absurdity, and beauty.

On the flip-side, Washburn’s installations resembling ecosystems or filtration systems looked fantastic, but weren’t actually functional; rather, they carried the idea of functional systems. Though that is certainly a legitimate pursuit, they would be so much better if they actually functioned as filtration or ecosystems, because it’s common knowledge that such systems can be easily produced. At present, the sculptures seemed to point toward a necessity for such creative and functional systems. At this point, I think I’d rather see the thing itself and marvel at its beauty and mystery than a sign pointing to it. I wanted it to go one step further.

Our second-to-last stop was at Max Protech for Mike Cloud’s new paintings. I’ve been a fan of Mike’s paintings for a few years now, and they stood out from the myriad of shows opening in Chelsea by pushing the conversation about the nature and significance of painting (and art) in new directions. I found many of them visually compelling and some of them visually revolting. All of them seemed to me to contribute to an interesting conversation surrounding aesthetics, art, the art market, and painting. It was refreshing to see vulnerability and questioning as the opening to a new art season rather than repeated proclamations (aren’t these paintings great!?!). Cloud’s clunky, hand-sewn and roughly painted “Quilt paintings” make the viewer stop short and re-assess pre-conceived notions. They are a new exploration of a visual language system Cloud has constructed – one I would be happy to speak as fluently.

On a final note, Andreas Serrano’s photographs at Yvon Lambert were, literally, crap.

With All the Things

The press release for Daniel Domig’s exciting new exhibition With all the Things We Build and Make (Thrust Projects, New York City, September 5 – October 12) states the following:

The complexity of the figures, part human, part animal, reference Christian iconography and relates to the existential facets of man in the concrete world. Domig’s interest lies in the possibilities of expanding the dialogue of presenting painting within new environments, where elements (figures, landscapes) relinquish their independence accepting their abstract nature within the canvas.

At first glance, it’s not at all clear what this might mean. How do elements relinquish and accept anything? Is this just one more bloated, incomprehensible bit of gallery-drivel? One might be tempted to think so. Yet, when one actually engages the pieces and considers Domig’s interest in the time-honored religious concept of “the Creator/Creature distinction,” it all becomes clear. Domig’s figures serve as analogues to himself, not in a clichéd, autobiographical way, but in the raw, existential dimension.

As Christian tradition has it, humans are created beings, and lose their bearings the minute they begin to conceive of themselves as the Creator (“ye shall be as gods,” the serpent whispered, according to the Genesis account). However, it’s clear that humans are creators of a sort, made in God’s image, carrying on His creative work in the world. There’s a challenge there, a reflexive calling, for humanity to create without losing sight of “createdness.” Humans are to see themselves as distinct from God, yet wholly dependent upon Him, working and doing His work. St. Paul said it this way: “…He is not far from each one of us. In Him we live, and move, and have our being…” (Acts 17:27b-28a)

This theme literally pulses in and out of Domig’s exhibition, as if the systolic and diastolic rhythms of the human life were nothing less than alternating considerations of autonomy/dependence dichotomy. Figures move into concrete materiality, and slip back out again, lost in abstract, shadowy brushstrokes and smudged patches of mixed color. Process emerges as a prominent theme in Domig’s work, but this is not the sterile, lifeless reflexivity of late modernism. There is a hopeful search here, a question, left hanging from the unfinished clause of the exhibition’s title (“with all the things we build and make…” what?).

A survey of Domig’s earlier work articulates a theme that continues to emerge in his work today: the miracle of animation in the work. It may be process, lines, paint, smudges, but it is also something being born and inhaling. Sometimes it feels like something dying, and exhaling. But it’s always a liminal state.

In the case of the ceramic sculpture that announces the exhibition, we see a detail human face descend (or ascend?) into primitive, pressed clay. It is at once refined, surreal, and primitive, a bit like Adam, freshly minted from the dust.

Dull grays, blacks, and browns dominate the works, but nearly every painting-somewhere-features an alarming, aggressive color, often in form of a small line, or detail. It’s not as if these colors vie with the darkness, however. Domig, remarkably, establishes them as co-existent, part and parcel of his eclectic work. This eclecticism leans toward a two-dimensionality, and so we might be tempted to consider Domig in the tradition of collage, but, in fact, his work subtly oscillates in depth. For instance, the striking figure in The Best Show (2007) gives us a square canvas, and a painted frame, and figure that seems at once behind the frame and in front of it, a cellophane-like membrane inhibiting all but his hands. The bright green lines piercing in from the edges to the center create a tension with the largely grey underworld that resides at the painting’s core. We might also note the subject’s eyes are obscured, a common element in Domig’s work. The painting does not revel in surface, as in much postmodern collage. Nor does it reach for the alluring, eroticized two-dimensional ornamentation found in the work of Domig’s Austrian predecessor Gustav Klimt. Rather, we see an existential dimension about to reveal itself. It is here, hovering on the edge of full existence, that the figure negotiates with being, autonomy, and its own process of becoming.

Sheer “becoming” as an “event,” is the sort of thing that excited Gilles Deleuze about Francis Bacon’s work, and we see something of that primal energy here. But Domig sees this concept in a wider frame, that of his own becoming within the Christian view of sanctification. Though it is misleading to see Domig’s pieces as intensely auto-biographical, some works grant us permission in that direction.

Within Tradition strikes such a reflective, self-conscious note, as the painting-within-the-painting theme manifests itself here as a man turned cabinet of curiosities. He’s at once a canvas himself, slipping into (or out of?) three dimensional materiality, the edges of his face spreading outward like newly cracked egg. He holds his paintings dear, carefully fixed under clasped hands, but we cannot avoid the suggestion, amid all that red, that we are witnessing an anatomy lesson, a flayed and open soul, and a shadow of a man holds center stage within him. Even that negative figure is upheld, however, by a mysterious third hand, white as milk, transparent as sky. We are clearly invited to see these paintings as illustrative of the figure’s interior world, and, by extension, Domig’s own creative struggle.

In a remarkably prescient observation, the art scholar Velton Wagner connects this arrangement of paintings with an altar screen in a Christian church.1 Indeed, the mode of expression, while intensely dark and personal in the painting and more ecumenical/historical in a church, does achieve a common goal: to unite the small stories, and fragments of stories, into a larger whole. That the paintings detail contradictory things is simply to tell the truth about the contradictions of human nature. To unite them is to create a man, and, perhaps, chart a large meta-story of redemption, as in this altarpiece from the chapel of Schloss Mittersill, Austria, a sacred space Domig has frequented throughout his life.

Indeed, one of the show’s most interesting dimensions is the exhibition design itself, envisioned and constructed by the artist himself. Again, it is process exposed, but animated. Rough, wooden figures watermarked and unsanded, are stitched together in a rustic fellowship: wooden frames/bodies, with painted heads atop each, framed by an “X”/cross pattern not unlike the saint depicted in the altarpiece above. To accommodate this unorthodox presentation, some paintings had to be placed sideways in the torsos of these figures. This creates a tension for those who wish to view the work cleanly, but Domig doesn’t permit such clinical niceties. Like the man in Within Tradition, they are contained and held in a body that may or may not be willing to release them.

The artist’s product does, in the end, stand apart from the artist. The moment a work is declared done, it is relinquished to public interpretation, never to be fully pulled back. Domig’s figures are, indeed, autonomous, as the exhibition’s flyer describes. But they slip in and out of materiality, as if to nod back to their creator, in deference. Domig confesses, here, that he continues to struggle with the autonomy/dependence question, and so his work is shot through with spiritual references and insinuations that never quite reach a full resolution. And that’s to our benefit, as the best work emerges from that tension.

The show runs until October 12.

From the website:

Jane Kim/ Thrust Projects is pleased to announce the second solo exhibition of Daniel Domig, entitled With all the Things We Build and Make, a new installation encompassing large and small paintings in a circular, free-standing wooden structure. By making the painting process a form of construction, Domig continues his research into the materiality of objects. The substance for the paintings as well as the installation is the interaction between space and figure in which boundaries both embrace and separate. The emphasis between form and content becomes less about one definitive meaning as the works serve as a fill-in and fenestration to the unoccupied space in the structure, allowing the viewer to peer into Domig’s artistic self and world views from the inside. The complexity of the figures, part human, part animal, reference Christian iconography and relates to the existential facets of man in the concrete world. Domig’s interest lies in the possibilities of expanding the dialogue of presenting painting within new environments, where elements (figures, landscapes) relinquish their independence accepting their abstract nature within the canvas.

Daniel Domig (b. 1983) is a graduate of the Academy of Fine Arts in Vienna. His 2006 debut solo exhibition Don’t ask for a name now, maybe you’ll find it later at Thrust Projects was reviewed in (Critic’s Pick, Oct 9, 2006). Recent exhibitions include his first one-person museum show, Daniel Domig: Neither Fear nor Courage Saves us, Museum Engen, Germany, accompanied by a catalogue (edited Städtisches Museum Engen + Galerie, 2008) and Daniel Domig: BEASTBODYBREATHING, Galerie Karol Winiarczyk, Vienna. He lives and works in Vienna.

1 From the essay “Transfigurations,” in the catalog Daniel Domig: Neither Fear Nor Courage Saves Us (Engen, Germany: Städtisches Museum Engen, 2008).