Monday, January 28, 2008

The Role of the Curator

It is an unusual time to be a curator. Not, perhaps, an unusual time if you are a jet-setting curator who whisks from international fair to international fair, but an intriguing time if you curate an institution with a moderate budget in a smaller market city that may have an audience that is largely unfamiliar with either the trends or tendencies in contemporary visual art.

I was recently reviewing notes I had made on a trip to Washington, DC, last spring. Apart from the sheer plethora of museums and galleries (which actually caused me to abandon my normal ‘one museum a day’ rule if necessary), I made the following observation:

In an era after that of the great “tastemakers”, it is clearly the market that drives larger institutions. The curatorial challenge is for intelligent explorations of what one might idealistically call non-commodity or yet-to-be commodified culture.

What I meant at that time is that smaller institutions skirt the periphery for a range of reasons, most often both geographically and financially. And while the great residual effect of the new idealism is that there is a genuine and legitimate interest in the interrogation of contemporary culture, I am not certain this is the case. What seems evident is that curators have become speculators, so some extent, keen to have the opportunity to “break” a new artist, much like a DJ did at a time when radio still had the power to make artists. Younger curators and those at smaller institutions make these assertions, usually with little or no risk. The expectation is that they are predominantly working on the margins, and should they happen to ferret out a new talent prior to him or her achieving cult status, all the better.

Smaller institutions also have both the benefit and the bane of being able to be responsive to current trends, while at the same time lacking the ability to necessarily entice more established artists to exhibit in their spaces. Regional markets are often populated with collectors who are already better resourced, better traveled, and often equally as educated about contemporary practices.

Where does this leave the contemporary curator today? Perhaps in the realm of ideas-focused exhibitions, group shows, and intellectual innovation that often creates something unexpected. While the supercurator need merely pick up the phone, the everyday curator experiences something else entirely.

The biggest challenge for the future will be how curators reign in the roles of the market and of the collector in directing the discourses of contemporary art. What seems clear is that while the market may drive the product, the concept should drive the project.

Wednesday, January 23, 2008

Art Magazines, Well Off the Margins

In an era of blogging and online content, it seems almost anachronistic to talk about the state of contemporary art publishing in the present day. But several magazines, many regionally focused, are breathing life into a communications form that seems determined to provide both value and energy to the contemporary art world.

Three of my favorite art magazines at the moment are Art Papers, edited by Sylvie Fortin; Pitch: Kentucky Arts and Culture, edited by Scott Rogers; and ArtUS, edited and published by Paul Foss.

Of the three, ArtUS has the longest history, although many readers may know it in its previous incarnation, Art and Text. Formerly based in Sydney, this publication has always been committed to an interrogation of the intersections of contemporary theory filtered through the lenses of both high and low art. Its editor has also translated key texts on theorists such as the late Jean Baudrillard. Now based in Los Angeles, ArtUS brings the same insouciance to the art world that Art and Text illustrated for so many years.

Art Papers, under the editorship of Sylvie Fortin, has changed both its physical layout and its editorial focus. Its reviews are broadly based and wide-ranging, focusing on exhibitions from the deep south to the wide north. Fortin is committed to articles and scholarly essays by writers from across the range of fields, from theorists to practitioners. Its current issue explore recent manifestations of the Istanbul Biennial and the 6th Bienal do Mercosul. What is evident is that Fortin perceives the contemporary art world as “flat” geographically and interdependent politically and culturally. As a result, her emphases tend towards exploring events and geographies that are merely thoughts for many of her readers. This leads to the belief that Atlanta, as a major metropolitan city, with a diverse arts community and strong collectors and educators, can also slip from margin to center in the discourses of contemporary art.

One of the more intriguing, though likely less well-known magazines at the moment is Pitch: Kentucky Arts and Culture. Both pigeonholed by its surtitle and, in a sense, exalted by it, this magazine, under the editorship of Scott Rogers, highlights the interrelatedness in the contemporary arts. Not merely a document of the visual arts, Jones and his writers range across the field of contemporary visual practices, from dance to design, from literature to performance. The layout of the magazine is luscious, as is the paper. As a result, Pitch is as much an art object itself as it is a chronicle of the practices it explores. The Winter 2008 issue examines the works of the Wau Wau Sisters, the works of Flavia da Rin, and the theatrical explorations of Marc Masterson and the Actors Theatre of Louisville.

In an era in which culture is consumed in bitstreams, publications such as Art Papers, ArtUS and Pitch provide an alternative voice – no less valuable – than many of the ‘household’ publications of contemporary visual culture that many of us list as the harbingers of our day.

Tuesday, January 22, 2008

The Morton Collection: An Interview

Brett Levine: John, talk to me a little bit about how you began collecting work.

John Morton: I started about fifteen years ago, with prints mainly, I started out with what I call the “Old Masters”, but who are really Hockney, Serra and the like. But I am really more drawn to photography, so about six years ago I committed to totally collecting photography.

BL: Did you have a fine arts background before you began collecting?

JM: No, nothing at all. I think the interest in photography comes from my early love of the movies, television and magazines. I think perhaps it was a visual love of these types of images that led me to photography.

BL: Was there a point in time when you made a conscious decision to collect?

JM: Do you mean my very first piece…

BL: The very first piece, if you can remember it…

JM: Yes, it was 1982, at the Knoxville World’s Fair…

BL: (laughing)

JM: …I ran into Peter Max, and he had a print.

BL: No way…

JM: I bought it, and he signed it, and that was the first piece.

BL: Do you still have it?

JM: I do, but I don’t show it.

BL: Why not?

JM: Well, I feel like I may have outgrown it…

BL and JM: (laughter)

BL: You know, Peter Max did the illustration for the Statue of Liberty restoration benefit, he worked on Yellow Submarine, and at the same point in time he seems to have suffered from this very much in the “serious” art world.

JM: I was familiar with his work. I had worked on a number of presidential campaigns, and Peter Max had done posters for both the Kennedy and McGovern campaigns, and I was very aware of his friendship with Warhol, and Rauschenberg.
BL: So once you had made the purchase, how did you proceed?

JM: I started to collect a range of works from local galleries. I remember a Christenberry print that was available, and lord knows why I didn’t buy it!

BL: Did you focus locally for a particular reason?

JM: At that point in time I wasn’t really traveling to collect works, so I was interested in works that were locally available. I also became interested in folk art, and I began acquiring works by Jimmie Lee Sudduth, and Mose T, and related works. I also had the opportunity to travel to their homes, which was something I could do reasonably easily. I am actually very proud of those works, particularly the older pieces.

BL: Did you make distinctions between folk art and fine art as your collection grew?

JM: I started to make more of those distinctions as I started to collect works. Particularly with the Hockney and Rauschenberg works initially, I started learning more about the artists and their editions.

BL: Were there particular resources you were relying on?

JM: I started buying more art books, and really it was just reading and reading and reading. Of course there was also the (Birmingham) Museum (of Art). It was a very valuable resource, but more from the perspective of looking at specific works and then doing additional readings. At that time, there wasn’t a specific person I was speaking to about the works that interested me.

BL: Were there other members of the local arts community that you were speaking with about collecting and your collections?

JM: To tell you the truth, I have been a member of the Collectors’ Circle at the Museum for about seven years, but prior to that there weren’t really any people I was discussing this with. I think one of the major people I was talking with at the time was Maralyn Wilson.

BL: John, one of the things that strikes me about your collection is that it is incredibly personal. It seems very educated, but it focuses on subject matters that interest you. You seem very unapologetic about this, and also very unabashed. You seem very unafraid to take risks…

JM: I think that art has to make a statement. With my photography, for example, the concept can at times be more important than the image itself. I’m very interested in what it is that the artist is trying to portray. Many people will comment on some of my collection being “ugly”, or they will remark that they couldn’t live with the image. When I look at these works I think about the reasons I bought them. That may sound strange, but an image that may seem ugly at face value may actually be beautiful when you understand what the artist is trying to say.

BL: It is fascinating that you say that, because many of your recent acquisitions deal with subtle comments on the human body. When you consider the Jen DeNike, or the Alison Brady, or the Walead Beshty, or the Malerie Marder, they all deal with representing the body in a challenging way. Is this a conscious area of focus for you at the moment?

JM: No, it’s probably not a conscious decision. It may be the individual concept behind each work, rather than the idea of the body as an overarching collecting theme. But it does seem to end up that way, doesn’t it?

BL: It does. (laughter)

JM: Maybe it’s unconscious, I don’t know.

BL: Do you actively think about the other works in your collection when you make an acquisition? Do you think about how it will relate to the other pieces?

JM: Only when I bring it in, and when I try to determine where it will go on the wall.

BL: Do you rotate your collection regularly?

JM: I try to. I try to ensure that one work doesn’t detract from another, although given my space it is getting more difficult to do that. I try to ensure that the images don’t clash because I want them to have the opportunity to convey their internal concepts that we were discussing a moment ago.

BL: Let’s talk a little more about the shift to photography. What prompted that?

JM: Well, as a I mentioned earlier, I love the history of photography, film, the moving image. As a result, I respond immediately to both the concept and the content of a photograph. I feel like it both engages my interest and provides an immediate engagement.

BL: I see…

JM: And of course people often regard photography as the art of the masses. I believe that it has the potential to engage a large audience, but to be something that is both immediate and complex.

BL: Yes, that’s true, and many people regard it as an artform that was long considered to be held in lower esteem than the fine arts.

JM: Yes, that’s true. But to me, all younger people are brought up on this style of imagery, whether it is photography, film, or video. Often, they don’t even look at paintings anymore. If they’re going to look at a painting, they look at it as a digital file online, or they look at a picture in a book. As a result, I believe that this type of imagery, whether in a book, on a video, or on your cellphone, is very indicative of where culture may be going. I could be wrong, but it seems even more pervasive today than we would have expected, and each new development seems to build, in some way, on photography.

BL: You’re probably right.

JM: I find with my own personal collection that people respond more to the photography in the collection than they do to the prints. So it may also be a way to get other people interested in the fine arts, and then they can proceed to consider something else. It’s a great entry point.

BL: But you came to photography in an entirely different way…

JM: That’s right.


BL: You made some of your earliest purchases at a point in time, the early 1980s, when we were considering what role painting might play in contemporary image making. Maybe the idea that you could switch to collecting photography, and find an immediate dialogue about the imagery, was something that was interesting to you?

JM: True.

BL: How many works are in your collection?

JM: There are probably 80 here, and then there are probably another forty in storage.

BL: Do you sell works from your collection?

JM: No, at least not yet. Even though there are works that I haven’t had up in a long time, I still feel a connection with them. Each work has a specific history, and a series of memories, so no, I could never sell them. Maybe I could in the future, I don’t know, but not right now.

BL: And yet many of the works you’ve purchased have also turned out to be really astute purchases. You seem very willing to take risks on artists who are at very early stages of their careers.

JM: Well, I have this discussion with other local collectors, and I understand, as we all do, that in a contemporary art economy these works certainly have value, but I have always tried to take an educated, but extremely personal, approach to my collection.
BL: What do you see as the biggest challenge as a collector?

JM: For me personally? Price. After coming back from Art Basel Miami Beach, even some of the younger artists, very early in their careers, are six thousand dollars for a very, very small work. It’s getting wild, and it is getting more difficult to acquire works.

BL: One of the things I like about your collection is that you take risks on works by people who may have built reputations in other creative disciplines. You have a work by Viggo Mortensen, for example, and he has a press, and is an actor, and also a photographer. You seem to be very willing to make these acquisitions, and to take risks on works by younger or emerging artists. Is this a conscious approach?

JM: Yes, I love seeing new works when artists are at earlier stages of their careers. They are willing to be more conceptual, they seem to take more risks, and I really respond to those works. They speak to me. For example, Carlin Wing is a young photographer who got the idea to shoot images of artworks held in corporate collections. Mine is an image of an iconic work by Nan Goldin, which itself is a priceless piece, in a room with boxes stacked in front of it. So here is a younger artist who is trying to build a body of works that are clearly situated by a well-conceived concept.

BL: Are there particular artists that you responded to early in their careers who ended up experiencing a success that you might not have anticipated when you purchased their works? And are there artists that you purchased prior to their experiencing widespread critical acclaim?

JM: Ryan McGinley is one, and Aaron Young is another. In the last two years Aaron Young’s works have really exploded, but that work is really early, and he hasn’t done much photography since then. He has primarily focused on video and sculpture since then. And Walead Beshty is another. In terms of prints, I purchased a Damian Hirst print, as well as Gary Hume, Rachel Whiteread, and Tracey Emin. Back in the 90s these artists were hot, but just starting to pop, and I liked their works, but I doubt now I could even afford them. I would like to think I had an eye, but I don’t know…

BL: You actually ended up with a collection of works by people we now regard as major artists, and on a certain level it is arguably the most comprehensive contemporary collection in Birmingham.

JM: Well, I was shocked that more people didn’t own these prints. It wasn’t like I had a special knack for collecting, and these works were all available.

BL: Were there works you hesitated to purchase that you now regret not acquiring?

JM: There are tons, like Loretta Lux, which I could have purchased right when her works first showed at Yossi Milo in New York. I just kept waiting, I don’t know why. And I really loved her works. Also, Alex Soth, and I really should have purchased his works when I had a chance. But I am not going to buy anything just because I think it will go up in value. I do look at cost, because I have a limited amount of money to spend, but I don’t really think about it as an investment, as I mentioned earlier.

BL: Do you like acquiring ongoing series of works by the same artists, or do you prefer getting representative work by an artist and then moving on to the next? How do you approach this issue?

JM: As I have become more of a collector, this has become an issue. I would love to collect artists in greater depth, but there are also so many artists whose works I would like to acquire. I have two works by Jen DeNike, but so far I haven’t really acquired any single artist in depth.

BL: Do you travel specifically to look at works, or how do you go about structuring the acquisition process?

JM: Many dealers send me JPEGs of works they think I might be interested in acquiring. Since I do have a collection now, I have been able to build a relationship with a number of galleries, and it helps to the extent that they take me more seriously as a collector. They also have a better understanding of the types of works I collect. They send me images and catalogues, but in many ways this is also easier because I collect photography. It’s very similar to the way you would experience a photograph in a magazine, so it is not that unsettling. Of course you have to deal with issues of scale, or the print quality, but it is certainly helpful. I think it is easier than doing this with sculpture or painting. For example, last year I bought eight pieces, and I couldn’t travel to New York eight times. I just don’t have time to do that.

BL: Does the relationship help?

JM: Well, I’m not that special of course, because they may send this information out to two thousand other people, but it is helpful.

BL: Do you deal directly with artists at times?

JM: Yes, I do, particularly younger artists. But some more established artists work this way too, like Viggo Mortensen, who I dealt with directly and, at the time, Aaron Young.

BL: Is it difficult as a collector when you consider the perceptions other collectors may have about your works?

JM: Yes, it can be. Sometimes people don’t necessarily like what I collect, and at times I get some very thought-provoking comments about my collection. I think people try to guide you as a collector. At times, I do think very carefully about what I acquire, and I do also think about the ways my collection might relate to the community.

BL: And…

JM: Well, I’ve been told I have one or two really great works, and the rest are a bit iffy…

BL: You seem to have two distinct series – one that is made up of classic contemporary prints, and another that is more experimentally based.

JM: I think you’re right, and the more experimental, more conceptual work is what interests me now. That, I think, is really the key. Buy works that you like, and have the belief and courage to take risks as a collector. In the end, it is the opportunity to live with the works, and to experience them, that really gives them value.

Friday, January 18, 2008

Amy Pleasant, Artist

Amy Pleasant's recent exhibition at Tandem Gallery marked a new direction for her works. What follows is an essay I wrote that accompanied her 2002 solo show at the UAB Visual Arts Gallery.

Melancholy Baby

A friend reminded me recently of a scene in The Big Chill where one of the characters closes herself in the shower and cries. He said, “It was the only place she could go to break down.” I never paid too much attention to the film, in part because it depicted a generation that preceded mine. Still, I remember the moment and understand precisely what he meant.

I begin here because looking at Amy Pleasant’s paintings in Time Lapse is something like watching The Big Chill without sound. Some of her subjects are in she shower - and not just figuratively, either. There they stand, going about their daily lives, sharing intimate moments with even the most casual viewer.

I have always been intrigued by her works. In part, my fascination stems from the fact that the scenes they present are both universal and individual, both totally significant and entirely mundane. When I first began to consider them, I was surprised by a conflict - the language that suggests itself as descriptors stands precisely in opposition to the ways one wants to feel.

Perhaps it is the events depicted. Bathing. Lying in bed. an apparently endless stream of insignificant events, so I thought. But what began to emerge was the enormity, as opposed to the banality, of precisely these actions. There is a passage in Rainer Maria Rilke’s Notebooks of Malte Laurids Brigge in which Nikolai Kuzmich becomes aware of both the enormity of time and how quickly it passes, in precisely the same moment:

And as he was sitting there with wide open eyes in his dark room, he began to understand that what he felt now was time as it passed by. He literally recognized them, all these tiny seconds, one as tepid as the other, but fast, but fast. Heaven knows where they were rushing.

Moments later, Kuzmich lies down forever. He doesn’t die, in the literal sense of the word, but the enormity of his discovery overwhelms him. In many ways, this is precisely what happens when one is confronted by Pleasant’s paintings (an unintended pun, as Kuzmich felt anything but pleasant.)

The complexity of her works is multilayered. Initially, there is the apparently flat surface and the repetitive image. This presents an almost filmic sensation, in which it is difficult to focus on any one event. This is coupled by the gradual realization that Pleasant has underpainted and overpainted, that other inhabitants of her painterly field are partially hidden, veiled or obscured. This creates a unique dilemma. One can attempt to construct a narrative from the visible images - a hopelessly fruitless task, since the images are related but nonlinear - or one can attempt to excavate the levels, to examine the buried images, and to construct a more complex map of interrelationships.

Her history is at least as indebted to Alfred Hitchcock and Jean-Paul Sartre as it is to Edward Hopper. In each instance, the artists in question revealed aspects of the individual that were preferably hidden. In Rear Window, for example, Hitchcock presented voyeurism as a perversion and a virtue. Jean-Paul Sartre, in Being and Nothingness, spoke of being caught peeping into a keyhole. And Edward Hopper, painter of the urban dystopia, presented works in which the outside and inside of both places and people, were seen in precisely the same moment. Pleasant appropriates the psychology of voyeurism and interiority, and makes it her own.

The lushness of her surfaces is almost irreconcilable with the silence of her subjects. I have, at times, discussed her works with her in the following terms: banal; mundane; everyday; quotidian. And she has suggested other, similar terms, particularly melancholy. I see the works as interrelated but individual. Each presents a series of everyday events which stand as signifiers for the complexity and intimacy of personal spaces and actions. In their entirety, as installed, each presents a series of vignettes which totally entrance the viewer. The experiences are so universal that everyone becomes the person in the shower, the person in the bathtub, the person peering into the closet, the person lying in bed.

Yet I am also tempted to say that the paintings have an unnerving ennui. Much like the novels of William Faulkner, it is as if Pleasant’s subjects are resigned to their fates, content, if not wholly comfortable in the knowledge that life probably won’t get much better. This doesn’t imply that it will necessarily get worse. What it does is reflect the Western tendency to equate pictorialized happiness with psychological success. Much in the manner that one is told to “smile for the camera”, the expectation is that the depiction of a joyous state will necessarily equate with one.

Pleasant is one of the few painters that has the courage to depict the banality of the everyday. Recognizing that existence is marked by a constant swing of optimism and pessimism, of success and failure, or, to use more philosophical terms, by desire and lack, Pleasant populates her canvases with subjects who represent the other moments. What is most compelling is the fact that her paintings are seductive in their sense of shared expectation. Someone is waiting for something; someone is looking for something; someone is remembering something, or savoring something.

There is still, however, the question of unintended voyeurism. Pleasant’s apartment and home dwellers never gaze out at the canvas. They never, as it were, return the gaze. One of the givens of psychoanalytic theory is that there is always an oscillating relationship between the viewer and the viewed. In Pleasant’s paintings, there is both an identification with the subject, and a visual appropriation of him or her. At the same time, there may be a transference as well. It is very likely that viewers will substitute themselves for the people Pleasant depicts. Here, it is the subjectivity of the viewer, and not the intentionality of the artist, that directs the experience of the image. In any event, the ability to process such a diverse set of responses, both as viewers and subjects, makes Pleasant’s intentions complex indeed.

A further consideration for the works in Time Lapse is their richness and diversity. When viewed in a totality, the works have an opportunity to interrelate, and apart from the complexity of each work, there is a shared complexity as well. For while a single image might stand as a view into a window, when viewed together it is like navigating a city.

Then, there is the question of color. For while color usually stands as a representation of emotions - red for hot, blue for cool - looking at Pleasant’s palette is somewhat like watching 1950s film noir. Here, the majority of works tend toward black, and white, and gray. However, just like one wants to see the color of Peter Lorre’s handkerchief in The Maltese Falcon, Pleasant sometimes adds a touch of color. A delicate yellow-green emerges from a layer here. A figure, depicted in red, crosses a doorway there. The color stands almost as much as a lure, a seduction, as the images themselves.

Finally, there are the questions of gender, of identity, of sexuality, of space. Here, one might consider the eroticism of space. The same friend who reminded me of the scene in The Big Chill said one day that he was surprised by the apparent lack of erotics. I am unsure that this is entirely the case. There is a strong argument for the suggestion that the erotics of the works stem precisely from their depiction of intimate spaces. It is a short step, then, from the intimacy of the bedroom or bath to the implied eroticism of the image. Yet this too is almost unreconcileable, almost too complex to comprehend. How do works which, at face value, seem to depict simplicity, become ones in which intimacy, eroticism, and resignation, among other emotions and feelings, practically step out of the canvas? It is a question which is impossible to answer. It must depend upon something other than subjectivity, personal experience, or the idea of something universal and shared.

I am reminded of a photograph of Sigmund Freud’s office In Vienna. It contains a mirror, facing his desk, which is affixed to the window frame. In looking at the mirror, Freud sees three things in precisely the same moment - himself, his space, and the space outside. In many ways, this is precisely what we see when we look at a work by Amy Pleasant. Yet when we see ourselves, it is because we have substituted for the subject of the painting. We have become both inside and outside the work, and at the same time we are inside the room. The picture frame before us both contains us, and contains our vision. We may or may not be within someone else’s gaze. This idea may seem nonsensical, but it reflects the ideas and constructions of thinkers from Descartes to Sartre, from Freud to Lacan, from Rosalind Krauss to Richard Wollheim. It is a doubling. As Lacan said in his seminar, “I is an other.” This fundamental statement becomes clear in Pleasant’s seemingly banal, everyday, quotidian figures. Precisely in their universality they are individual, and precisely in our individuality, they are universal. And throughout it all, time passes. And lapses. In precisely the same moment.

Amy Pleasant is represented by Jeff Bailey Gallery, New York, and Tandem Gallery, Birmingham

Thursday, January 17, 2008

Karim Rashid, Pauline Ireland Visiting Artist at UAB

The UAB Department of Art and Art History will be hosting a visit by world-renowned industrial designer Karim Rashid on February 7th and 8th. His visit is part of the ongoing Pauline Ireland Visiting Artists Series, which has, to date, hosted Peter Halley, John Waters, and Laurie Anderson.

His visit will coincide with an exhibition of his designs, as well as sixteen large-scale digital paintings, at the UAB Visual Arts Gallery.

Karim Rashid will present a lecture, which is free and open to the public, on Thursday, February 7th, at 5:30 PM, with a benefit dinner to follow. The following evening, Friday, February 8th, he will be the guest at an exhibition opening from 5 – 8 PM.

What is so unique about his visit is that it reflects the ongoing convergence of contemporary art and design, with the corollary blurring of the distinctions between the two. Formerly a topic of heated debate, it seems now, more often than not, that contemporary design is both as respected, and as desirable, as contemporary art.

For evidence of this ongoing phenomenon one need look no further than Design Miami which is now concurrent with the plethora of contemporary art fairs taking place in early December. Furthermore, design galleries are emerging in Chelsea, design writing is becoming more mainstream, and designers themselves are taking on the challenges of developing innovative products for a mass market culture.

The image is Blob01 by Karim Rashid and is used by permission.

Tandem Gallery

You have to give credit for adventure in a city like Birmingham, Alabama. So when local collector John David Conley and artist Karim Shamsi-Basha partnered to form Tandem Gallery it was something to notice. Having just completed its second exhibition, an innovative show of works and site-specific paintings by Amy Pleasant, it seems clear that the emphasis at Tandem will be on shows that are critically and curatorially innovative, with the possibility of creating a larger market for contemporary works at the same time.

What is key about Tandem Gallery is that it is precisely that - a gallery - and the owners and directors have made the conscious decision to focus on contemporary art rather than place their emphasis in other areas. While this has the potential to be a risky venture, one has to applaud their determination. Birmingham seems to be creating a legacy of spaces that are deeply committed to contemporary culture without necessarily regarding its inherent challenges. One need only think of the late-lamented StealthArts, founded by Clayton Colvin, which for two years showed fresh exhibitions in a space one would have to see to even begin to imagine. Colvin has taken that energy to Space 301 in Mobile, Alabama (where you can catch his newly opened curated exhibition Registering the Invisible.) Conley and Shamsi-Basha have a fantastic space, the artworld connections to bring genuinely exciting works to Birmingham, and the "aw-shucks" modesty that can actually drive a business, and a communiity, into believing that they actually love contemporary art - something that is not necessarily easy with the largest of audiences in the most progressive cities or towns.

Wednesday, January 16, 2008

Pocket Art Editions

One of the more innovative approaches to contemporary arts publishing comes in the form of the Pocket Art Initiatives, an ongoing series of limited-edition full color publications from the Visual Arts Gallery of the University of Alabama at Birmingham. Printed in runs of only 300 volumes, the three by five inch books include images and scholarly essays or interviews. First published to coincide with an exhibition of works by Baton Rouge based photographer William Greiner, the series has now reached six issues.

They include: William Greiner: Baton Rouge Blues; Jason Varone: Dromospheric Pollution; The Bachelor of Fine Arts Exhibition 2007; Double X: Women Representing Women; Spider Martin's Unseen Sixties; and The Morton Collection: Selected Works.

What seems clear is that innovations in on-demand printing are having a distinct impact on a small University gallery striving to make the most of a small budget and an adventurous exhibition program. To date, all the essays are by Gallery Director Brett Levine, who conceptualized the project from its outset.

The Morton Collection itself, on display for another two weeks, features a range of diverse works by emerging and established contemporary photographers as well as a suite of eight prints by classic twentieth and twenty-first century artists.

In an era in which publishing seems to be regarded by many as virtully passé, the Pocket Art Editions stand as something that can at least bring a little envy into the traditionally expensive, large-scale publishing projects that serve as bookends to most exhibitions.