Tuesday, September 8, 2009

Reframing the Question

The capacity to take an object and use it in a way that it wasn’t intended is what marks creativity today. When I say this I mean that somehow the mere alteration of the picture plane can’t be enough in the present day. Nor is it enough to merely alter an everyday object so it becomes unexpected – a bottle rack, a urinal, a snow shovel.

Perhaps the problem is that the capacity to rupture our expectations as viewers has become so challenging that simply making a cathartic image isn’t enough.

Many years ago, in an essay on the New Zealand painter Max Gimblett, I suggested, “Consider the shaped canvas.” My assertion was that the very existence of the structure – the quatrefoil, in Gimblett’s case – was enough to “rupture the rigidity of the modernist grid.” What I didn’t realize at the time was that the picture plane of a canvas, or even of a photograph, was all to often the grid itself, its own restraint, suffering under the delusion that what happened wthin its limits was somehow sacrosanct.

Historically, artists have struggled with this very dilemma. They attach objects to the canvas surfaces, making portions of the image emerge in relief. Yet this has the danger of becoming a doll’s house, a simple interpreation of what’s happening beneath. Some artists, like Eva Hesse, create works in which the work itself becomes its own base, its flatness always already ruptured by a non-pictorial element that it contains. Still others, like New Zealand artist Julian Dashper, deconstruct the image into its constituent elements.

So where could this possibly leave painting?

Perhaps the issue is that at its limits of allegory and illusion painting is a medium marked simply by a set of values that judge quality over content. We speak of someone who “can paint”, by which we mean that someone has the ability to render in its utmost detail. We don’t speak of someone who can “move” or “emote”, but simply of someone who might have the capacity to make it more real than real.

I’m not sure this is an effective framework for understanding the contemporary arts in the present day. By saying this I am not implying the endless endgame of painting, but simply asking a question: “When the frame sets the limits, who really cares what happens inside the frame?”

Tuesday, August 25, 2009

Ten Questions: Fred Mitchell

Ten Questions is a new feature by curator and Gallery Director Brett Levine. He asks artists, both emerging and established, to respond to ten questions regarding their artistic practice.

First to be invited is Fred Mitchell, an emerging artist based in Las Vegas, Nevada.

BL: Who or what is your most significant influence when making work?

FM: My daily interactions, experiences, relationships, and emotions subconsciously immensely affect my work. I suppose that my art is my conveyance of where I am currently at or about to be. If that makes any sense? I have plenty of heroes all of whom I consider to be an artist in some form or fashion.

BL: What piece of creative equipment do you most like to use?

FM: After much thought, I have only been able to narrow this down between two things. Technology and Nature.

BL: Do you describe your thinking as more analogue or more digital?

FM: I suppose I would see it has a middle-ground between the two schools of thought. I have grown up in a very interesting time in the world when there are frequent technological advances but I have on the older side of this revolution. I am sure there are kids growing up nowadays, unaware of what analogue actually is...

BL: What is your biggest creative success?

FM: I am not sure if I would consider anything I have done necessarily a creative success, but I am pleased with ideas that I have seen all the way through. Mainly, 4D work I have done would be projects I am truly proud of.

BL: What is your biggest creative failure?

FM: Each time I stumble, I like to think I have learned something.

BL: Which book, if any, first influenced your thinking about creative practice?

FM: On Photography by Susan Sontag has been a pretty important to me, although I do not think that was necessarily the first to impact me. Film has played a huge part on me as well as music and literature, and all in different aspects. I could narrow it down and probably explain each if you like though.

BL: Are you more afraid of originality or appropriation?

FM: Probably appropriation because I worry that my point of view may be misconstrued in the eyes of someone else.

BL: Do you archive or destroy works that you view as failures?

FM: I have a problem with being impulsive. I make an effort not to destroy failures because I need time to look at them and figure out how to put the next foot forward, but in the past my impulsive side has caused me to destroy projects. Hopefully that side of me will go dormant in the future.

BL: What medium do you view as the most relevant in the present day?

FM: This issue is one I have obsessed over for quite some time. To keep it brief I will say that I feel the most relevant mediums are any that can combine with science or the digital world to create something new and engaging.

BL: What medium do you view as the least relevant in the present day?

FM: I do not really consider any mediums do be less relevant than others but I do feel that some mediums are faced with a greater difficulty appealing to a wider variety of individuals.

Fred's works can be found here: http://yay-fredmitchell.com/

Friday, August 14, 2009

What's Working?

Day after day, art magazines, blogs, newspapers and other media outlets categorize a shrinking field. Museums and galleries close, staff are laid off, students in arts-related programs obtain degrees for which there is no foreseeable opportunity.

What’s evident is that the arts as its current model exists – educational institution, creator, writer, critic, curator, collector, gallerist, agent, muse – simply doesn’t function any more. The market itself is so top-heavy, even after its recent ‘adjustments’, that works of art and their relative values have no correlation today. This is as evident in the four figure prices of emerging and mid-career artists as it is in the speculative nature of the auction market. Dollars and euros seem, to ‘coin’ a phrase, chase good money after bad as a market built on demand dwindles to bewilderment.

Consider, for a moment, what it means for a major corporation like Polaroid to have its collection, wait, its assets, appear in public and private sales. What can it possibly mean if, using recent figures from artnet.com, as many as six hundred and twenty seven works by Ansel Adams suddenly enter the market?

Here’s how the house of cards must have worked – speculators, pardon me, collectors, purchased major works in an overheated market, driving prices and values up for everyone involved. Now, in a cool market, not only are the implications of that strategy becoming evident, but every organization reliant on the market is suffering. What’s even more remarkable is that educational institutions that should have been immune – those ivory-tower bastions of scholarly pursuit, ne’ertofore sullied by the vagaries of the market (heaven forbid) – now find themselves in precisely the same predicament, with fewer donors, shrinking endowments, ambitious plans.

So what in the world can this possibly mean? Will we see the market become a ‘cash-for-clunkers’ emulating, bargain chasing, free-for-all positioned by whoever might be left when the galleries and auction houses have swept their rosters clean of ‘surplus’ staff or shuttered their doors entirely?

Maybe the actual issue is that it is time to lift the veil and recognize that art is a market, that apart from its scholarly frameworks, its intellectual positioning, its speculation on mood and emotion, in the end its simply a transaction that is based as much on supply and demand, scarcity and availability, as anything else.

So what we have now is a more educated class of educated people, artists, professionals, supporters, languishing in a field of closures, cutbacks, and changes of scale.

I wonder if anyone took the time to consider something on the way up – did anyone outside the bubble really care? Did more people come to exhibitions? As prices were being driven up, did it actually attract people to the market, make them more generous with their time and money? Did we really make it bigger, stronger and faster? Or was it just some bloated behemoth teetering on the edges of speculation and belief, propped up by language and then deflated when the bubble burst.

Ask yourself now, what’s working? I’m in the business, and I don’t even think I have an idea.

Monday, August 3, 2009

Strange World Video

For a work that is almost fifteen years old, Pipilotti Rist’s 1995 “I’m a Victim of this Song” remains as compelling as it did when it appeared in the Biennale of Sydney in 2000. Then only five years old, and still fresh, I described Rist’s voice as she works her way through Chris Isaak’s “Wicked Game” as sounding as if she were gargling with broken glass. Hearing her version again after so long, my initial thoughts remain intact.

What surprises me after such a long time is how, somehow, we have witnessed a transformational moment in image consumption in which, for the everyday viewer, the idea of Rist’s intervention is almost unimaginable as art. Now, when everyone has the chance to mash up the latest hit and post it somewhere until a bot removes it, “I’m a Victim” seems almost nostalgic.

I mention this because what we are witnessing is the realignment of expectations in video art. That’s not to suggest that any of its core principles have changed – the non-linearity of its relevations, the real-time experience of viewing. But somehow viewers now approach these types of works without even the understanding that they are art. Videos posted on Artform.com may have the YouTube logo emblazoned in their lower right corner in many instances, but viewers of YouTube videos don’t even experience these images as art. Instead, I would argue, these have become part of a fine arts detritus that is overlayed on the visual experiences of the everyday.

Still, the notion of art as video, rather than video as art, might just be revolutionary, the insidious idea that an artwork might somehow slip up onto the YouTube favorites.

Just wait until some hipster thinks they’ve discovered Peter Campus for the very first time. Then you’ll see what I mean.

Friday, July 31, 2009

Tired of Art?

With all the gallery closings, devaluing of artists’ oeuvres, and a general malaise in the art world, at least from the perspective of collectors who speculated and dealers who sold, maybe the reality is just that people are tired of art. At least, tired of the current model where one artist after another has his or her solo show then, miraculously (if they sold enough the first time, or perhaps if their contracts stipulate it,) two years later they show again.

In the interim, they dutifully count the months, and their collector base dutifully waits with baited breath.

But what if something’s wrong with this model – wrong because two years is an eternity in the art world, wrong because two years won’t necessarily make someone’s art innovative, wrong because the market is a fickle place that twists and turns and somehow becomes a self-perpetuating behemoth beholden to nothing but itself.

Art today almost invites one to be tired of it. At the other end of the biannual exhibition spectrum is the endless stream of flickr posts or Facebook updates that reduce every creative act to a post, make everything perfectly identical, reduce it to pixels and almost obliviate its value.

Artists operate in a strange place where the dealer/artist model seems ripe for revision. Collectors and speculators alike want access, questions of taste seem entirely meaningless. It is as if the entire process has been reduced to cashflow and guesswork, hoping, usually beyond hope, that the one artist you might be interested in has the potential to “crack it”, as they say, to make it big, to take off, to be something other than his or her other classmates from an MFA program. Anachronistically, we speculate that someone might have “the right stuff”.

The problem is that this mysterious “stuff” is just as elusive to the gallerist and the collector as it is to the artist. Every artist has to operate under the self-deception that his or her work has the potential to be the best ever made.

So now, in an endless sea of speculative works, everyone experiences what I will term vision fatigue – a neverending stream of hopes and desires spread across a range of media so diverse that no one can be an expert in them all.

What happens? Well, for the most part people simply retreat to the TV. My new favorite game is speculating on who might have made that exceptionally cool – though also somehow nondescript – artwork that just flickered by on the screen. I’d try to remember what it looked like, but I’m tired, so tired, I’m on the verge of falling asleep.

Tuesday, July 21, 2009

Keep Dumbing it Down Until Everyone Gets It

I suppose it’s how you approach it. As a curator, I spent many years in the South Pacific, exploring themes of globalization, territorialization, isolationism, cultural studies and related topics only to find myself within the confines of the American south. What is so surprising about the south is how far within itself it remains, how the discourses that should be paramount become subsumed within the overall veil of the culture wars, how art has a voice that teeters sometimes on silence and how, somehow, it doesn’t seem to matter.

Many years ago I sat in a conference with keynote speakers Lynne Cooke and Elizabeth Sussmann, and four days later in the same space as the late Kathy Acker took four hundred culturally and creatively intrigued listeners on a fantastic journey.

Somehow, sometimes, the periphery becomes the center. Displacement is overcome by distance, and isolationism is replaced by its multifaceted international doppelganger.

I raise these issues because it appears that art maybe teetering on an edge of irrelevance. Not so much in part because it has nothing left to say, but in part because what it has to say is so often said into the face of deafening silence.

Dialogues are now more often than not carried out within the confines of a tweet, subtly placed within Facebook pages, or subsumed by the assumption that somehow meaning always transcends.

Instead, what it does is teeter on the edges of repetition and pastiche. The recent death of Dash Snow made me realize just how short our memories are, as if Larry Clark’s Tulsa had never existed, as if Nan Goldin had never snapped an image, if the eroticism of George Platt Lynes in the face of legal and social consequences had never happened.

What seems surprising so far, however, is that the laudatory missives seem absent, suggesting that maybe, just maybe we’ve pushed art as far as it can go. Maybe we’re at the point where we’re not so much interested in the naked as in the nude, where excessive consumption isn’t indicative of innovation, where somehow, somebody or bodies is trying to determine how the whole world of art is going to continue to be relevant.

It’s hard to imagine that the days in which a three-minute attention span courtesy of MTVs twenty-four hour videos now seems an eternity as text messaging and tweets whittle our capacities for expression into smaller and smaller fragments. Artists works become digital experiences sorted through Google via resolution, all the better to be displayed on non-calibrated monitors in various NSFW environments.

And yet somewhere, there on the periphery, in the Antipodes or Aotearoa or China, somewhere on the Pacific Rim or on the edges of Africa, somewhere crossing into or through the occupied territories is a discourse on art that isn’t always already prefigured by its Puritanism or its reservations. Instead, it is positioned by intelligent discourse confident of the opportunities and the potentialities it faces.

But here while I sort the possibilities into two columns, “job-keepers” and “job-losers”, I wonder just where we lost the ability to engage with complex ideas in intellectual ways.

Monday, July 20, 2009

It's All About the Title

As the art world feigns disinterest, intelligent artists young and old spend time applying for a coveted spot on Bravo's "Untitled Art Project", something that artnet.com or the Village Voice suggested was the perfect title already. Cuts have been made, with a friend learning that they had not in fact proceeded to the second round.

But unlike a culinary competition, or one that focuses on design, how does a profession that is already marked in part by its superfluousness - one does not "need" art, despite protestations to the contrary, whereas one "needs" clothes even to the extent that their absence creates a legal liability - create a result that has the capacity to change the winner's world?

Over lunch today I was discussing this very conundrum. Our conversation went something like this:

Artist: I didn't even know the auditions were on.
Me: Would that have made any difference?
Artist: No.

Artists themselves may be struggling with what this will mean as professionals anticipate the challenges. "Today is the life drawing challenge," as pixellations cover our cultural inabilities to accept we all have a body; or, "Today, contestants, you will make a sculpture from what you can find in the junkyard in the next ten minutes" - cut to exciteable artist crashing into rusted hulk, cue medical attention.

In any event, hopefuls in four cities are auditioning, hoping that somehow this will catapult them into being the next big thing.

Remember the last big thing died in a room at the Lafeyette Hotel last week, and his name was Dash Snow. Ever seen his work?

Wednesday, June 3, 2009

Crossing Out A Signature Style

I was recently discussing an artwork that was by a major artist but regarded as not indicative of their “signature style”. I asked an artist whether or not he felt there was a need for artists to visually develop throughout their careers, and he responded that in his opinion this approach had actually held him back in the market.

Think here, if you will, of a signature style. In creative fields, we often talk about chameleons – Madonna, Bob Dylan, even, if you will, Robert Rauschenberg. Then, at times, we find that artists visit and revisit their breakthrough styles, even if it seems that over time this could perhaps work them into a visual corner.

Barnett Newman speaks of the revelation he had when he painted “Onement 1”, widely regarded as his breakthrough painting. He says, perhaps metaphorically, that he stared at the painting for a very long time. Months. What came next was a body of works punctuated and articulated more than anything else by a “zip”, a vertical band dissecting the canvas. Some paintings had more than one zip, but they all had at least one.

This signature style allows viewers to develop a shorthand for artists – “that’s a Warhol, that’s a Pollock, that’s a Newman,” they might say, “that’s an Agnes Martin, that’s an On Kawara,” and so forth.

Each of these artists has in some way developed an aspect of their practice that allows viewers to enter into their works. At the same time, this doesn’t imply that their works are any more or less valued, or any more or less understood. It just implies that a silkscreen painting with a slightly askew registration is more often than not a Warhol, and that a painting of a date, in white, on a solid ground, is more often than not a Kawara.

What this also means is that for certain artists this can become a limitation, a straightjacket. Not so much for the artist themselves, but for viewers who have an expectation that art is always both recognizable and immediate.

I believe, in fact, that comfort and immediacy may have replaced analysis and challenge as some of the key aspects of viewing art. In a field in which there is a constant desire to expand audiences, and a concern about alienating what must necessarily be a dwindling audience, is there an argument that signature styles lead viewers to view artworks? I think so. This checklist, which becomes dangerously close to simply marking a scorecard of classic or contemporary works, leads both artists and curators into a place in which recognition becomes synonymous with experience.

I am not sure that this is necessarily so. I am also not sure that a signature style is either good or bad for art. What I do know is that artists themselves ponder precisely this question, as to gallerists, auctioneers, and collectors. The idea that a work is marked by its maker in such a way that everybody knows leads us all into a space in which breakthroughs become tentative and experimentation is in danger of marginalization.

This also doesn’t mean that Gilles Deleuze’s statement in Plato and the Simulacrum leads us to an answer – it is not viable today to merely posit this question under the rubric of the postmodern dictum, “only that which is alike differs, and only differences are alike.” Instead, I would think more of the words of Leonard Cohen in “Everybody Knows”: “Everybody knows that the dice are loaded/everybody rolls with their fingers crossed.” No doubt that artists, at least are rolling the dice and crossing their fingers each time they take a tentative step away from the styles that they, or their dealers, believe ‘made’ them who they are.

Monday, June 1, 2009

Full Screen Infothesia

Somehow the idea of an “endgame” essay about art seems to hearken back to the heydey of the eighties. Yet it seems that for whatever reason, we should perhaps be thinking about the implications of technology, information creation and dissemination, and the ubiquitous resolution of the 72 dpi image. It is as if apart from the impossibility of actually experiencing most works, I think there may be an “infothesia” happening. What I mean by the term is the idea that not only is the experience of art becoming more and more difficult as it becomes both more globalized and more fragmentary, but there is a belief that is exactly the opposite of the one proposed in Museum Without Walls.

Perhaps we are now at the edge of an abyss in which the experience of art is deemed to be as valuable whether experienced personally or digitally. The stigma of the reproduced image has, in a generation, been replaced by the expectation that this is precisely how one will see a work.

It is as if the expectation that our experiences will be compressed – MP3 files replace .WAVs, more information gets squeezed onto a personal media player of whatever type, and somehow that smaller and smaller image, that slightly altered audio experience, suddenly becomes the norm.

This is not to suggest in any way that this is necessarily problematic. When the cover of the New Yorker magazine can be created entirely on an iPhone, or when a series of squelchy, glitchy chords can transform into a genre of music – glitchcore, anyone? – then what both creators and critics must understand is that the baseline experience just simply isn’t the same. It’s simply the result of pressing the “full screen” button.

So what does this necessarily mean? I wrote recently about a pheonomenon I had termed “microsaturation”, and I think perhaps “infothesia” is its necessary outcome. Artists of all types will have to struggle against this perception. When the entirely of your visual experiences come from a Nintendo DS or an iPod Touch in landscape mode, your expectations simply must be different.

One of the great experiences in life could be the transcendental experiences of viewing a painting. But maybe, just maybe, that same image, enlarged, pixellated, transformed, might also be transcendental too.

Apologists can argue all they like about the death of art, about its ends and its implications. Maybe, instead, we should be talking about the death of the medium with a nostalgic wave to its demise.

Friday, May 22, 2009

Kentucky Rain Keeps Pourin' Down

It is genuinely hard to predict what the implications might be, but Paducah, Kentucky’s Artist Relocation Program seems to have its heart, and its economics, in the right place. Apart from its slightly disconcerting title, the program provides opportunities for artists to acquire free or low-cost properties that they commit to refurbish. In exchange, they receive, you guessed it, free or low-cost properties.

Artists are of course at the usual epicenter of gentrification. Seeking expansive spaces and low overheads, creative professionals are usually some of the first to pioneer neighborhoods that have been forgotten, urban centers suffering blight, quaint towns that have somehow fallen off the beaten path. So, when Paducah, Kentucky, institutes a program to draw precisely these people, it is evident that some degree of visionary thinking is involved.

What is even more revealing is that eight years after the program began, the City of Paducah is still taking out ads in Art in America, among other publications I can only assume, to continue to promote the project.

I would imagine that, in the current economic climate, if you were a creative professional with a desire to acquire space, and if you had the skills, experience or nous to rehab a space, Paducah might just be the place for you.

Thursday, May 21, 2009

There and Back Again, and Again

There’s really no clear beginning or end. Or so explains Annie Butrus, standing within the galleries displaying her series, Peach Tree Trail: New Works from Culp Farm. Here, twenty-eight diptychs, each a total of twenty-eight by fifty inches, explore the four seasons in a single peach farm in rural Alabama.

Butrus’ investigations of Alabama peach orchards, both painterly and culturally, have been a keen area of focus for five years. Now, after beginning a series at a single place, Culp Farm, Butrus recognized that a late spring freeze could dynamically alter both the physical and the economic conditions of the farm, its family, and their crop. She decided to visually pursue the implications of this challenging event further.

Technically, her diptychs reflect an object and its shadows, although the horizons don’t necessarily remain consistent. Instead, the images laid upon the panels, and the depths created through the layering of glazes and resists, stand as metaphors for the passage of time. This is reinforced through the structure of the exhibition, in which each season’s story is told across seven consecutive panels, with the ruptures and slippages that nature always includes.

“I enjoy making works with rules,” Butrus observes, “but through interrupting the linearity of the seasons, by slightly rupturing or restructuring time, I am able to reflect how nature itself is uncontrollable.”

This dichotomy between structure and chaos allows Butrus to segue between panels that are more representational and others that are almost entirely expressionistic. In the middle of the series, for example, four consecutive works read almost entirely as Rorschach blots, while a few panels later an almost entirely white block at the top of a work suggests being blinded by the sun.

It is these breaks that make the works, when viewed together, so rewarding. The pieces are capable of being viewed individually, but their whole may read more complexly than the sum of their parts.

Color is also key to the experience. As Butrus remarks, “The way I’ve been setting up the emotive qualities of the colors gives you clues to how to move through the space.” The exhibition leads viewers from left to right along a linear track that is familiar in a Western tradition. Butrus had always envisioned this construction, believing that its reverse might simply be unnerving. As it is, the seasons themselves are not defined by texts or markers, so understanding that the works begin and end in winter is a subconscious realization.

One of the challenges presented was a space punctured by doors and windows. Butrus used this to create what she terms the exhibition’s rhythm, remarking that towards its end it is punctuated by several staccato bursts. “One of the challenges of presenting the works as a continuous linear experience,” she notes, “is the possibility of sags or weak points.” She compensates for these possibilities by shifting between panels that are more or less representational, as well as being more or less internally mirrored. She refers to this constant shift in mirroring as “strained symmetry”, which is used to create tension within and between the works.

The twenty-eight panels in the Culp Farm series are smaller, more gestural, and more abstract than many of Butrus’ earlier works. She remarks,

these paintings have become more dynamic… I had certain goals with them. I wanted these pieces to be as minimal and as raw as I could possibly get them. I also didn’t want to rely on any additional senses, as I felt that this would allow me to push my visual language further.

This was, in part, a recognition of the control and polish of her earlier works. Both the scale, the format and the installation of these works provided a space for exploration. Her focus became one in which simple oppositions such as positive and negative, or light and dark, became the significant measures for the composition of each work. She also approached the pieces as having a linear progression, a narrative that was constructed to tell the story that had motivated these works originally.

“The late freeze of 2007 was so significant,” Butrus remarks, “that I wanted to address how that specific event had so dramatically affected a single place.” As a result, Butrus chronicled specific trees in a particular orchard over the course of a single year.

What may seem anachronistic in a digital age is the fact that Butrus works en plein air, carrying sketchbooks and tracing paper to the orchards to track the passage of time as the trees cast their shadows across the ground. These are then transferred to her panels, as obverse and reverse images, creating the diptychs that comprise each single work. She is committed to the technical pursuits of painting and believes that it is the fundamentals of painting that, when interpreted or altered, have the greatest potential for innovation.

“I am really intrigued by color theory and I use it to guide the palettes that I use.” This is evident in her warm, rich blacks, and the bursts of pink, yellow, red and green that cover her gessoed panels. The colors push out from the surfaces and overlap from one panel to the next. This creates an almost cinematic sense of movement. One might consider it to be the antithesis of meditations on urbanism like Godfrey Reggio’s Koyaanisqatsi, among others, or Michel de Certeau’s chapter Walking in the City from The Practice of Everyday Life.

In the end, Butrus’ meditations become elliptical, leading the viewer almost back to the point of beginning. But somehow, it is not the same. The simple spatial dislocation of the gallery’s architecture gives the exhibition a defined beginning and end and mirrors the simple fact that, for Culp Farm as well as for everything else, time has passed. A new period begins, with the same name, yet somehow its place and space are completely different. It may be Winter, Spring, Summer or Fall, but it will not be that Winter, that Spring, that Summer or that Fall.

Instead, the Peach Tree Trail will continue, as a series and perhaps even at Culp Farm, but it will never again be a portrait of those trees, in that place at that time. Perhaps this is why we will recall what Butrus said in the beginning when she remarked, “it is like I am making works that have no clear beginning and end.” And yes, there is a beginning, and an end, but yes too, they are not clear indeed.

Wednesday, May 13, 2009

Which Picture, What Story?

Matthew Schechmeister’s recent article, “The Unlikely Events of a Water Landing: New Photos From Flight 1549,” an essay with images by photographer/photojournalist, documentarian and, ultimately fine artist Stephen Mallon published at wired.com, highlights the slippages and interstices in our understandings of both the ways in which images are captured and, ultimately, the ways in which they are received.

In an era in which an audience is far more likely to see one of Mallon’s images than, say, a work of more characteristically regarded fine art, simply because our exposure to mass media is far more pervasive, one might remember that at times this notion of photojournalism simply transcends the strict limitations we traditionally place on the fine artists.

Two remarkably disparate examples might be the photographic responses in the wake of 9/11 that resulted in the incredible, and incredibly moving exhibition, “Here is New York,” with its subtitle, “A Democracy of Photographs.” I had the privilege of seeing the exhibition in its original venue in 2001, only weeks after the tragedy. In a city marked most then by its silence, this exhibition gave both the relevancy of photojournalism, the immediacy of the digital image, and the existence of the “citizen journalist” (regardless of how problematic I find that term) a voice that was far more powerful, far more moving, and far more expansive than anyone could have expected.

What separates these images from something like William Eggleston’s “Stranded in Canton” or perhaps Larry Clark’s “Tulsa”, or even Nan Goldin’s “The Ballad of Sexual Dependency” is that at the same time that they are documenting these events, they are always already aware of the fine arts context that is inherent in the works. As a result, these pieces purport to be situated somewhere well outside the motivational space of a work by Stephen Mallon, although this clearly can’t be the case.

The challenge comes from the situational positioning of the images. It appears that Mallon recognizes the convergent values of documentary and art, or, perhaps, documentary as art. At the same time, it seems that he understands the specific needs of each genre, and may perhaps even ask himself the question, “How can a complex documentary image also meet the needs and expectations of the fine arts?” Clearly, his compositions, framings, exposure, and subject selection are grounded in an understanding of both what the image needs to mean and what it hopes to share. If you then juxtapose any of his “Water Landing” images with ones by Larry Clark from the Tulsa series, wouldn’t they both merely map differing positions along something like a photographic construction of heroicism? Wouldn’t one merely show an obviously heroic success in the face of danger, while the other would merely indicate the apparent failure with the slightest possibility of success in something like Clark’s “Accidental Gunshot Wound”?

I ask these questions in part because I believe it is the role of the curator, as well as the role of the critic, to consistently and constantly evaluate images of all types and media outside the frameworks of the academy, and thereby outside the realms and restrictions of the traditional fine arts.

We might recall here the words of the late Donald Judd, writing in his classic essay “Specific Objects,” where he made what might be the ultimate subjective analysis now somehow dressed up as an objective and overarching rule. He said, “A work of art need only be interesting.” Yes, Donald, that probably is the case. Now how do we go about constructing a set of criteria and values that might actually help us respect what ‘interesting’ actually is.

Monday, May 4, 2009


Call it microsaturation. From the outset, let me say that I don’t twitter. I don’t follow you, and you don’t follow me, and we’re both probably better for that. Perhaps you are a friend on Facebook, and that makes it somewhat simpler for me to communicate with you. Perhaps this simplicity stems from the fact that I may be perpetually lazy, or perhaps I like the distance inherent in the digital world, or perhaps I genuinely am too busy to pick up the phone.

Whatever the case, for me, social networking has already reached the point of what I will term microsaturation. It’s not as if there isn’t value in sites like Facebook, MySpace, or twitter, and perhaps there is also value in being able to “digg” something. But what seems clear is that yet again there is also the capacity to merely explore the edges of whatever exchange is actually being related.

Consider, for instance, the regularity of arts related postings, as friends suggest that they have uploaded a new group of works on flickr or a related site. This should compel viewers to take note but, crowded in amongst the Susan Boyle videos or the clips of classic 80s camp, it is altogether too easy to simply be missed, for that moment to pass. And then, artist, what do you do? Do you re-send the post, becoming informative, courteous, and, heaven forbid slightly desperate all in precisely the same moment? Or, instead, do you merely assume that the original post has been read and is merely being digested?

One some level I genuinely believe that digital communications seem to both enhance and blunt our experiences at precisely the same moment. Without engaging in the historical discussions of the dehumanizing experiences of email, I do have some reticence regarding an unwavering commitment to the pull of social networking. At some point, it is as if the specific requirements of each site, and of each experience, results in experience itself becoming edited, blunted, pre-digested, like one hundred and sixty word haiku distilled to their most basic, yet most predictably sound-bite worthy utterances.

So, as I try to parse my words to fit a predetermined format, I wonder if these limitations are beneficial, detrimental or both. And yes, I know, this is far too many words, but for what, I don’t know.

Wednesday, March 18, 2009

John Bankston in Birmingham, AL

Contemporary artist John Bankston will be the guest of honor as the Jack Drake Visiting Artist 2009 at the University of Alabama at Birmingham. Bankston will be present at a reception featuring fifteen watercolors and oil on linen paintings courtesy of the artist and Jack Shainman Gallery, New York, on Friday, March 20th.

The reception is from 5 - 6:30 PM, and is followed by a roundtable discussion featuring the artist, Dr. Jessica Dallow, Doug Baulos, Tony Bingham and Rosie O'Beirne.

For further details contact the Department of Art and Art History at the University on (205) 934-4941.

Sunday, March 1, 2009

Classic of the Week: On the Museum's Ruins

When I began doing graduate studies in the arts, I became entranced by what you might term the “October” group: Douglas Crimp; Rosalind Krauss; Benjamin H. D. Buchloh; Yve-Alain Bois; Joan Copjec. I devoured any book that made its way to my far-away destination, whether in my university’s library or at the two competing bookstores that were across the street from each other in Sydney, Australia.

One of my most significant early puchases was Douglas Crimp’s compilation “On the Museum’s Ruins.” I of course hadn’t seen his seminal Pictures exhibition, and, for whatever reason, the essay wasn’t actually included in the book. Instead, essays such as “The Art of Exhibition”, “On the Museum’s Ruins,” and others formed the early basis of my critical and theoretical thinking about the visual arts.

It is a book I have referred students to often in my professional life. The ideas that Crimp considered regarding originality, appropriation, sex and gender, the critique of institutions, and related topics all find an intelligently reasoned foundation within this work.

It should be regarded as a classic, and for that reason I deem it to be the inaugural Classic of the Week. Read it.

Thursday, February 26, 2009

Paradoxically Speaking

I never met Giovanni Intra, although he and I have dozens of mutual friends. We wrote for some of the same publications, moved in the same circles, perhaps saw some of the same shows. In a sense, however, by the time I arrived, he had departed, and then, in fact, he had really departed. We only corresponded once, after he had opened China Art Objects Galleries, when I tried to see if we could catch up in Los Angeles. It didn’t happen, and I didn’t make it to the gallery until he was gone. Literally. Gone.

I begin here because Artspace, in Auckland, New Zealand, currently has an exhibition on display entitled Beginning in the Archive: Giovanni Intra 1989 – 1996. What strikes me as so challenging and so revelatory are both the circumstances surrounding the arrival of Intra’s ephemera at the gallery, and the implications of trying to understand how an artist, as Intra was, as well as a critic, contextualizes the milieu in which they work.

Almost a decade ago, I was working on a project in Italy, trying to understand further the motivations of an almost impenetrable painter. As it transpired, his home apartment had remained in tact since his death, embroiled in a legal dispute. I was tracing a thread of his practice that I felt was unspoken, and I asked if it might be possible to view his study. Not, of course, to even touch anything, but merely to stand, and to look, and to see what this material might tell me. Perhaps, in part because of the proceedings, or, more possibly because of the silence that had always permeated his works, my request was denied.

In many ways, Beginning in the Archive, which I have not seen, just as I have not seen the study of the artist I mention above, stands as precisely the opposite of the situation I have outlined above. One might think here of Beatriz Colomina’s Privacy and Publicity: Modern Architecture as Mass Media, where she writes about the disparities of ephemera left behind by Adolf Loos and Le Corbusier. For the former, it is practically non-existent. For the latter, it is so exhaustive as to be impenetrable. She cites a comment by Jacques Lucan, director of the encyclopedia which commemorated Le Corbusier’s centenary, where he observed:

The books, the articles, the studies devoted to Le Corbusier are almost innumerable…this abundance finds a justification in the fact that perhaps no other artist has left to posterity, in a foundation created with that purpose, such an enormous number of documents concerning all his activity [public and private]. One would have thought that with the mass of documents available the task of historians and biographers would have been facilitated…that it would be possible to retrace his life…the itineraries of his architectural and urban reflections….Paradoxically, perhaps neither is possible.

On December 9th, 2008, just under two months before the Intra exhibition opened, Webb’s Auction House in Auckland, New Zealand, offered fifty-two works from the estate. I am unsure of the results of the auction, but I imagine one must think of the archive as opened, paradoxically speaking.

Monday, February 23, 2009

After Eros: Derek Cracco's Visions of Love

After Eros

Shepherds, I say; but they call themselves the good and the just! Shepherds, I say; but they call themselves believers in the true faith. Behold, the good and the just! Whom do they hate most? The man who breaks their tables of values, the breaker, the lawbreaker; yet he is the creator.

Friedrich Nietzsche, Also Sprach Zarathustra

If there were to be a single element that positioned humankind, might be the ability to act hypocritically. For it is this ability that allows individuals to hate while they speak of love, or to defile while they pretend to revere.

I begin here because when Derek Cracco speaks of Love he does so in a complex, myriad way. He understands the word love has many meanings. He draws inspiration from its many dictionary definitions, but predominantly from the notions of love as the “fatherly concern of God for humankind” and the “personal adoration of man for God.” He does so, in part, as an attempt to highlight both the disparity and the hypocrisy that result from the application of these two ideals. For in Cracco’s world, we all have both the ability and the potential to be hypocrites. Whether it is conservative Christian radio speaking of Hurricane Katrina as being the punishment for the sins of a Sodom and Gomorrah New Orleans, or it is the individual who makes use of a prostitute’s calling card, in each action there is this element of hypocrisy, of denial and of separation. So Cracco takes the urges, desires, and drives that are subsumed within our conceptions of love - basically taking the totality of Freud’s drives – and melds them into visual images that both hide and highlight these impulses at precisely the same time.

One might begin with a triptych depicting, in part, a satellite image of Hurricane Katrina created entirely with vinyl layers, similar to a topographical map, with grey color-shifting hearts on the pieces above and below. Entitled, ironically, God’s Love We Deliver, the work mocks the audacity of conservative commentators who were audacious enough to insinuate a relationship between divinity and disaster. At precisely the same moment, the title references a seminal food distribution program in New York City that assists people living with HIV/AIDS. Countering the suggestion that Southern Decadence, a gay pride festival in New Orleans, was the straw that broke God’s back, Cracco ponders the possibility of reconciling this assertion with the belief that God does, according to the definition of love, have a stated, fatherly concern for humankind.

Perhaps Cracco’s uses of everyday and found materials suggest a desire to make this discourse universal. Apart from the obscured pages of porn magazines, there are the tattered remnants of romance novels, prism tape, prayer cards, prostitute calling cards, fragments of arrows and sign-making vinyl. More often than not, it is the juxtaposition of these seemingly mundane materials that creates an uneasy tension. In Marksman, Mother, Shot, for example, we see first the inverse image of a gun (a pornography unto itself, particularly if you wonder Glock? Or Beretta?). To its right is a rather straightforward image of the Virgin Mary, culled photographically from a cemetery near the artist’s mother’s house. Finally, we encounter a heart, complete with a fragmented arrow protruding from its surface. On first seeing it, and thinking of the work’s title, all I could hear was the voice of John Bon Jovi: “Shot through the heart/and you’re to blame/you give love/a bad name.”

Perhaps Cracco is giving love a bad name indeed. At the least, he’s giving it a bad rap, to the extent that he’s challenging fatherly and motherly love, as they are, to step from behind the guise of unconditionality, and into the gaze of contemporary culture.

In Between the Sheets, we encounter a range of sexually suggestive images culled from the pages of popular adult magazines. In each instance of anticipated exposure, Cracco has covered the models’ bodies with hearts. Using a perspectival technique, he has arranged the hearts to give the perception of three-dimensionality. Yet when I look at the works, it is almost only possible to see scales. What he hopes will convey love seems, unexpectedly, to suggest original sin. He further clouds the issues of individual versus universal love by obsessively painting out the flesh of other subjects who appear throughout the work. Time and again, their flesh is obscured, effectively removing the signifiers of self. Perhaps Cracco is reflecting on the idea of self-effacement, of the process of making oneself inconspicuous. At the same time, he has described to me the ways in which this covering process becomes “a ritual, a cleansing, a whitewash” through which he is able to remove the “edges” of the offenses and, arguably, make them acceptable. In a sense, the mere sublimation of desire is part of this equation, and Cracco brings both the love and the desire to the forefront. What seems unique is the propensity to allow the definition to slip so that slowly, over the course of the exhibition, notions of fatherly compassion give way to expressions of almost unhealthy desire. It is as if the expectation “God loves me” gives way to the expression “I love…” In We Love, we see a series of images generated by the artist’s request that people send him images of things that they love. Overwhelmingly, it seems, his audience has responded with “We love porn!”, but we also see expressions of love for alternative lifestyles, family pets and other objects of affection.

Time and again Cracco challenges viewers to reflect upon their obsessions with Eros and Thanatos, or, love and death. This conflict can be seen in the uneasy sexualization of Saint Sebastian, who has transformed into an icon of twenty-first century gay culture, or in the expressions, both visual and verbal, for acting upon desire. One might step further, and ponder the notion of orgasm, sign of life, which the French refer to as “le petit morte”, the small death. At the same time, he also acknowledges the throwaway nature of contemporary society. In a culture marked by twenty four hour information streaming and direct marketing, mainstream religions are as much a part of the process as others marketing products. The tracts and leaflets extolling the dangers of sin become like the coupons discarded everyday – glanced at briefly, avoided where possible, and having very little likelihood of resulting in the spiritual catharsis of faith that they are supposed to induce.

Yet Love is also a series of works positioned as much by intellectualism as by emotion. By critically interrogating Joseph Campbell, particularly his interpretations of James Joyce, Cracco has constructed a visual paradigm for art that challenges notions of “proper” and “improper” art. One might recall that, for Joyce, art was either pornographic (it inspired desire) or it was didactic (it instills fear or loathing). Proper art, he suggested, was work that caused the viewer to be held in a state of aesthetic arrest, causing the images and ideas of the day to decimate clouded thinking and provide a singular moment of pure experience. One might argue that this notion of the unclouded experience was as much a modernist construct as could be expected from Joyce, but the larger questions of propriety or impropriety, or sacred and profane, are obviously relevant. One might also wonder how Joyce’s works themselves would be classified, with his textually pornographic works so offensive to conservative America that Ulysses was the subject of a sixteen-year battle before being widely available.

It is the ongoing struggle to reconcile faith and freedom, and the inevitable dictum that Christianity is synonymous with charity that Cracco examines so closely. Time and again, irreconcilable differences emerge between professions of faith and expressions of love. In Porn and Propaganda, one encounters a series of vinyl-cut guns collaged over a series of religious flyers, leaflets or tracts. Cracco suggests that there is no ability to distinguish between propaganda and proselytizing, and that there is an inherent tension between the two. Visually, his use of recurring images – the sheep, the gun, the Virgin Mother – all serve to establish a recognizable lexicon of iconography that serves to short-circuit the need to verbally deconstruct his arguments and assertions. Yet each work asserts something far more complex than Mother equals purity, or guns equal religion, or sheep equate to sexual innocence. Consider, for example, We Are All Sheep in His Eyes. One might think here, too, of the assertion that Christ was the lamb sacrificed by God, and compare this outcome to Abraham, who offered up his son Isaac as a sacrifice that was spared, and for whom a ram was substituted. Each of Cracco’s icons always already asks questions surrounding what it means to internalize, process and represent complex spiritual questions in comprehensible, personal ways.

Finally, one must acknowledge that Love is a series that is positioned as much by iconoclasm as it is by cynicism. Cracco is neither a proselytizer nor an idolater, meaning that his motivation is neither the acceptance nor the rejection of the symbols he explores and, in many senses exposes. It is the ongoing understanding that, on a personal level, one may love a person, or a thing, as much or more as they love God, or life itself. More significantly, he understands the implications of hypocrisy, from the statements regarding Katrina that are outlined above to the blind acceptance of pronouncements that seem to position humans as being capable of living outside free will.

I am reminded of a song by the late Jim Croce, entitled “Which Way Are You Going,” where he sings:

Which way are you going, and which side will you be on?
Will you stand and watch while the seeds of hate are sown?
Will you stand with those who say let his will be done?
One hand on the bible, and one hand on the gun.
One hand on the bible, and one hand on the gun.

Thursday, January 22, 2009

Making the Band

In what must rank as one of the classic understandings of direct marketing, coupled with a broad definition of a soundtrack, Walton Creel’s eerie and experimental “Shooting Loading: An Audio Companion for the Series Deweaponizing the Gun”, became available on iTunes today. One might think here of the ambient music of Brian Eno, or the experimental explorations of Cage, or Subotnick, but, somehow, this soundtrack is entirely unexpected.

One must wonder how rapidly this will move up the iTunes downloads charts.

Tuesday, January 20, 2009

Blank/Decks Ride into Town with Vinyl Sidekicks

The UAB Visual Arts Gallery is presenting a benefit exhibition entitled Blank/Decks featuring customized skateboard decks and vinyl Munny toys. The exhibition is on display now through January 30th, and features works by Jason Varone, Amy Pleasant, Clayton Colvin, PUSH Designs, Jane Timberlake Cooper, Lisa Michitti and others. Over the coming days I will be featuring selected images and information about the project.

The deck pictured above is by Erin Wright/Asylum Designs. He has titled the work "Elemental Man: Create/Decimate". Available now, by silent auction. Contact the gallery for details.

Right Here, Right Now

A visit to New Orleans to view Prospect.1 revealed that sprawling biennials, in their very nature, are diverse in quality and experience. Highlights of the exhibition include Mark Bradford’s Mithra in the Lower Ninth Ward, Deborah Luster’s Chorography of Violence at the Old Mint, and Willie Birch’s multi-panel drawings on display at the New Orleans Museum of Art.

What seems clear, however, is that large exhibitions such as Prospect require an intellectual commitment that is in part a cross between excessive consumption without processing and what I term “art guilt” at the incapacity to closely view every single installation.

One wonders how our visual culture developed to a state of what I term “checklist viewing”, one in which our experiences of art become as much about how much is seen as it is about what is actually seen. This approach to viewing seems to equate quality and quantity, a proposal most of us would dismiss in almost any other context. As conscientious viewers, we experience an obligation to understand every thread that the modern day curator lays behind as they work their way through the exhibition labyrinth.

In the end, what is evident is that, perhaps, smaller is not necessarily better, but it is certainly different. In relation to Prospect.1, the experiences were mitigated in part by venues that were not open when I arrived. That doesn’t mean they weren’t open, it just means at that precise moment I couldn’t view them. The end result is that a component of the cultural discourse being constructed remained out of reach, to be partially filled in by my experiences and knowledge of the artists in question. Sometimes, return visits proved more fruitful, but not all viewers have the same motivations, interests or opportunities.

I am inquisitive about the long-term significance of the biennal-inspired model for viewing art. I wonder how it affects our capacity to think deeply about what we see. As the clock ticks closer to closing time, do we too merely pass by believing that we undestand what artists wish to say, or do we risk a somewhat smaller, yet deeper, dialogue with what is right here, right now?