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, 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.